If you wanna know why I did it, first you gotta know everything I know about death. It’s not a lot, really. Everything I know comes down to one moment. It’s the moment I call “the last look.” People know nothing ‘bout dying ‘til they know about the last look. This is how you know if your mortician’s up to snuff. Ask him ‘bout the last look, and if he looks back at you with blank, glazed over eyes, close your wallet and book it out of there, cause that guy may be a real businessman, but he don’t know squat about dying.
The last look might just be the most important moment in someone’s life. It happens at the end of the wake. I don’t know if you’ve been to a full wake, but those things are long. Most people just pop in for an hour, maybe two if it’s a cousin or a close neighbor or something. But when you’re the primary contact for the deceased, the husband or wife or son or daughter, you’re in it for the long haul. If the family’s lucky, someone will bring them in some Jimmy John’s and they can go scarf down a sandwich in the back room. But mostly, if you’re the family, you don’t have an appetite. So you’re going the whole day with no food, and a bunch of relatives and friends, half of whom you don’t even know, coming up to you, sobbing, recounting such and such memory, and sometimes it’s sweet and you take heart, but most of the time you just end up being strong for a lot of people who have eaten full meals and gotten full nights of rest and are a whole lot stronger than you are. In fact, I think this is partly why we even have wakes. So the bereaved can armor up and be forced to not fall apart. People don’t really know how strong they can be ‘til they have to rise to the occasion and smile and shake hands with a bunch of weeping third cousins.
But anyway, that’s tangential to the point. I’ve got about a million theories and ideas about dying, or at least about funerals. I’ve been in this business for over a quarter century now, and sometimes you don’t even know what you know ‘til it all comes spilling out. But to the point, the crux of the whole day is the last look. It comes at the end of the eight hour wake, when people’s stomachs are starting to growl and their legs are stiff and they think they’ve cried every tear they have, and then they cry some more. Then we close the lid of the coffin, and they realize, this is the last time they’ll see their loved one. It’s funny cause they thought that moment already came. They thought it came the last time the person looked them in the eyes before their heart stopped beating, or the last time they waved and walked out the door before swerving for the deer in the road. And it’s true. Once someone’s dead, you’ll never see their eyes dance when they get an idea, or hear that little exhale when they think something is funny but not really, or whatever quirk someone has that tells you they’re alive. The family’s mourned all those things, but they haven’t mourned the body. The physical form. No one thinks it’s important, everyone thinks it’s just some empty shell until they realize that this is their last time looking at it, and their hearts freeze, and they just kneel there for a moment, trying to take in every freckle, noticing for the first time the slenderness of someone’s fingers, closing their eyes and memorizing how it feels to just be there with them, to be physically present before them. Then the coffin closes and the real mourning, the final mourning, begins. After that, the rest gets easier. Carrying out the coffin and burying it in the ground, that never gets to people as much as those moments before the coffin closes. That’s why I’m not for doing cremations. You don’t get to mourn what you never knew you cared for.
This is my whole business model. To make the last look as precious a moment for the family as it can be. So when we makeup and dress the body, I try to make it capture as much of the essence of the person as it can. I ask families to bring in their favorite photos of the deceased. No one gets it right the first time around. They bring me all these pictures of family Christmas gatherings and Alaska cruises and all these other big, big, important events. But that’s not what I want. I want the quiet moments. Them sitting in the recliner that still has their imprint, real and alive in the places they now haunt. With the look or the smile that is them. The face everyone sees and says “yes, that’s John.” If you’ve ever been to a bad wake, you might have experienced this: sometimes, people look at the deceased and realize that they never knew what their loved one actually looked like. They look and see a stranger in the box, and it can be a hell of a jarring moment. You can question a lot of things, like, did you even know this person? This person you shared the last 50 years with, who you looked at every night before you went to sleep for the better part of your life? It feels a little like insanity, but it’s real. A body with no life in it is a very different thing, even just on the surface, than a body with life in it. Like, a dead person in a coffin looks a whole world different from a person who’s asleep. That’s why I try to get to the essence of the person, so you can say goodbye to John or Chris or whomever for the last time, and not walk away feeling like you’ve lived your whole life with a stranger.
