Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. Another two or three dozen I take to the crematory to be burned. I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes. I have a sideline in headstones and monuments. I do flowers on commission.
Apart from the tangibles, I sell the use of my building: eleven thousand square feet, furnished and fixtured with an abundance of pastel and chair rail and crown moldings. The whole lash-up is mortgaged and remortgaged well into the next century. My rolling stock includes a hearse, two Fleetwoods, and a minivan with darkened windows our pricelist calls a service vehicle and everyone in town calls the Dead Wagon.
I used to use the unit pricing method--the old package deal. It meant that you had only one number to look at. It was a large number. Now everything is itemized. It's the law. So now there is a long list of items and numbers and italicized disclaimers, something like a menu or the Sears Roebuck Wish Book, and sometimes the federally-mandated options begin to look like cruise control or rear-window defrost. I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact we're not talking Buicks here. At the bottom of the list there is still a large number.
In a good year the gross is close to a million, five percent of which we hope to call profit. I am the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market.
The market, such as it is, is figured on what is called the crude death rate--the number of deaths every year out of every thousand persons.
Here is how it works.
Imagine a large room into which you coax one thousand people. You slam the doors in January, leaving them plenty of food and drink, color TVs, magazines, and condoms. Your sample should have an age distribution heavy on baby boomers and their children--1.2 children per boomer. Every seventh adult is an old-timer, who, if he or she wasn't in this big room, would probably be in Florida or Arizona or a nursing home. You get the idea. The group will include fifteen lawyers, one faith healer, three dozen real-estate agents, a video technician, several licensed counselors, and a Tupperware distributor. The rest will be between jobs, middle managers, pe'er-do-wells, or retired.
Now for the magic part--come late December when you throw open the doors, only 991.6, give or take, will shuffle out upright. Two hundred and sixty will now be selling Tupperware. The other 8.4 have become the crude death rate.
Here's another stat.
Of the 8.4 corpses, two-thirds will have been old-timers, five percent will be children, and the rest (slightly less than 2.5 corpses) will be boomers--realtors and attorneys likely--one of whom was, no doubt, elected to public office during the year. What's more, three will have died of cerebral-vascular or coronary difficulties, two of cancer, one each of vehicular mayhem, diabetes, and domestic violence. The spare change will be by act of God or suicide--most likely the faith healer.
The figure most often and most conspicuously missing from the insurance charts and demographics is the one I call The Big One, which refers to the number of people out of every hundred born who will die. Over the long haul, The Big One hovers right around . . . well, dead nuts on one hundred percent. If this were on the charts, they'd call it death expectancy and no one would buy futures of any kind. But it is a useful number and has its lessons. Maybe you will want to figure out what to do with your life. Maybe it will make you feel a certain kinship with the rest of us. Maybe it will make you hysterical. Whatever the implications of a one hundred percent death expectancy, you can calculate how big a town this is and why it produces for me a steady if unpredictable labor.
They die around the clock here, without apparent preference for a day of the week, month of the year; there is no clear favorite in the way of season. Nor does the alignment of the stars, fullness of moon, or liturgical calendar have very much to do with it. The whereabouts are neither here nor there. They go off upright or horizontally in Chevrolets and nursing homes, in bathtubs, on the interstates, in ERs, ORs, BMWs. And while it may be that we assign more equipment or more importance to deaths that create themselves in places marked by initials--ICU being somehow better than Greenbriar Convalescent Home--it is also true that the dead don't care. In this way, the dead I bury and burn are like the dead before them, for whom time and space have become mortally unimportant. This loss of interest is, in fact, one of the first sure signs that something serious is about to happen. The next thing is they quit breathing. At this point, to be sure, a gunshot wound to the chest or shock and trauma will get more ink than a CVA or ASHD, but no cause of death is any less permanent than the other. Any one will do. The dead don't care.
Nor does who much matter, either. To say, "I'm OK, you're OK, and by the way, he's dead!" is, for the living, a kind of comfort.
It is why we drag rivers and comb plane wrecks and bomb sites.
It is why MIA is more painful than DOA.
