The passing of a friend prompted this weeks’ post, a story about my first real encounter with human loss. Thanks for stopping by.
A broken hip forced my grandmother into the hospital. Bone fractures at her age were no picnic, but not beyond her body’s capability to heal. Recovering from the fall, however, wasn’t her greatest challenge, it was the pneumonia. Grandma left the incarceration of Bethesda Hospital in a hearse.
Grandma’s funeral was the first I’d attended. For a naïve young lad like me, the mortuary was an impressive establishment. Like colonial mansions from the 1700s, huge white columns supported an overhanging roof at the entrance. I fully expected men in knee pants, thigh-length jackets, and powdered wigs to greet us at the door.
Inside, a small lobby funneled into a long hallway with rooms on either side. A sweet floral odor lingered in the air, along with another perfumed fragrance I didn’t recognize. All but one of the individual chambers’ six-paneled doors were spread wide. I compared each spacious cubicle as my family and I walked by.
The walls above and below a chair rail were covered by variously colored wallpaper––one more expensive-looking than the other. Each compartment was dimly lit. A pedestal on wheels that reminded me of a combination podium and serving cart created a commanding presence. Two of those pedestals supported long, shiny chests, each with handles extending from one end to the other. The smaller of two lids was open. At first glance, it looked as if a man slept there. My sense of curiosity urged me to venture inside. My sense of caution prevailed––at least for the moment.
People milled about in the green room, while the person in the box continued to snooze. Some men and women talked while others appeared to wipe away tears. Based upon manners Mom tried to instill in me and my brothers, I thought it rude for those folks to jabber and cry while somebody else tried to get forty winks. But the figure in the container didn’t seem to mind.
We arrived at the only room with closed doors. A man wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, and striped red tie stood guard. He smiled and opened the six-paneled barriers. The first thing I spotted was a garden of multi-colored flowers that flanked one of those glistening metallic chests. My brothers called it a casket. Odd name, I thought, for an equally odd-looking bunk. A floral wreath with gold lettering draped across the top. My uncle met us as we approached. And there was Grandma, asleep in the light blue enclosure. A veil hung from the open lid.
The sentry backed out and closed the doors behind him. Mom and Uncle Lou hugged. He and Dad shook hands. My brothers and I were instructed to find a seat and stay put. Mom and Lou walked over to where my grandmother was lying. Dad brought up the rear. They gazed at Grandma like most people stared at a museum painting––studying, commenting, and moving on. They each used handkerchiefs to wipe their eyes.
I didn’t understand and asked my brothers, “What’s goin’ on?”
They unanimously agreed “It’s OK. That’s what people do at funerals.”
Because they were older and more experienced, I hesitantly accepted their explanation and sat back in my chair.
About ten or fifteen minutes later, the guard opened the doors once more and the flow of humanity began. Aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, plus men and women I never encountered before entered the room and passed by Grandma’s casket. They all performed the same ritual Mom and Uncle Lou had done earlier, then paused to talk with them both. Before leaving, they huddled in assorted groups and chatted some more.
As I watched, the ordeal finally sank in––Grandma was dead. I peeked closer at her sallow, powdery face. Pale in comparison to the woman I remembered, her countenance bore a matt finish––like my hands after cleaning the blackboard at school. Light no longer reflected from her once shiny nose. Why did so many passers-by think she looked good? How did death convert you from wrinkles and sagging jowls to Hollywood starlet? Those people made no sense.
Hundreds of well-wishers caravanned into the room throughout the day. Most smiled, shed a few tears, expressed how sorry they were, and how good Grandma appeared. One right after another, folks recited their gibberish like a rhyme they’d memorized for the dead.
My brothers occupied themselves with the young female guests. Bored with the overall silliness, I decided to cut the invisible tether that bound me to a chair and explore. Someone had mentioned restrooms and a coffee lounge downstairs, so that’s where I headed first.
Searching for soda, I found only coffee and water. Disappointed but undeterred, I spun around. Curiosity still nagged at my brain so, I tiptoed upstairs to a cubicle like the one Grandma occupied. The activity inside the green room mirrored Grandma’s gathering of opposites. Stern, expressionless faces were balanced by gracious smiles. Tears countered intermittent laughter. It was the strangest event I’d ever encountered.
The crowd presented an opportunity to research. I mingled with the procession awaiting their turn to pause at the ornately carved wooden box trimmed with polished brass handles. After a few minutes, I stepped forward to see if all dead people looked alike.
Except for a thicker mustache, no glasses, and shorter hair, the body in this casket bore the same chalky, blank expression as Grandma’s. Satisfied, I headed towards the door.
In the unoccupied red room, a glistening brown casket perched on its stand amid muted light. The lid was open. At last, I could determine what death was all about without interference––I thought.
A monotone voice spoke from behind. “Excuse me, young man, may I help you?”
Dang it, caught before I could complete my mission. I stammered, “Uh, no, I was just gonna look at the dead guy.”
“Are you a relative?”
“No, just wanna see what dead people look like.”
“I’m sorry, young man, but if you’re not related, you must respect the departed gentleman and his family by not entering the viewing area without their permission. Are you or your family here to see someone?”
“Yeah, my grandma’s down the hall in––”
My father’s glare relaxed as we returned to Grandma’s room. “Listen, Sport, you can’t go wandering around in these other rooms, it’s just not polite. Now get back inside and take a seat,”
“OK, but how much longer do we have to stay?”
“About an hour or two, then we’ll go home.”
An hour that day was like an eternity to a squirmy ten-year-old. I found a cushier perch, trying to ignore the notion that we’d have to return the next day.
Shortly after my family and I arrived next morning, Grandma was rolled center stage in a small chapel. She lied peacefully beneath the veil draped from the lid. Mom and I strolled down the middle aisle towards her. Bright sunlight streamed thought the windows onto the hazy cloth and obstructed my vision. Mom pulled the fine linen mesh aside. The pasty dullness I witnessed the day before was different.
“She does look OK,” I said. “But how can that be? Grandma won’t wake up again, will she?”
“No. Your grandma will no longer be with us after today,” Mom replied.
“But she seems all right. Looks like she’s just sleeping.”
“Here, touch her.” Mom grasped my right hand and placed it upon Grandma’s folded pair. The frigid stiffness of my grandmother’s skin surprised me. I jerked back, but then had to sense the icy, pale tissue again. I held my hand in place for several seconds before retreating, then turned my palm up and examined it. I stared back at Grandma. So that’s what death felt like.
At the gravesite, my grandmother’s coffin disappeared into the earth. I recalled the final communion of flesh that Mom had encouraged. The experience provided a lasting memory, a final contact I would repeat at my parents’ funerals.