When I was four, I went to the first funeral I can recall. It was for my grandfather’s uncle John. Living to the ripe old age of 93, he’d had a good run, and lived with enough love to bring a crowd to his final ritual. What I can remember of him was lively eyes, a Swedish accent, and his engaged manner. He loved to talk with the other grownups. I can still see him, in my mind’s eye, in his favorite chair… and also in a casket.
At his funeral, I was reticent to approach the body, and I tried to remain seated when it was my family’s turn to view. Grandma Joan made me go up with her. Leaning over, she kissed the waxy figure’s forehead. Mortified, I said, “What are you doing Grandma!” She hissed at me, “This is John. I loved him. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Of course the hissing wasn’t necessary. Really, there’s no reason to scold a child when she is simply afraid of death. But then, we were Catholic; guilt was sort of a given. I refused to touch John’s body, but I did get a good look at his face. So unearthly, that blank look, so unreal.
Several years later, my great grandmother from my father’s side passed away. Off to Idaho my family drove. This side of the family was large and chaotic because there were so many kids. Like a barbarian horde, we overtook our grandparent’s home for a very long weekend.
The day before the funeral was the viewing, and all of us were hustled off to sit in a plain room in a funeral home with our relative’s body propped in a casket. After a quick, uncomfortable peek, I took a seat on a folded chair and tried to daydream the rest of the time away. But my younger cousins became curious. One of the little girl cousins dared another to poke the face of the corpse.
Put on the spot by the binding contract of a dare, the other little girl approached the dead body of this old woman and shot out a little finger. After giving the face a decisive poke, the child ran away squealing. I was indignant with the adults for ignoring the kids long enough to allow this sort of behavior to occur.
It was many years later I attended a funeral with the body exposed for viewing. Perhaps the tradition fell out of favor for good reason. Or maybe to touch the body of a deceased loved one gives closure. I’m unsure. What I do know is when my beloved grandma Joan died when I was 23, I was sad to see her go, yet ready for her to pass, as she’d been terribly ill and suffering for a few years. Did I need the closure of seeing her petite body made up and dressed for a party? It’s what happened, so maybe it was.
In the sanctuary we’d attended mass together so many times before, Grandma’s final ritual was by the book. A proper Catholic service was performed. My sister and I read from the Bible, though what we said I can’t recall. Grandma loved us very much and liked to talk with us, so it was fitting “her girls” did something in that moment.
When it was time to view Grandma Joan’s body, I approached with nervousness, and something near nausea. This was a curious duty, but one I knew I had to do. I was surprised to see her like that, though, stretched out straight as an arrow, with a Rosary in her hands. Her eyes looked creepy, her makeup was done all wrong, and they’d given her bangs. Grandma always hated bangs, believing the brow was a beautiful thing. She’d pulled the bangs from my face many times. How irritating it was to see the little curly cue do.
I’d meant to kiss her brow, as she’d done with such tenderness for Uncle John, but the bangs threw me for a loop. I couldn’t do it. Reaching my hand into the casket, I patted her hands and cried. It was the best I could do.
There was another time I saw death, but I wrote about that last year here. A girl on a cross country team my school was running against dropped dead from a rare heart malformation. That was different though, as the most striking thing about the day was watching her dying process. With my relatives, they went without me there to witness.
This is a morbid essay, I know, but it’s October. It’s okay to spend some time in reflection when the leaves turn, the days shorten, and the season fades. Perhaps to think of these things occasionally is good for our souls. Contemplating death is a paradox because it makes us value life even more, yet take it less seriously.
Even when our lives are very long, there’re really not, and history promptly forgets most of us anyway. What carries on is the love we share with each other. The care and affection I give to my family and friends is my most eternal mark….may the dye I cast bleed into the shape of a heart.