I touched a dead body at 6. Years old. Not intentionally, I promise. My great grandfather Joe had just died, and there was a funeral in Rochester, New York. His home town of course. “I don’t wanna go Mom!” I screeched. Well of course I didn’t want to go, what sweet 6-year-old girl wants to go to a funeral. But then I thought, well, no one here really wants to go to this thing either, but we have to because we are family.
It was time for the funeral. My mom picked out my outfit for me, the only black I owned at the time was a black summer dress. “It’ll have to do”, said Mom. Next were my little black ballet flats, again, “It’ll have to do”. We had never been to a funeral together, we didn’t quite know what to do. In the middle of all the outfit designing I attempted to comfort my mom. She was getting ready to go to her Grandfather’s funeral, he was dead. I didn’t understand it completely back then.
I distinctly remember what the building looked like. There were multiple buildings over that long weekend. There were multiple funerals, for reasons I still barely understand. But the first building was the worst, the hardest one to walk into. It had one of those signs where the letters stick onto it like Velcro. I like those signs. They seem comforting in a way, but at the same time it scared me, because it was telling me and my family to go upstairs for the funeral. Not literally, because it obviously can’t talk, but I felt like it was talking to me.
The doors opened, and it was time. My gaze drifts towards the front of the room where all the chairs are facing. “Is that him?” I asked my family. Someone probably could have told 6-year-old me that I was going to be looking at a dead body for 3 days straight. Why? I always say why. Why the open casket? Won’t it make some people uncomfortable? It sure made me uncomfortable. It was going to get worse too.
My family and I discovered our seats to be directly in the front, rolling our eyes we placed our things down. The seats were a gross dark sea green, with a very outdated pattern on them. Worn out. Everything in the room was worn out, even the people. My great grandfather didn’t die young, he was 80 something. Not bad. But he did have some issues, and if they weren’t there he could have lived his life out with his wife, who is still alive and healthy today, at the age of 95. I strive to be like her. But I never strived to be like him. As I walk around the room staring at the soggy food, the old, wrinkly people walking around, I think a thought that was kind of rude. I wondered how great grandpa Joe could have had all these friends and family, if he was such a terrible guy. Don’t get me wrong, I barely knew the guy, and the people there definitely knew him better than I did, but my mom and great grandmother were always complaining. “Joe is such a hassle”. “He is always barking at me”. “All he cares about is himself”. And these were all true, but they didn’t matter anymore.
After surveying the audience with my long, fixed stare, we sat down in our seats, right in the very front. Great. All I could focus on was my dead family member looking like he was just taking a nap. The saddest part was my confusion. I kept asking, “Is he asleep?” I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell. I think I wanted him to just be asleep and then wake up and surprise everyone.
It was time to go ‘visit’ him at the front. This was bizarre to me. I dragged my feet, very slowly, up to the casket with my mom and her grandmother, Connie, the wife, my great grandmother. I placed my hand on his hands, being a normal curious 6-year-old. Cold. Cold. COLD. All I could think was cold. Why was he so cold? Why does he have makeup on? Why is he sleeping in a suit? What’s going on? It was all too much for me. I took one last glance at him, saying goodbye forever, and returned to my raggedy seat.
The funeral consisted of people telling their stories of how they knew Joe, and lots of singing to very strange, long, catholic songs. To my amazement, those songs are what made me cry, not even seeing his actual dead body. I couldn’t sing along with everyone, and I bet they couldn’t either due to my enormously loud shrieks. Till this day I still cannot understand what it was about the song that made my tears fall so heavily.
After the funeral, I’m pretty sure we drove off in a limo, with lights the shape of stars inside. Now, it is also very possible that I am remembering this wrong and that was the limo I rode in to the Disney on ice show. Who knows. But that isn’t the point. After the first funeral, everyone seemed to forget about what just happened. We all just touched an actual nonliving person who was put on display for all of us to stare at. The concept always has and always will perplex me. But, at the end of the day the adults seemed to suck it up and slap a fake smile on their face.
I learned many lessons that day, which I never realized until now. The main thing that I took away from that raw experience in the funeral home that day is, everyone knows that one day their loved ones are going to die. Everyone knows that they themselves too are going to die. But no matter how much we prepare, no matter how much we think we understand death, we never will. The death of a family member is the hardest of deaths. No matter how close, or how well you know that specific family member, it hurts.