I have this theory, too, that when we die, we’ll come before God looking like we did on our burial day. I know it’s not true, and it doesn’t make a lot of rational sense, but it’s just how I imagine it. You really do die as you’ve lived, is what I’ve realized. If you lived as a stranger to everyone, you’ll die as a stranger to everyone. You’ll be buried in a stranger’s suit, made up with a stranger’s face, and arrive before the Lord with a heart as locked up and closed off as it was your whole life. And He’ll give you one look over and say, “I do not know you,” and close the Gates. If I’m being honest, that’s my biggest fear. To get before God and realize I don’t know Him, that I never really knew Him, and He doesn’t know me, and we’ll depart as strangers — Him into heaven, and me, well, somewhere else. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want that for anyone else. So I just try to make people known in death. So even if someone lived their whole life with a closed heart, someone may look at him and think, “oh yes, that’s the Frank I always knew and loved. What a grinch, God love him.” And God will hear that.
Ok, so you’ve been real patient, and I just wanna thank you. No one wants to listen to this stuff. But it’s important. You’ve gotta know what I’m about before you can pass any judgements on me. I want you to write the capital-T-Truth, and I’ll hand it to the other reporters, the truth sounds a little crazy without all the context.
So a family came in the other week. A woman, about 65, and her four kids. Their husband-slash-father had just died. Massive coronary blockage. Not a surprise. The guy was a tank. I asked them for some stories, which they told me, and I asked them for some pictures, which they gave me, but I wasn’t pleased with any of them. They were all too serious. The guy was ex-military, and from what it sounds like, he spent his whole life either overseas or slumped on the couch. He didn’t smile in any photos. Even in candids, he was dark and serious. I asked the wife if any of his military buddies might have some photos, but she said he wasn’t in touch with them when he died, and she didn’t know how to reach them. I did my best, but I couldn’t get this man right. He was just a character to me, the Military Man. I spent hours agonizing over why this guy was so different, why he was giving me so much trouble. And then in some sort of revelation, I realized what the problem was. I couldn’t picture him as a child. There was no visual of him running around, no cares, playing guns with sticks and putting off his homework. It’s like he was just plopped down into the world, thirty-years-old with a buzz cut, heavy boots, and a beer gut.
I couldn’t get to sleep that night. As I was lying in bed, I kept thinking about his body down there. I’ve never been bothered before, having dead bodies in my house. I’ve always felt like I’m performing some sort of duty, like a sentinel on guard over the person’s soul ‘til it gets taken up in the whirlwind. But this guy had a different feel. It felt somehow wrong, morbid, to just be keeping that dead body downstairs. All that death in the house, with my wife sleeping next to me, breathing shallow and steady and muttering unintelligible little somethings every now and then. And my kids, all those decades of life still stored up in them. I think I was afraid he’d rob us. Rob the living of their life, just to get a taste of what he never had here on earth.
Around 3 a.m. I gave up on sleep altogether and went downstairs. To keep watch over him, I guess. Not to guard his body but to guard us against him. I don’t remember that night very well. Must’ave zoned out. It was so dark, darker than black, somehow — more consuming, like entering into the essence of what blackness is. But I didn’t turn on the lights cause I didn’t wanna look at him. The wind was howling, and it was all a bit creepy. I felt relief when the sun came up. I could see the silhouette of his body still lying there in the dawn. Half expected it to be gone, I’ll admit.
By the time the sun was fully up, there were only ‘bout three hours ‘til the wake was supposed to start. I went about setting things up, but the whole time I was bothered in the back of my mind. I still hadn’t figured him out. Even after spending the whole night keeping watch over him, I was no closer to knowing who this man was. “Don’t matter,” most morticians would say. “Leave the life bit to the family. Our business is with the dead, and that’s what he is, dead dead dead.” But I couldn’t believe it. After I’d finished setting everything up, I just stood over his coffin and looked at him — at Larry. Larry was his name. He looked just fine, clean shaven and respectable in his sport coat. But this was ‘bout more than looks, more than business. This was a matter of humanity. It occurred to me that maybe God had made some sort of mistake — that the Almighty Himself had misfired, let one slip during the whole creation bit, and somehow created a man without any of the human in him. Maybe there just was no last look, no life to capture ‘cause he’d never really lived.