It is why we have open caskets and all read the obits.
Knowing is better than not knowing, and knowing it is you is terrifically better than knowing it is me. Because once I'm the dead guy, whether you're OK or he's OK won't much interest me. You can all go bag your asses, because the dead don't care.
Of course, the living, bound by their adverbs and their actuarials, still do. Now, there is the difference and why I'm in business. The living are careful and oftentimes caring. The dead are careless, or maybe it's care-less. Either way, they don't care. These are unremarkable and verifiable truths.
My former mother-in-law, herself an unremarkable and verifiable truth, was always fond of holding forth with Cagneyesque bravado--to wit: "When I'm dead, just throw me in a box and throw me in a hole." But whenever I would remind her that we did substantially that with everyone, the woman would grow sullen and a little cranky.
Later, over meatloaf and green beans, she would invariably give out with: "When I'm dead just cremate me and scatter the ashes."
My former mother-in-law was trying to make carelessness sound like fearlessness. The kids would stop eating and look at each other. The kids' mother would plead, "Oh Mom, don't talk like that." I'd take out my lighter and begin to play with it.
In the same way, the priest that married me to this woman's daughter--a man who loved golf and gold ciboria and vestments made of Irish linen; a man who drove a great black sedan with a wine-red interior and who always had his eye on the cardinal's job--this same fellow, leaving the cemetery one day, felt called upon to instruct me thus: "No bronze coffin for me. No sir! No orchids or roses or limousines. The plain pine box is the one I want, a quiet Low Mass and the pauper's grave. No pomp and circumstance."
He wanted, he explained, to be an example of simplicity, of prudence, of piety and austerity--all priestly and, apparently, Christian virtues. When I told him that he needn't wait, that he could begin his ministry of good example even today, that he could quit the country club and do his hacking at the public links and trade his brougham for a used Chevette; that free of his Florsheims and cashmeres and prime ribs, free of his bingo nights and building funds, he could become, for Christ's sake, the very incarnation of Francis himself, or Anthony of Padua; when I said, in fact, that I would be willing to assist him in this, that I would gladly distribute his savings and credit cards among the worthy poor of the parish, and that I would, when the sad duty called, bury him for free in the manner he would have, by then, become accustomed to; when I told your man these things, he said nothing at all, but turned his wild eye on me in the way that the cleric must have looked on Sweeney years ago, before he cursed him, irreversibly, into a bird.
What I was trying to tell the fellow was, of course, that being a dead saint is no more worthwhile than being a dead philodendron or a dead angelfish. Living is the rub, and always has been. Living saints still feel the flames and stigmata of this vale of tears, the ache of chastity and the pangs of conscience. Once dead, they let their relics do the legwork, because, as I was trying to tell this priest, the dead don't care.
Only the living care.
And I am sorry to be repeating myself, but this is the central fact of my business--that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don't. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and the pleasure of memory. Theirs is the invoice for services rendered and theirs is the check in the mail for its payment.
And there is the truth, abundantly self-evident, that seems, now that I think of it, the one most elusive to the old in-laws, the parish priest, and to perfect strangers who are forever accosting me in barber-shops and cocktail parties and parent-teacher conferences, hell-bent or duty-bound to let me in on what it is they want done with them when they are dead.
Give it a rest is the thing I say.
Once you are dead, put your feet up, call it a day, and let the husband or the missus or the kids or a sibling decide whether you are to be buried or burned or blown out of a cannon or left to dry out in a ditch somewhere. It's not your day to watch it, because the dead don't care.
Another reason people are always rehearsing their obsequies with me has to do with the fear of death that anyone in their right mind has. It is healthy. It keeps us from playing in traffic. I say it's a thing we should pass on to the kids.
There is a belief--widespread among the women I've dated, local Rotarians, and friends of my children--that I, being the undertaker here, have some irregular fascination with, special interest in, inside information about, even attachment to, the dead. They assume, these people, some perhaps for defensible reasons, that I want their bodies.
It is an interesting concept.
But here is the truth.
