Film/DVDQueer in Galveston

Galveston Mortician Dale Carter: Preserving Beauty in Death

His life and work inspired the award-winning documentary Song of the Cicada.

Dale Carter (Courtesy “Song of the Cicada”)

Galveston’s Dale Carter has embalmed thousands of bodies during his 40-year career as a mortician. Yet he has never once felt it was “just a job.” To him, each body has been a sacred trust that families have given him to prepare their loved ones for their funerals.

Carter had so fascinated two filmmakers that they spent ten years creating an award-winning feature documentary about his eccentric life, titled Song of the Cicada. At 5 feet 5 inches, his stance is reminiscent of Truman Capote—but thankfully without Capote’s signature whine.

A Lifelong Texan

Born in 1959, Carter has lived in Texas all his life. His father was a machinist for Texas Instruments and his mother was a homemaker who raised him and his younger sister.

Carter grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Elementary school was a challenge for him because he was dyslexic. “Words were just a montage of letters to me,” he remembers. Other students teased and bullied him, calling him “retarded.”

He was placed in a special-education classroom for two years. Finally, he was taken to a doctor who gave him an IQ test, on which he achieved a very high score. He was put back into the regular classroom, but his self-esteem had already taken a big hit. However, the experience left him with a desire to be protective of others who are outsiders. “Cher has always been an outsider,” he says with a knowing smile.

An Early Epiphany

Carter’s fascination with embalming came at an early age. His great-grandmother was on the verge of death, and he was taken to the hospital to say goodbye. Up to this time, Carter had been shielded from the reality of human mortality. “I thought only animals died,” he admits. “People will talk about sex, but not about death. We live in a death-denying society.” 

After his great-grandmother passed, the family went to the funeral home for the viewing. To see her body, Carter’s mother had to lift him up. He was astonished to see how beautiful she was. “I wanted to know what they had done to make her so beautiful again. It was a profound mystery to me,” Carter says.

Growing Up Gay 

Carter says he never really came out of the closet, because “I was never in. Everyone else but me seemed to know I was gay.” That led to his being bullied.

“But one day in high school, a boy named Leonard stood between me and a bully,” Carter remembers. “I really liked being protected by a masculine figure.” He and Leonard became lovers, and their relationship lasted for the next 18 years.

“I could have gotten killed,” Carter says of his hometown of Mansfield. “I had to live a lie. I became a chameleon.” He dated girls, but never felt attracted to them.

In school he liked classes in art, literature, and science. He had a great sense of creativity and a vivid imagination. “I lived in a fantasy world,” he says. Country music was played at home, but Carter preferred classical music. His favorite childhood cartoon was Bugs Bunny impersonating the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Carter also began a lifetime of collecting beautiful things. “I love inanimate objects, because I know they won’t hurt me.”

After graduating in 1977, Carter worked in various jobs—as a grocery store sacker, a house sitter, and a chauffeur. Finally, his mother insisted he take a job at a bomb factory that was owned by one of her friends. He stayed on for a couple years, but hated the work and confided in a co-worker how unhappy he was.

Carter’s friend told him to go home and tell his mother that he wanted  to go to mortuary school. His mother didn’t allow him to do so, telling him that embalmers were “weird people—not at all normal.”   

But Carter promised to make good grades and make the family proud, and his mother eventually gave her blessing. He was finally able to embrace the wisdom of famed psychiatrist Carl Jung: “Be who you were meant to be, not just a shadow of your family.”

“I learned not to be an apple when I was really a peach,” he says.    

Following the Dream

In 1984, Carter enrolled at the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. To him, it was “freedom, the forbidden country,” and he felt right at home, relaxed and excited. Among the topics he studied were anatomy, microbiology, law, funeral history, embalming, and restorative art. While attending school, he boarded in a local mortuary where he found part-time work.

Over the next 10 years, Carter worked in various funeral homes, learning from those who had been in the business for decades. Eventually, he ended up in the Dallas area.

“My employers thought I took too long. But I said I worked as fast as I could while still doing it right. I gave the families’ loved ones the respect they deserved, and left families with beautiful memories.” 

In 1993, Carter was asked to embalm 20 of the people who died during the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas.    

From 1995 to 2000, Carter worked for the Southwestern Medical School, preparing bodies that had been donated to science. These bodies must be carefully cared for so they will last throughout the school term.

Moving to Galveston

When the new millennium was ushered in, Carter was in Savannah, Georgia. He celebrated with Jerry Spence, the hairdresser who played himself in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Carter then decided he wanted to live in a beautiful Southern city on the water. His options were Savannah, New Orleans,
and Galveston. The most economical was Galveston.

