I have only a few memories of my paternal grandmother’s viewing, but it’s odd how vivid the details are of the images I actually DO recall: The powder-blue steel casket and light blue lining and silver handles. My sister up on her tip-toes trying to get a peek down inside the closed foot-end of the casket to see if Gramma had any shoes on. My aunt Linda crying. The overpowering smell of the flowers. I think I may have even touched Gramma’s hand, but I’m not sure I actually dared to do it.
As far as the emotional aspect, I can’t really recall what I was feeling at the time. I’m sure I probably felt a sense of detachment, because death really had no emotional meaning when I was four years old. It was something I don’t think a kid of that age can really emotionally understand at a level that we do when we’re older; I don’t think I did. My parents were very open and honest about what was going on, however. It wasn’t really sugar coated but it was also explained to me in a way I could understand: Gramma had died. She was in Heaven with the angels. ‘You won’t be able to see her anymore, but she’ll always be with you.’ Alright. I can appreciate that.
This was my first brush with death, at least in the concrete sense, that I have any memory of. My maternal grandmother, “Tutu”, passed away the day before my first birthday. Sometimes when I’m in that hazy state between awake and asleep, I swear I’m able to hear her singing to me. But I don’t remember her viewing, funeral, or anything else. My mom always used to apologize to me (Lord only knows why) that the day I turned one year old, she was picking out caskets for her mother and that she wasn’t able to celebrate my birthday on the actual day. I always reacted with: AND? I was one! I don’t remember any of it. But I love that my mom was so sentimental about things like that.
Anyway, between the time I was four until the age of nineteen, death never came anywhere near me, other than the passing of goldfish, dogs or other small pets. The idea of dying wasn’t something I was ever overly concerned about, because it just wasn’t in the forefront of any day-to-day activities.
My perspective on death changed dramatically a few months before I turned nineteen. A friend of mine who I had gone to school with died in a car accident on the way to a dance at the college she was attending. If I had known at the time she died that death would come calling much closer to home within the next year and a half, I would probably have paid much closer attention to what was going on. Looking back, however, I think on some level it really did click something inside me that was meant to ready my brain for the horrific events that would unfold in my life only a few short months following Becca’s death. In a wholly bizarre way I feel almost indebted to Becca for it.
When she died, I debated whether or not to attend Becca’s viewing and/or funeral. I was never overly close to her in the friendship sense, but we had been in school together since kindergarten, and were closely connected in the same social circles. I tossed the idea of going back and forth a lot in my brain in the few days leading up to the actual viewing/funeral. On one hand, I felt like if I went I would be looked at as a bit of a a “looky-loo” attending the services because she and I never hung out and didn’t even really speak to each other much other than the occasional exchanging of hellos in the halls at school. On the flipside, I have to admit I was more than morbidly curious, since I hadn’t attended a viewing or funeral since the age of four. Ultimately, the curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to go to the viewing.
The line to pay respects at the viewing was epically long. It stretched the entire way around the U-shaped hall and out the doors of the LDS church where the viewing was being held. I stood in line patiently but with building anticipation. I wasn’t sure what I should be feeling, really. I wasn’t there just to see a dead body. I was really sad Becca was gone and felt so horrible for what her family was going through. I was a bit nervous, a bit nauseous, and was beginning to perspirate heavily. I had no idea exactly what to expect. What would she look like? What would she be wearing? What kind of shape would her body be in, because, after all, she had been killed in a car accident? My thoughts swirled and I couldn’t quiet my mind no matter how hard I tried. I attempted awkward small talk with the people in line around me, or more accurately, they attempted small talk with me. Some of these awkward conversationalists were folks I had gone to high school with and people I knew from childhood. And really, what exactly do you say at a venue like that when you’re completely by yourself, wasn’t all that close with the deceased and the people who are talking to you are people you haven’t seen in a long time? “This is such a tragedy.” “I know she’s in a better place” (I ABHOR this one. It is the ultimate funereal cliche). “She was so young!” “God must have had a Special Purpose for her!” And of course, you had the incessant buzzing of speculation about the lurid details of the accident that took Becca’s life- evidently I wasn’t the only one who was a slave to curiosity. Through the din, there were definitely some welcome distractions: spattered throughout the long hallway were the customary array of pictures, knick-knacks, a guest book, and someone from the A/V department at the high school had put together a video slide show with music in the background. Nowadays this is a pretty typical offering that funeral homes provide, but at that time it wasn’t as common.
