Scythe, Part One
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.