Being dead is one--the worst, the last--but only one in a series of calamities that afflicts our own and several other species. The list may include, but is not limited to, gingivitis, bowel obstruction, contested divorce, tax audit, spiritual vexation, cash flow problems, political upheaval, and on and on and on some more. There is no shortage of misery. And I am no more attracted to the dead than the dentist is to your bad gums, the doctor to your rotten innards, or the accountant to your sloppy expense records. I have no more stomach for misery that the banker or the lawyer, the pastor or the politico--because misery is careless and is everywhere. Misery is the bad check, the ex-spouse, the mob in the street, and the IRS--who, like the dead, feel nothing and, like the dead, don't care.
Which is not to say that the dead do not matter.
They do. They do. Of course they do.
Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 A.M. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 A.M., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, and Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.
Milo is dead.
X's on his eyes, lights out, curtains.
Which is why I do not haul to my senses, coffee and quick shave, Homburg and great coat, warm up the Dead Wagon, and make for the freeway in the early o'clock for Milo's sake. Milo doesn't have any sake anymore. I go for her--for she who has become, in the same moment and the same twinkling, like water to ice, the Widow Hornsby. I go for her--because she still can cry and care and pray and pay my bill.
The hospital that Milo died in is state-of-the-art. There are signs on every door declaring a part or a process or bodily function. I like to think that, taken together, the words would add up to The Human Condition, but they never do. What's left of Milo, the remains, are in the basement, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM. Milo would like that if he were still liking things. Milo's room is called PATHOLOGY.
The medical-technical parlance of death emphasizes disorder.
We are forever dying of failures, of anomalies, of insufficiencies, of dysfunctions, arrests, accidents. These are either chronic or acute. The language of death certificates--Milo's says "Cardiopulmonary Failure"--is like the language of weakness. Likewise, Mrs. Hornsby, in her grief, will be said to be breaking down or falling apart or going to pieces, as if there were something structurally awry with her. It is as if death and grief were not part of The Order of Things, as if Milo's failure and his widow's weeping were, or ought to be, sources of embarrassment. "Doing well" for Mrs. Hornsby would mean that she is bearing up, weathering the storm, or being strong for the children. We have willing pharmacists to help her with this. Of course, for Milo, doing well would mean he was back upstairs, holding his own, keeping the meters and monitors bleeping.
But Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe, and--because of his small head, wide shoulders, ponderous belly, and skinny legs, and the trailing white binding cord from his ankles and toe tag--he looks, for all the world, like a larger than life-size sperm.
I sign for him and get him out of there. At some level, I am still thinking Milo gives a shit, which by now, of course, we all know he doesn't--because the dead don't care.
Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself--eyes wide open, mouth agape, resuming to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features--eyes and mouth--that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Milo's hands--one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.
They will not be doing anything anymore, either.
I wash his hands before positioning them.
When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.
After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, "Never mind that" is what Milo said. "One hand washes the other."
I place Milo's right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesn't matter. One hand washes the other either way.
The embalming takes me about two hours.
It is daylight by the time I am done.
Every Monday morning, Ernest Fuller comes to my office. He was damaged in some profound way in Korea. The details of his damage are unknown to the locals. Ernest Fuller has no limp or anything missing so everyone thinks it was something he saw in Korea that left him a little simple, occasionally perplexed, the type to draw rein abruptly in his day-long walks, to consider the meaning of litter, pausing over bottle caps and gum wrappers. Ernest Fuller has a nervous smile and a dead-fish handshake. He wears a baseball cap and thick eyeglasses. Every Sunday night Ernest goes to the supermarket and buys up the tabloids at the checkout stands with headlines that usually involve Siamese twins or movie stars or UFOs. Ernest is a speed reader and a math whiz but because of his damage, he has never held a job and never applied for one. Every Monday morning, Ernest brings me clippings of stories under headlines like: 601 LB MAN FALLS THRU COFFIN--A GRAVE SITUATION or EMBALMER FOR THE STARS SAYS ELVIS IS FOREVER. The Monday morning Milo Hornsby died, Ernest's clipping had to do with an urn full of ashes, somewhere in East Anglia, that made grunting and groaning noises, that whistled sometimes, and that was expected to begin talking. Certain scientists in England could make no sense of it. They had run several tests. The ashes' widow, however, left with nine children and no estate, is convinced that her dearly beloved and greatly reduced husband is trying to give her winning numbers for the lottery. "Jacky would never leave us without good prospects," she says. "He loved his family more than anything." There is a picture of the two of them, the widow and the urn, the living and the dead, flesh and bronze, the Victrola and the Victrola's dog. She has her ear cocked, waiting.