After over an hour and a half of waiting in line, like some Twilight Zone version of a ride at Disneyland, I finally reached the room where Becca’s body was being put on display. For anyone who doesn’t know the layout of an LDS church, there is a section at the back of the chapel called the “overflow” that can be partitioned off by two sets of accordion doors, or opened up if there are a lot of people attending services. One set of accordion doors opens to the chapel, the other opens to the gymnasium, or “cultural hall”. The space between the two doors creates a small breezeway. This space was where Becca’s body was laid out.
Initially, the only thing I could make out was the corner of her casket, which if I remember correctly was a polished wood. As I moved closer to the casket, and was able to actually SEE Becca, I wasn’t at all prepared. I suppose with all the expectations I had rolling around in my brain, I never completely allowed myself to venture to anything remotely resembling what I saw lying in the casket.
Even from twenty feet away, she looked horrible. Having seen several dead people in caskets since, I suppose she looked as she was supposed to, but when I first saw her, I think my heart stopped beating for a couple seconds. Lying there was a wax dummy that only slightly resembled Becca; a mannequin wearing too much makeup and whose eyes and mouth appeared glued shut and coated with clear nail polish. The eyelashes seemed almost matted to the face and the mouth was turned down in almost a scowl. The hands were clasped together in the lap, but the fingers seemed twisted at an odd angle, like someone with severe arthritis (I know now, of course, that this is was more than likely caused because the chemicals that are used in the embalming process cause the entire body to stiffen, which also accounts for the wax-like quality of the corpse).
My first instinct was to turn tail and leave. Yet again, though, sheer morbid curiosity planted my feet to the floor and I moved forward until I was face-to-face with Becca, looking directly down into her casket. Being this close, I was able to more closely process what I was seeing. I remember the very first thought that went through my head, and even now, I still can’t believe it was the only thing that popped into my brain pan: Oh. My. God. That is the most hideous dress I have ever seen! Why couldn’t they put her in something that didn’t make her look a hundred years old??? It was a shapeless white thing with weird diagonal creases across the torso and some kind of crazy green embroidered apron tied around her waist. What, did her parents go to Burial-Shouds-R-Us and pick something out of the 99-cent clearance bin?? Was this some kind of rejected Sister-Wife-Laura-Ashley design?! Of course, when I described the dress later to my dad, he chuckled and explained that she was wearing her LDS temple dress, and that was almost always what active, temple-worthy LDS people were buried in. I suppose it set my mind at ease a little, but because at that point, I had already lapsed out of the Church and was drinking and smoking and having sex and all that, I really had no point of reference.
I recall very clearly how the abrasions and bruises were still visible, even under the pancake makeup. They looked like jagged, deep-carved canyons etched into her skin. It’s odd, but the thing I remember the most about her body was her right ear. There were earrings running up the length of the ear, but among the gold rings and studs were deep cuts that again, the makeup didn’t quite cover. It was quite apparent that an accident of some kind had ended her life.
I probably could have stared at her for hours, analyzing in abject horror each part of her body that was visible, which really was only her face, neck and hands, but the line kept moving and took me with it. By the time I made it out of the church, the overpowering scent of all the flora so neatly arranged around the casket was making me nauseated and lightheaded. I remember very clearly having an overwhelming sense of disgust for the entire affair. The whole thing was so backward to me. Becca’s family was forced to stand next to the casket for God only knows how many hours greeting and consoling everyone who came through when it should have been the other way around. It was like a morbid freakshow version of a wedding party line, where you go through and greet the bride and groom and shake hands with the rest of the family, most of the time having no clue who they are. I understand people wanting to come and offer their condolences to the family of the deceased, but so often it becomes a weird stage play filled with the most cliche of lines you could possibly think of.
The entire experience, as repulsive and plastic as it was, had a significantly profound effect on my psyche. I left feeling almost dirty, like I needed to go home and shower the sickeningly sweet floral scent and the faint, yet acidic odor of chemical preservatives out of my nostrils and somehow scrub the images of Becca’s unnaturally twisted, mannequin body in the equally unnatural burial gown from my mind. I decided to opt out of the funeral that was to be held the next morning. I didn’t think my overstimulated brain could handle it without oozing out my ears and dripping on my clothes.
As outlandishly weird as the whole thing was, I have never regretted going to the viewing. I had witnessed death as an adult, and the finality, enormity, ceremony and downright freakishness of the funeral experience really became a tangible reality, and something that never completely left my mind.