He bought a Victorian house, built in 1895, which was just seven blocks from the beach. Over the next two decades, he worked at funeral homes in Houston and Galveston. Today, he works full-time in Houston and part-time in Galveston.

Carter has seen it all—people who have died from illnesses, accidents, and murders. The largest person he has ever embalmed was 517 pounds, and the smallest was a stillborn baby.

He even embalmed a transgender individual who had not been able to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, but wanted to be placed in the casket dressed as a woman.

Carter has worked through two pandemics: AIDS and COVID. “AIDS was worse. The panic and the prejudice were horrible,” he says. He was one of the few embalmers at the time who would work with AIDS victims. “I took an oath to serve humankind, so I used common sense and precautions. I saw so many beautiful young men.”

Of course, COVID caused a notable uptick in the funeral business. “So many people dying, especially in nursing homes and prisons.”

The Silver Screen

“Song of the Cicada” premiere at the 2022 Austin Film Festival

Carter loves parties, especially those held on Halloween. In 2010, he was invited to a Witches Ball given by a man who owned a metaphysical shop. He went as himself, wearing a cape and a monocle. Carter feels that “one’s gift to themselves is dressing well.” 

At the party, he met Robert Weiss, a filmmaker and art teacher. Because they both worked with the human anatomy, Carter thought Weiss might make a good embalmer and invited him as a potential student to watch him embalm. Weiss was horrified, but his life was profoundly changed.

Over the next ten years, Weiss and his cousin Aaron filmed Carter at work. They wanted to pull back the curtain to show the life of a mortician, and Carter’s charm and eccentricity convinced them to go beyond his occupation to document his personal life.

In 2022, after Weiss had edited over 150 hours of footage, the film was premiered at the Austin Film Festival, the largest festival in the country, with the title Song of the Cicada. The film played to a packed theater and won the festival’s Audience Award.

Carter says he wanted to see the film for the first time along with the audience members, so he waited for the premiere to view it. His reaction: “Wow, this is not boring!” The film has now screened at over 21 festivals and won awards at six of them.

The film’s original title did not appeal to Carter, so he suggested Song of the Cicada. “I wanted to have a title like Tennessee Williams would have thought up. I felt that my life had been reborn much like a cicada, which is dormant for 17 years before emerging,” he explains.

Weiss has a talent agent working to sell the film to a streaming service. It’s a beautiful film—touching, moving, and thought-provoking. There is nothing that makes audiences flinch. The filmmakers have managed to present a difficult topic with style and grace.    

Dual Tragedies

In 2010, Carter bought the historic Caroline Gilbert Hinchee house in Beaumont. The house suffered from many years of neglect, but Carter slowly brought it back to its original beauty and planned to retire there.

In 2016, the house was completely vandalized. All the windows, doors, and other structural elements were stolen. Because the house was under restoration, insurance companies would not offer a policy. Carter eventually sold the now-gutted mansion.

In 2018, Carter’s Galveston home fell victim to a fire. Fortunately, that house was insured and Carter has worked for years to bring it back to its original luster. But for over a year, he had no running water or power in the house. However, Carter gently refuses to be considered a victim. “I am a survivor,” he says.

Song of the Cicada – Trailer from One Story Productions on Vimeo.


A Life Filled with Beauty

Carter’s Galveston home is brimming with dazzling and unique possessions, including a working pipe organ. He quotes Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” From the back door, he looks after two neighborhood cats, Kitty One and Kitty Two.

As for his own eventual death, Carter is not worried. “There is no way out of it, so I just accept it. It comes for everyone. I think my summer electric bills are scarier than death.    

“To make people beautiful, one must have a vision,” he says. “When loved ones die, people turn to the ‘shadow people’ to take care of them. It’s about identity, really. If one has a strong identity, they will be a strong person. That’s how I deal with the things that I do on a daily basis.”

When dealing with grieving families, Carter says it is much like being a dance partner who follows. “The family will give you the lead.”

Positive Influences

Carter enjoys the world of fantasy. “You don’t have to be a millionaire to be happy,” he says. “The mind is its own world. And you get from life what you put into it.”

“I have strong willpower, and I surround myself with positive people and philosophies,” he adds. One of those people is his friend Donna Stevenson, who has attended several Halloween parties with him.

“Dale has dedicated his life to our local families’ future memories of the beauty of their beloved ones that have passed,” Stevenson says. “He is a fascinating character who is obsessed with all kinds of ancient historical beauty—in ancient Egypt, ancient architecture, and historic Galveston. He owns a historic home that is filled with cherished collections of historical treasures. It shows the depth of his concentration on the beauty in life that his interests in beauty are so varied and widespread.”   

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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