I remember the first time I ever saw a dead person. I was a 14-year-old girl, and it was at the funeral of my maternal grandmother.
Now, the maturity of a 14-year-old girl then and the maturity of a 14-year-old girl today are quite different, after all, my knowledge came from a hard-covered Encyclopedia Britannica book that had pasted labels on the pages that were sent to you each year to stick on the pages of the original set, so the reader could be referred to an annually-dated book that was sent to a person's home with current information. Certainly, a much different way of gaining knowledge compared to the Google world today where within seconds a person can look up any topic and retrieve data.
So, to say the least, I didn't know anything about death except that one day my dad took our German Sheppard to the vet, and she never came back. She had died.
Confusion and Fear Over Death
Now, here I was and grandma was dead. Everybody was in tears, so I innately knew, somehow, perhaps through the death of our dog, that grandma wasn't coming back. I don't recall seeing the dead body of our dog, so, even though I was 14 now, I didn't comprehend why all the relatives wanted me to see her in this thing that I now know is called a casket.
I was perfectly fine at the back of the funeral parlor in a chair by myself watching everyone else move to the front of the room, look at was apparently my grandma laying up there and then leave in tears. Why would I want to go up there? Everybody was so sad.
At one point my mother along with her siblings, their spouses and a couple of my cousins began settling to the front of the parlor to sit for the ceremony, which, again, I had no knowledge of the purpose or meaning. My mother asked me to move to the front of the parlor with the rest of the family, but despite my strict upbringing of never disobeying a parent's request, I rejected the notion with an immediate funnel of tears and sobs. I didn't want to go.
In order to avoid a further scene in front of the mourners, my mother immediately hustled me out of the room and directed me down a lighted hallway, which was much different than the dimly lit room we had just left, to a small lighted room situated with books, a couch and a couple chairs. It was there she advised me to sit until she came back to get me.
I remember being perfectly fine in that room by myself. There was a box of tissues that I used to wipe my eyes and managed to twist into a winded, snotty rope that I was playing with in my lap.
It wasn't but a short time after my mother left that my uncle arrived at my side and told me I needed to go into the parlor with the rest of the family. The tears began to flow again as he lifted my arm and guided me into the room with the rest of the family where I could now see from my chair the face of my grandmother laying motionless in a casket.
I don't know what words were spoken or who spoke for that matter. I only remember my entire family in tears and my dad comforting my mother.
After the "service," which I bawled through, was over the entire family made their rounds to the front of the casket where I could clearly see my grandmother dressed in a beautiful, pale pink, chiffon dress. Her hair was nicely curled and there was a bit of color to her normally plain, non-cosmetized face. She didn't speak and afterwards we all moved along and on with our lives we went. I never did, however, forget the feeling I had when I was forced by my uncle to see what I clearly didn't want to see.
Fast-forward a series of life experiences, along with the death of two more grandparents, two great-aunts, and a mother, I was now faced with the death of my husband.
Death Isn't Always Pretty
He was in the hospital where he spent the majority of the time since being diagnosed with cancer six months prior. I had spent every night at his bed side, traveled the country for treatments, and listened to nurses and doctors tell me he wasn't going to live. Somehow, although the words hit home, they were buried in a sea of rejection or blinded hope that this middle-aged man was going to be the miracle survivor and make it through this debilitating disease.
It was early in the morning or the middle of the night for those who hadn't been sitting by his side day and night when I rolled over on the reclining chair that I used as a bed and found him in a state of unconsciousness. The trauma team came, but per his directive no extreme measures were to be taken. So there he was, motionless and uncommunicative. It was ironic but at that time, I knew he had gone. Sure his organs were still working on a limited basis, but I knew, somehow, on an unconscious level, that when he said the night before that he loved me, told me how beautiful I was, and then shortly later began singing inaudibly towards something he could only see, my husband was leaving me, and as for his life now when everyone came rushing to his bedside, it was all in vain. He was gone.