For most of us, death isn’t something we like thinking about unless you’re one of those sexually-frustrated, slightly chunky, somewhat hygeine-deficient tween Twilight fans who spends your nights tattooing the name “Edward” on your left labia and “Jacob” on your right with a black Sharpie, so when you cross your legs Edward and Jacob will be kissing, then carving the words FUCK YOU, BELLA! EDWARD BELONGS TO ME over and over into your arm with your mom’s sewing scissors. Despite what Stephenie Meyer tells you, death is something that happens to everyone, no matter how many “vampires” you have sex with. I’m sorry to have to be the one to break this to you: Edward isn’t real. He’s not going to turn you into a vampire then poke you with his big, cold, glittery phallus. Even you, Twilight Fan, will someday die.
People in different cultures deal with their dead in a variety of ways: in India, they burn the bodies and set them afloat on the Ganges. The ancient Egyptians pickled the bodies and wrapped them in linen. The Aborigines in Australia put the bodies of their dead up in trees.
Here in America, it’s a much more sanitary process…at least until you’re buried. If you choose to go with the embalming-casket-viewing-wake-flowers-funeral-burial thing, you’re in for a real treat. Like the ancient Egyptians, we marinate our dead in various caustic chemicals, drain them of their blood, pump them full of embalming fluid, poke formaldehyde-soaked cotton up their butts, glue their lips shut, dress them up, put make-up on them, and put them on display all toward the goal of making them look like they are sleeping. Well, anyone who has ever been to a viewing or an open-casket funeral can attest that the bodies of the deceased look anything but natural and I’m sorry, none of them look like they crawled in the casket to take a nap. They look…well, dead. Most of the time, the makeup is shellacked on so thick they end up looking like circus clowns or Courtney Love. But the horror doesn’t stop there. No ma’am. Once the formality of the funeral is over, everyone has hugged and cried and eaten Funeral Potatoes and the dearly departed is lowered into the ground, the REAL fun begins.
While the mortician’s chemical handiwork slows down the body’s natural decomposition process, it’s not foolproof and doesn’t last forever. Not long after the corpse is covered in six feet of dirt, or put in a drawer and sealed into the wall, a process called putrefaction begins. Truthfully, the first stage of putrefaction begins just moments after a person dies. Luckily, thanks to coroners with turbo-charged engines in their vans, giant refrigerators and formaldehyde, we can temporarily and fairly quickly stick a fork in the process. To be clear, embalming slows putrefaction, sometimes significantly, but after a relatively short time, strong odor, color changes and bloating begin. You’re probably thinking “Well, this doesn’t sound too bad! I have the same thing happen after a night of heavy drinking or when my Womanly Cycle destroys another pair of my white jeans!” First of all, no one should own white jeans after 1991. Second, putrefaction is much more heinous, sticky, runny, smelly and downright messy. Believe me, washing the bloody uteran lining out of a pair of white Jordache jeans will seem as easy as when you lost your virginity on a pool table at a frat party compared to what I’m about to tell you.
So let’s join Granny Mildred in her stylish baby-blue steel casket now that the old hag is finally buried and you can get back to playing Farmville on your iPhone. As the tissues of the body begin to break down, they become a veritable Chuck-a-Rama for bacteria and insects. Grab a clean plate and load up, guys! As the bacteria begin to consume the flesh, gas starts to build up in the abdomen and other body cavities, causing it to inflate like a brand new pair of breast implants. In addition to the swelling, the skin develops dark green patches, particularly on the chest, shoulders and thighs. Blisters develop and fill with fluid. As the body expands, the gas forces liquid and feces out of the body through the mouth and the anus.
As things continue to swell, the skin becomes fragile and starts to slide off the body. This sexy process is known appropriately as “skin slippage”. Try leaving a thawed raw turkey on the counter of your kitchen for a week in the height of summer. You may begin to get an idea of what we’re talking about. During this stage of decomposition, the bugs multiply by the thousands, crawling in and out of Granny’s various openings, laying millions of eggs.
Take a minute to go in the bathroom and puke. I’ll wait here and have a cupcake. Hurry back.
Done? Good. Wait- you have some chunks stuck in your hair. No, I won’t get them out for you, go wash them out like a normal human being. You’re disgusting. NO! DON’T EAT THEM!
Now, Putrefaction is our first stage. The next one is even more vile. The second stage of decomposition is called Black Putrefaction. Personally, I wholeheartedly think the name of this one ought to be changed, it sounds a little racist to me. I’ll write my congressman when I’m done here and make sure something is done about this, posthaste.