We are always waiting. Waiting for some good word or the winning numbers. Waiting for a sign or wonder, some signal from our dear dead that the dead still care. We are gladdened when they do outstanding things, when they arise from their graves or fall through their caskets or speak to us in our waking dreams. It pleases us no end, as if the dead still cared, had agendas, were yet alive.
But the sad and well-known fact of the matter is that most of us will stay in our caskets and be dead a long time, and that our urns and graves will never make a sound. Our reason and requiems, our headstones or High Masses, will neither get us in nor keep us out of heaven. The meaning of our lives, and the memories of them, belong to the living, just as our funerals do. Whatever being the dead have now, they have by the living's faith alone.
We heat graves here for winter burials, as a kind of foreplay before digging in, to loosen the frost's hold on the ground before the sexton and his backhoe do the opening. We buried Milo in the ground on Wednesday. The mercy is that what we buried there, in an oak casket, just under the frost line, had ceased to be Milo. Milo had become the idea of himself, a permanent fixture of the third person and past tense, his widow's loss of appetite and trouble sleeping, the absence in places where we look for him, our habits of him breaking, our phantom limb, our one hand washing the other.
Copyright © 1997 Thomas Lynch.
All rights reserved.
The undertakers are over on the other island. They are there for what is called their Midwinter Conference: the name they give to the week in February every year when funeral directors from Michigan find some warm place in the Lesser Antilles to discuss the pressing issues of their trade. The names for the workshops and seminars are borderline: "The Future of Funeral Service," "What Folks Want in a Casket," "Coping with the Cremation Crowd"--things like that. The resorts must have room service, hot tubs, good beaches, and shopping on site or nearby. No doubt it is the same for orthodontists and trial lawyers.
And I'm here on the neighboring island--a smaller place with a harbor too shallow for cruise ships and no airport. I'm a ferryboat ride from the undertakers from my home state. But I've timed my relief from the Michigan winter with theirs in case I want to register for a meeting and write off my travel. It is legal and sensible and would reduce the ultimate cost of funerals in my town where I am the funeral director and have been for nearly twenty-five years now.
But I just can't work up any enthusiasm for spending any portion of the fortnight discussing business. It's not that they aren't a great bunch, chatty and amiable as stockbrokers or insurance types; and, out of their hometowns, incognito, hell-bent on a good time, they can be downright fun, if a little bingy. It's just that it seems I've been on a Midwinter Conference of my own for a long time. Enough is enough. I need to walk on the beach now and contemplate my next move.
My father was a funeral director and three of my five brothers are funeral directors; two of my three sisters work pre-need and bookkeeping in one of the four funeral homes around the metro area that bear our name, our father's name. It is an odd arithmetic--a kind of family farm, working the back forty of the emotional register, our livelihood depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness, lawyers on crime, the clergy on the fear of God.
I can remember my mother and father going off on these Midwinter Conferences and coming back all sunburned and full of ideas and gossip about what my father insisted we call our "colleagues" rather than the "competition." He said it made us sound like doctors and lawyers, you know, professionals--people you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble, people whose being had begun to meld with their doing, who were what they did.
