Funerary Explorations

The first funeral I ever remember attending, and I attended a lot of them between ages 6 and 10, was my mother’s. I never really gave much thought as to how the funeral was planned and the deceased prepared until I was 9 or 10. The apartment building across the street was bought and turned into a funeral home that spring. A family with four kids around my siblings’ ages moved into an apartment upstairs from the funeral home, and that was when I began some early career explorations. For example, I learned that in NY state at that time, someone had to be on the premises at all times when there was a body in residence.

Now you would think with my love of horror novels that there would be great fodder here for some of my own writing and maybe there is, but I have not found it yet. What I discovered instead were ornate side parlors where I got to wait for my parents after losing my house key on the way home from school. Somehow, they were just kind of sad in a cool breezy sort of way instead of scary. And I was never allowed to stay downstairs when there was a body waiting for a viewing or calling hours. The guest book with signatures stood testimony to someone’s passing and to a family’s grief. By contrast, the family who lived upstairs and directed the funerals and took care of the dead were fun. The parents had a great sense of humor, and I spent whole summers playing with these kids. The oldest, a son, expected to study mortuary science and to take over the business, which he eventually did. My brothers got to visit the “preparation room” in the basement – I don’t think they were down there with a client – and see what it was like. Evidently, it wasn’t a trip for girls.

But I did sleep over the night before a funeral once. I did end up seeing the deceased lady, and was struck by the “restorative art” or make up on her. Even back then in the late ’70s, she looked like she was just laid out and sleeping. The mom talked about how the body was prepared and how the make up and hair were done. Kind of fascinating, but kind of odd too. Maybe she did that so I wouldn’t be nervous there at night. It wasn’t too bad. I had spent so many hours downstairs in the funeral parlor being locked out of my own home, it felt like a second home. The worst thing that happened was I woke up in the middle of the night in the attic where the girls slept and saw something long and white come floating towards me. I did freak out a little until I realized that it was the mom’s wedding gown, hung up and swaying in the nighttime breeze.

What struck me the most about these people and their unusual career was their sense of fun, their goofiness, their love of life that blended perfectly with their professionalism and respect for their clients. When my father passed away and it was time for our family to be this family’s clients, I was glad I had spent so much time there and that these people were taking care of my family. Even when the son who was directing the funeral choked up over the Irish Blessing, I felt that the funeral was handled professionally. We were right where we were supposed to be. And yes, it did feel like home…

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2 Responses

  1. Although I am so saddened that you had so much early experiences with funerals, I love that you used to just “hang out” in a funeral home.

    Many folks, Americans in particular, have distanced themselves so much from death that they are unprepared for it when it inevitably comes to one they love… and yet they are still unable to celebrate living. Those folks who provide funeral home services are very special, I think.

  2. I think funeral folk are pretty special as well. It’s odd how the experiences we need land in our lap. After the horrible deaths of my friend Michelle and her family, “hanging out” at the funeral home actually got rid of the fear and some of the nightmares.

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