So, Black Putrefaction. During this stage of decomposition, the gases built up by the bacteria that are ravaging the soft tissue cause the body cavity to rupture or explode. Now, a little bit of a detraction here. Most funeral homes will try and sell you a casket that is air and/or water tight. You want to keep the bugs and water and all that icky stuff off grandma, right? Unfortunately, not only will you pay a lot more money for one of these bad boys (or girls, whichever) the big problem with caskets that keep these elements out…they also leave no room for the body gases to escape, either. It’s not like letting a fart next to an air vent. Just as the body itself can rupture or explode to release the gas that’s been built up, the casket will likely follow suit. So that $10,000 you spent to make sure Granny Mildred stays nice and vacuum sealed and preserved for Eternity will typically also explode, spraying pieces of Granny all over the grave vault. Now, if she is six feet below ground, chances are, no one would ever know if or when her internal organs and viscera decide to catapult out of her body. However, if you decided to inter her above-ground in a crypt, or in the broom closet of your summer home, the consequences have the potential to be downright catastrophic and emotionally crippling for the surviving family. So the moral of this little detour into casket-shopping…for not only your sake, but the sake of the deceased, and other unsuspecting mourners who happen to be present at the time when Grandma Mildred’s decaying corpse goes kaboom!…don’t buy an airtight or watertight casket. If you do, just make sure you also purchase a good sturdy mop and a large bottle of Clorox Clean-Up.
So, after the body ruptures, it…well, deflates and begins to turn black, hence…Black Putrefaction. This stage in the process allows even more hungry insects to come to the feeding trough and maggot orgy that is Granny’s rotting carcass. At the end of this stage, the skeleton begins to poke through as the soft tissue is consumed by bugs and converted into rancid, reeking gas.
The final two stages aren’t as interesting, so I’ll just give a quick shoutout to ’em. After Black Putrefaction, we have Butyric Fermentation, which is just a fancy name for Mummification. This stage is where we encounter what’s called “grave wax”. This refers to the wax-like quality that the cadaver takes on after it bursts like that pesky zit in your butt crack that wouldn’t pop no matter how many hours you spent squeezing it while squatted over a hand mirror. Personally, instead of the term “grave wax”, I cast my vote to call it “casket-cheese”. Hand me those Wheat Thins and let’s start spreadin’.
The final stage is called Dry Decay. In a nutshell, this is when all the soft tissue is completely depleted and the bones begin to break down and turn to dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Speaking of ashes, thank the Good Lord there are choices when it comes to ditching your Earthly Shell that don’t include nuclear bomb-style Exploding Caskets and Rotten Anal Leakage. For instance, there’s cremation. Now, the best thing about cremation is there is a veritable smorgasbord of options available to the discerning Burnt Corpse. Of course, there are the traditional time-honored customs: a pretty urn to keep on your mantle or the dashboard of your Toyota Corolla. This way, you can always have a a good supply of your Loved One that you can snort right along with your daily $300 bag of cocaine. Human ashes look fabulous on a coke mirror as well. Just make sure that hooker you hired doesn’t get greedy and snort it all herself while you’re in the bathroom trying to scrub the shame off your body. Whores tend to do be quite selfish that way.
Another popular method is having your ashes scattered at a special place; like the chemical toilet in your RV, in your child’s lunchbox, or in that casserole you were guilted into making for that bitch down the street who just had her appendix out. Another really practical method we learned from the movie “Meet the Parents”, human ‘cremains’ (another scrumptious word) can actually be used as kitty litter in a pinch. “Oh LOOK! Kitty just shat a loaf on Gramma! How CUTE!”
But then there are the less conventional ways to use human ashes. You can now take the ashes down to UPS, shipped off and have them turned into a synthetic diamond or diamonds that you can add to that gold grill you bought to wear to the Justin Beiber concert. Nice. You can send the ashes to a glass-blower and have them turned into a candy dish or bedpan or an ugly piece of art that the cat who squeezed out a loaf on Grandma would eventually knock off the shelf and break. BAD KITTY! You can have the ashes mixed in paint and and have an artist paint a likeness of Granny…as long as you don’t choose to have the artist paint a portrait of her wearing that black teddy and those fishnet support hose she loved to squeeze into when she was hopped up on quaaludes and tequila. Hell, you can even have dear old Gran’s pulverized cadaver dust shot into orbit. The risk you take with that is she has the ability to fuck up the reception of your satellite dish. And we all know watching Desperate Housewives is more important than that vile dead hag anyway.