Still family and friends began arriving at the hospital and sitting at his bedside. For me, I left his room and headed to the lounge where he and I had spent hours putting together puzzles. It was there that I curled up with a blanket in a chair situated by a large window overlooking the hospital parking lot, and for the first time in months took a deep breath and fell asleep.
It was about 12 hours later that family members walked down to the lounge and advised me that my husband had passed. I had nothing to say. And, although tears rolled down my face and reality finally sunk in, I had no regrets as we had said everything to each over the last six months, and, somehow, subconsciously knew we had said our goodbyes last night. Somehow, God, had prepared us, and there was no need for me to see him now.
Still, friends and family were advising I should say goodbye to him one last time. Suddenly, I was, once again, that 14-year-old girl being forced to see what I didn't want to see. I was more than hesitant, but listened to those who appeared more sane than I and entered his room. With his mouth wide open in a ghastly manner, eyes not completely closed and frail body laying there, I was horrified. This was not my husband and not the person I had said goodbye to the night before. I'm sure I only spent a few minutes in there, but his body was lifeless and his face unsettled.
It's an image that even after nine years, I cannot remove from my memory. I certainly try to fill my mind with images of happier times when I do think about it, but the fact of the matter is, it has never been erased, and I fear it will haunt me forever.
Fast forward another seven years of running my deceased husband's funeral homes, and I have seen hundreds of families walk through our doors wanting to see their loved ones immediately after death. Some have even sat with their loved ones until they have taken their last breath and have no problem watching them go peacefully.
But not everyone dies peacefully or gracefully, and the effects of death, whether through trauma or natural occurrences, can be a haunting experience.
I remember once, we were on a suicide call where a man had killed himself with a knife in a confined space. A neighbor discovered him and the police called our funeral home for the removal. The family, who had since arrived to the scene, was insistent they see their son when we removed him from the camper. The police, upon our arrival, had already inquired how our stomachs were with "blood" scenes as the place was a complete mess after the man had made several failed attempts before he was finally successful.
The family was standing outside on the lawn completely distraught and frantically crying and screaming they wanted to see their son. We had already assessed the situation, and it certainly was not something the parents needed to see, but the police were not making headway in calming the family or getting them to understand.
It was at that point that I remember putting my arms around the mother, grabbing her face with both hands and promising her we would let her see her son at the funeral home once we got him presentable. At that point, the family was concerned that they had no funds for visitation, and they were opting for cremation.
Still, I advised that I would allow them to visit him prior to taking him to the crematory and they could take as much time as they needed to be with him.
Now, in some cases, funeral homes may baulk at allowing a viewing without the person paying for the preparation of the deceased and use of their facility, but for us, it was the only compassionate thing we could do. It wasn't this woman's fault her son committed suicide, and there was no way I was going to let the last memory of her son be one of horror.
The parents finally agreed, and we were able to make the removal and clean and prepare their son for their visit at our chapel, which gave the family a sense of peace and closure.
Education is Key While Professionals Can Ease the Pain
To this day, I wouldn't have changed a thing. There is no reason to put anyone through such trauma, especially when the funeral professional knows the condition of the deceased and the harm such images can cause.
Death isn't always pretty, therefore, preparation of a body before viewing is always advised, at least from my personal experiences and observations.
Communication is also always key and children should be educated about death and dying, so they aren't frightened or traumatized seeing a loved one laying in a casket. A prepped body or not, if people aren't educated on death and have no belief of anything beyond our physical world, it can be way more traumatizing then it has to be.
Life is hard, but dying is an ugly business, both emotionally and physically. Please, heed the advice of professionals and talk to your children about what death is because as you've probably heard before, "Ain't no one gettin' out alive."
About the Author
forgetmenotgrief© 2016 is a freelance writer and former funeral home owner. Names and situations have been altered to protect the privacy of former clients.
See what a funeral costs in these popular cities:
Atlanta | Austin | Boston | Chicago | Dallas | Denver | Detroit | Honolulu | Houston | Los Angeles | Miami | Minneapolis | New York | Philadelphia | Portland | Sacramento | San Diego | San Francisco | San Jose | Seattle | Washington, DC