Our thing--who we are, what we do--has always been about death and dying and grief and bereavement: the vulnerable underbelly of the hardier nouns: life, liberty, the pursuit of . . . well, you know. We traffic in leavetakings, goodbyes, final respects. "The last ones to let you down," my father would joke with the friends he most trusted. "Dignified Service" is what he put on the giveaway matchbooks and plastic combs and rain bonnets. And he loved to quote Gladstone, the great Victorian Liberal who sounded like a New Age Republican when he wrote that he could measure with mathematical precision a people's respect for the laws of the land by the way they cared for their dead. Of course, Gladstone inhabited a century and an England in which funerals were public and sex was private and, though the British were robbing the graves of infidels all over the world for the British Museum, they did so, by all accounts, in a mannerly fashion. I think my father first heard about Gladstone at one of these Midwinter Conferences and lately I've been thinking how right they were--Gladstone, my father.
My father died three years ago tomorrow on an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. He wasn't exactly on a Midwinter Conference. He'd quit going to those years before, after my mother had died. But he was sharing a condo with a woman friend who always overestimated the remedial powers of sexual aerobics. Or maybe she only underestimated the progress of his heart disease. We all knew it was coming. In the first year of his widowhood, he sat in his chair, heartsore, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then he started going out with women. The brothers were glad for him. The sisters rolled their eyes a lot. I think they call these "gender issues." In the two years of consortium that followed, he'd had a major--which is to say a chest ripping, down for the count--heart attack every six months like clockwork. He survived all but one. "Three out of four" I can hear him saying. "You're still dead when its over." He'd had enough. Even now I think of that final scene in David Lean's old film when Zhivago's heart is described as "paper thin." He thinks he sees Lara turning a corner in Moscow. He struggles to get off the bus, loosens his tie, finally makes it to the sidewalk where, after two steps, he drops dead. Dead chasing love, the thing we would die for. That was my father--stepping not off a bus but out of a shower in his timeshare condo, not in Moscow but on Boca Grande, but chasing, just as certainly, love. Chasing it to death.
When we got the call from his woman friend, we knew what to do. My brother and I had done the drill in our heads before. We had a travelling kit of embalming supplies: gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends. We had to explain to the security people at the airlines who scrutinized the contents of the bag, wondering how we might make a bomb out of Dodge Permaglo or overtake the cabin crew with a box marked "Slaughter Surgical Supplies" full of stainless steel oddities they'd never seen before. When we got to the funeral home they had taken him to, taken his body to, the undertaker there asked if we were sure we wanted to do this--our own father, after all?--he'd be happy to call in one of his own embalmers. We assured him it would be OK. He showed us into the prep room, that familiar decor of porcelain and tile and florescent light--a tidy scientific venue for the witless horror of mortality, for how easily we slip from is to isn't.
It was something we had always promised him, though I can't now, for the life of me, remember the context in which it was made--the promise that when he died his sons would embalm him, dress him, pick out a casket, lay him out, prepare the obits, contact the priests, manage the flowers, the casseroles, the wake and procession, the Mass and burial. Maybe it was just understood. His was a funeral he would not have to direct. It was ours to do; and though he'd directed thousands of them, he had never made mention of his own preferences. Whenever he was pressed on the matter he would only say, "You'll know what to do." We did.
There's this "just a shell" theory of how we ought to relate to dead bodies. You hear a lot of it from young clergy, old family friends, well-intentioned in-laws--folks who are unsettled by the fresh grief of others. You hear it when you bring a mother and a father in for the first sight of their dead daughter, killed in a car wreck or left out to rot by some mannish violence. It is proffered as comfort in the teeth of what is a comfortless situation, consolation to the inconsolable. Right between the inhale and exhale of the bonewracking sob such hurts produce, some frightened and well-meaning ignoramus is bound to give out with "It's OK, that's not her, it's just a shell." I once saw an Episcopalian deacon nearly decked by the swift slap of the mother of a teenager, dead of leukemia, to whom he'd tendered this counsel. "I'll tell you when it's `just a shell,'" the woman said. "For now and until I tell you otherwise, she's my daughter." She was asserting the longstanding right of the living to declare the dead dead. Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms, lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It's how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.