So, right now is probably the moment you’re thinking, “What the hell is all this about? The title of this post doesn’t really match the subject matter! We’re on pins and needles here! What’s the best part about death in America?! It certainly can’t be the part about anal leakage! That’s the second or third best, but no way it can be first!!!”
Well, you asked at exactly the right moment. The best thing about death in America? Whether you choose to spend eternity in a box or have your body burned burned up like last year’s Christmas tree and put in an urn…you can conveniently purchase either of these fine receptacles at your neighborhood Costco. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the next time you decide to buy a new camera, a flat-screen TV and that box of 3,500 Jumbo Super-Absorbent Tampax In Assorted Colors and Flavors you’ve decided to give out as Halloween candy, because face it, those little tramps dressed up like angels and witches could begin bleeding at any moment and it’ll be a cold day in hell before you let those little sluts bleed all over your new bearskin rug while their greedy hands are groping for a Snickers bar, you can also pick up a satin-lined coffin for Aunt Gert and a matching urn for Gert’s transsexual lesbian love-slave named Dot.
So this brings us to the end of our journey. I hope you learned something new. Now head to the restroom, please. Those chunks in your hair are beginning to dry.
So, many people may ask me, Mike, why did you decide to create this slice of World Wide Web loveliness? Or they may not ask me. I guess it just depends on a) whether or not you actually read this blog, and b) how inquisitive you choose to be.
The answer to that question is, I’m honestly not sure. Haven’t quite nailed down the exact reason. And why should I? You’re not the boss of me! I suppose it (said point) may come to me at some point, but maybe not. It’s probably like the fabled Meaning of Life. A lot of people may think they know what it is, when in reality it’s probably something far different.
Growing up in the LDS church, we were always taught that journaling is important. It’s vital to leave a record for one’s posterity so they can learn from you. Well, I decided to be a bit more global. And hell, I may not have any posterity, so I may as well give the opportunity to anyone who may happen across this page. Even if no one ever reads what I post here, it’s good to know it’s available for oh, say, that gay LDS kid who feels really alone and at the end of his or her rope. Not that I look at myself as a Gay Youth Savior or anything like that, but I figure if I can reach even one person with my experiences, so much the better.
To be frank, I hesitated slightly airing all this stuff out publicly. I know a lot of the things that go through my head aren’t exactly for everyone. My family, for instance, probably isn’t too aware that I made the decision to exit the LDS church officially. While I know this may hurt them, and they may have many questions, the bottom line is, I need to be true to my feelings and what I know is right. Me and God? We’re golden. I have a better relationship with the Man Upstairs than I ever did while I was going to church. My decision to resign isn’t one I made rashly. I just cannot in good conscience affiliate myself with an organization that believes the way I live my life isn’t good enough for God. I can’t live my life believing that.
I believe one’s relationship with God is a deeply personal thing. As I have said many times to many people, I don’t believe God expects us to worship him in a building or partake of bread and water in order to be closer to Him. I don’t think He thinks less of us if we aren’t on our knees day and night praying to Him. I think He likes it when we check in once in awhile though. And I hear He appreciates a good joke or funny anecdote. After all, He’s given US plenty of them. I think what’s most important to God is that we do the best we can with the cards we are dealt, and just try to be good people. The overcomplication of God has given birth to wars, murder, terrorism, legislation of morals, and, let’s face it…bad hairdos.
In order for me to get through daily life, I have to hold strong to the belief that God has one hell of a sense of humor. What? You want some evidence? Alright. Consider the following: Richard Simmons. Dennis Rodman. The Fat Twins on Bikes. Butt Plugs. The Venus Flytrap. The Vibrator That Plugs Into Your iPod. Whoopee Cushions. The Fatty Patty Blowup Doll. Lindsay Lohan. Olive and Pimento Loaf. Pugs. Haggis. Man Boobs. Creepy Porcelain Dolls. Pamela Anderson. Cheez-Whiz. Juicy Couture. Breast Implants. Girls Gone Wild. The list could go on and on and on. You may be saying to yourself, Well, most of these things were invented by man, including Lindsay Lohan. That may be true, but from my perspective, God definitely played a hand in being the muse for them. Why do I bring this up? Maybe to plant a little seed to illustrate that maybe God isn’t quite as uptight as everyone makes Him out to be.
So, I guess the bottom (hehe bottom) line here is, there may be things that I write here that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. To that I say, brush your teeth, gargle some mouthwash or chew some gum. I guarantee if you stick around, you’re probably going to learn more about me than you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. I’ve decided not to hold back here.
So sit a spell. Break out some Red Vines. Light up a smoke. Pour me a drink.