And the rituals we devise to conduct the living and beloved and the dead from one status to another have less to do with performance than with meaning. In a world where "dysfunctional" has become the operative adjective, a body that has ceased to work has, it would seem, few useful applications--its dysfunction more manifest than the sexual and familial forms that fill our tabloids and talk shows. But a body that doesn't work is, in the early going, the evidence we have of a person who has ceased to be. And a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: "Is that all there is?" "What does it mean?" "Why is it cold?" "Can it happen to me?"
So to suggest in the early going of grief that the dead body is "just" anything rings as tinny in its attempt to minimalize as it would if we were to say it was "just" a bad hair day when the girl went bald from her chemotherapy. Or that our hope for heaven on her behalf was based on the belief that Christ raised "just" a body from dead. What if, rather than crucifixion, he'd opted for suffering low self-esteem for the remission of sins? What if, rather than "just a shell," he'd raised his personality, say, or The Idea of Himself? Do you think they'd have changed the calendar for that? Done the Crusades? Burned witches? Easter was a body and blood thing, no symbols, no euphemisms, no half measures. If he'd raised anything less, of course, as Paul points out, the deacon and several others of us would be out of business or back to Saturday sabbaths, a sensible diet, and no more Christmases.
The bodies of the newly dead are not debris nor remnant, nor are they entirely icon or essence. They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses, as surely in the eyes and ears of our children and grandchildren as did word of our birth in the ears of our parents and their parents. It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honor.
I had seen my father horizontal before. At the end it had been ICUs mostly, after his coronaries and bypasses. He'd been helpless, done unto. But before that there had been the man stretched out on the living room floor tossing one or the other of my younger siblings in the air; or napping in his office at the first funeral home in full uniform, black three-piece suit, striped tie, wingtips, clean shave; or in the bathtub singing "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." He had outbreaks of the malaria he'd gotten in the South Pacific. In my childhood he was, like every father on the block, invincible. That he would die had been a fiction in my teens, a fear in my twenties, a specter in my thirties and, in my forties, a fact.
But seeing him, outstretched on the embalming table of the Anderson Mortuary in Ft. Myers with the cardiac blue in his ears and fingertips and along his distal regions, shoulders and lower ribs and buttocks and heels, I thought, this is what my father will look like when he's dead. And then, like a door slammed shut behind you, the tense of it all shifted into the inescapable present of this is my father, dead. My brother and I hugged each other, wept with each other and for each other and for our sisters and brothers home in Michigan. Then I kissed my father's forehead, not yet a shell. Then we went to work in the way our father had trained us.
He was a cooperative body. Despite the arteriosclerosis, his circulatory system made the embalming easy. And having just stepped from the shower into his doom, he was clean and cleanly shaven. He hadn't been sick, in the hospice or intensive care sense of the word. So there were none of the bruises on him or tubes in him that medical science can inflict and install. He'd gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope. And massaging his legs, his hands, his arms, to effect the proper distribution of fluid and drainage, watching the blue clear from his fingertips and heels as the fluid that would preserve him long enough for us to take our leave of him worked its way around his body, I had the sense that I was doing something for him even though, now dead, he was beyond my kindnesses or anyone's. Likewise, his body bore a kind of history: the tattoo with my mother's name on it he'd had done as an eighteen-year-old marine during World War II, the perfectly trimmed mustache I used to watch him darken with my mother's mascara when he was younger than I am and I was younger than my children are. The scars from his quintuple bypass surgery, the A.A. medallion he never removed, and the signet ring my mother gave him for his fortieth birthday, all of us saving money in a jar until fifty dollars was accumulated. Also there were the graying chest hairs, the hairless ankles, the male pattern baldness I see on the heads of men in the first-class section of airplanes and in the double mirrors in the barber's shop. Embalming my father I was reminded of how we bury our dead and then become them. In the end I had to say that maybe this is what I'm going to look like dead.
Maybe it was at a Midwinter Conference my father first thought about what he did and why he did it. He always told us that embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War when, for the first time in our history, lots of people--mostly men, mostly soldiers--were dying far from home and the families that grieved them. Dismal traders worked in tents on the edge of the battlefields charging, one reckons, what the traffic would bear to disinfect, preserve, and "restore" dead bodies--which is to say they closed mouths, sutured bullet holes, stitched limbs or parts of limbs back on, and sent the dead back home to wives and mothers, fathers and sons. All of this bother and expense was predicated on the notion that the dead need to be at their obsequies, or, more correctly, that the living need the dead to be there, so that the living can consign them to the field or fire after commending them to God or the gods or Whatever Is Out There. The presence and participation of the dead human body at its funeral is, as my father told it, every bit as important as the bride's being at her wedding, the baby at its baptism.
And so we brought our dead man home. Flew his body back, faxed the obits to the local papers, called the priests, the sexton, the florists and stonecutter. We act out things we cannot put in words.
Back in '63, I can remember my father saying that the reason we have funerals and open caskets was so that we might confront what he called "the reality of death." I think he'd heard that at one of these conferences. Jessica Mitford had just sold a million copies of The American Way of Death, Evelyn Waugh had already weighed in with The Loved One, and talk had turned at cocktail parties to "barbaric rituals" and "morbid curiosities." The mortuary associations were scrambling for some cover. Clergy and educators and psychologists--the new clergy--were assembled to say it served some purpose, after all, was emotionally efficient, psychologically correct, to do what we'd been doing all along. The track record was pretty good on this. We'd been doing--the species, not the undertakers--more or less the same thing for millennia: looking up while digging down, trying to make some sense of all of it, disposing of our dead with sufficient pause to say they'd lived in ways different from rocks and rhododendrons and even orangutans and that those lives were worth mentioning and remembering. Then Kennedy was shot dead and then Lee Harvey Oswald and we spent the end of November that year burying them--the first deaths in our lives that took for most of us boomers. All the other TV types got shot on Gunsmoke on a Friday and turned up on Bonanza, looking fit by Sunday night. But Kennedy was one of those realities of death my father must have been talking about and though we saw his casket and cortege and little John John saluting and the widow in her sunglasses, we never saw Kennedy dead, most of us, until years later when pictures of the autopsy were released and we all went off to the movies to see what really happened. In the interim, rumors circulated about Kennedy not being dead at all but hooked to some secret and expensive hardware, brainless but breathing. And when the Zapruder film convinced us that he must have died, still we lionized the man beyond belief. Of course, once we saw him dead in the pictures, his face, his body, he became human again: lovable and imperfect, memorable and dead.
And as I watch my generation labor to give their teenagers and young adults some "family values" between courses of pizza and Big Macs, I think maybe Gladstone had it right. I think my father did. They understood that the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions--only those who do it well and those who don't. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment. McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues. This is the mathematical precision the old Britisher was talking about and what my father was talking about when he said we'd know what to do.
Thus tending to his death, his dead body, had for me the same importance as being present for the births of my sons, my daughter. Some expert on Oprah might call this "healing." Another on Donahue might say "cathartic." Over on Geraldo it might have "scarred him for life." And Sally Jesse Whatshername might mention "making good choices." As if they were talking about men who cut umbilical cords and change diapers or women who confront their self-esteem issues or their date rapists.
It is not about choices or functions or psychological correctness. A dead body has had its options limited, its choices narrowed. It is an old thing in the teeth of which we do what has been done because it is the thing to do. We needn't reinvent the wheel or make the case for it, though my generation always seems determined to.
And they are at it over on the other island. Trying to reinvent the funeral as "a vehicle for the healthy expression of grief," which, of course, it is; or as "a brief therapy for the acutely bereaved," which, of course, it is. There will be talk of "stages," "steps," "recovery." Someone will mention "aftercare," "post-funeral service follow-up," Widow to Widow programs, Mourners Anonymous? And in the afternoons they'll play nine holes, or go snorkeling or start cocktails too early and after dinner they'll go dancing then call home to check in with their offices just before they go to bed, to check on the gross sales, to see who among their townspeople has died.
Maybe I'll take the boat over tomorrow. Maybe some of the old timers are there--men of my father's generation, men you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble. They remind me of my father and of Gladstone. Maybe they'll say I remind them of him.
Copyright © 1997 Thomas Lynch.
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