I was about to go upstairs and get myself ready, had resigned myself to just do what I had to do and be done with it. But then the door opened and in walked some old geezer. At first I was a little miffed ‘cause the wake wasn’t supposed to start for another hour. But then I get a look at how old this guy really was, and I figured he must be a great uncle with dementia or something. Every family’s got one. So then I’m thinking, this guy probably doesn’t know what century it is, let alone what time. I started pulling out all the courtesies. I offered him a chair and asked if he wanted some water, but no, he didn’t want any of it. He just stood there. Then I started getting concerned. I asked him some questions, like who he was and where he’d come from. He started muttering something low. I leaned in to hear better, and realized he was repeating the same thing over and over under his breath: “let the little children come to me.” It struck me as something familiar. Later I looked it up and memorized it. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19. When I understood what he was saying, I got a chill and backed away. He stopped talking then, and pulled something out from a bag I hadn’t realized he had. He walked over to the table and set it down. Then he left. Just walked right on out the door, quick as he’d come.
So then I’m wondering if I need to call the cops, if this guy escaped from a mental institution or something. I was just about to go get my cell phone, but I passed by the table and looked at what he left. It was a photo album, covered in blue fabric that was turning yellow in places. It was clearly pretty old. I’d show it to you, but the police still have it. I opened it up, and it’s all these black and white polaroids. I could tell it was a family photo album, cause all the people looked something the same, some older, some younger, all seeming to age a bit as the album went on, but still stuck somewhere in the ‘60s, it’d seem. One kid’s face kept popping up again and again, and I realize it was him. It was Larry. There he was at the Statue of Liberty with his mom and his sister, and there he was on Christmas morning. And there he was perched on top of a rock, and playing guns, and just being a kid. I knew it was him because his nose and mouth were exactly the same, and because he was something of a tank, even as a kid. You can tell he was a serious kid, too. His hair was buzzed short, even then, and he wasn’t smiling in many of the photos. But there was something different ‘bout his eyes. I put my face up real close to the photos, even got out my magnifying glass. On closer look, I could see what was odd about ‘em. His eyes were illuminated, like someone was holding a backlight to them. They had a sort of silvery look to them, like two round coins smack in the middle of his face. But it was just his eyes that were lit up, nothing else. Not even the eyes of all the other people with him. It was the same in every photo.
I flipped through to the end and closed the album. I was still debating whether or not I should call the cops. At that point, it was pretty clear that that mysterious old geezer was either a prophet, old as time itself, or he really was a crazy great uncle, in which case he most definitely should not have been wandering the streets alone. I looked around the room, unsure what to do, and that’s when I saw it. This is going to sound crazy, I know. You don’t have to believe me, but this is what I saw: Larry’s eyes were opened, and they were gleaming. They had that same silvery look as they did in the photos. What’s even crazier is I had just stuffed the eye sockets with cotton the night before. But sure as day, there they were, opened. Then, I swear — now I’m gonna sound really off my rocker. I’ll admit, it coulda been the light playing tricks on me, or coulda just been a trick of my own tired brain — but I swear I saw him wink at me. I ran over for a closer look, but by then he looked just as he had before. Eyes closed, face all waxy and stiff. But I knew what I’d seen.
Well of course I started freakin’ out. I was hootin’ and hollerin’, but by that time, the wife was at work and the kids were at school and no one was there to hear me. ‘Cept Larry, I s’pose. At that point, I was convinced that he was alive. Maybe not alive alive, but certainly not dead dead dead like I’d thought before. The family was supposed to arrive in less than thirty minutes, so I had to act fast. My mind was racin’ and at the same time, I wasn’t thinkin’ at all. You ever get like that? I was busy wondering what in the Lord’s name I was going to do, and all the while, I was shoving his body into the back seat of my sedan.
From there, I don’t remember much. ‘Til the rain. I do remember the rain. What a trope. Even nature recognizes a good literary device when it sees one. Of course there was no meaning to it, then. Everything’s read back in after the fact. But everyone loves to talk about the rain. “What was he tryin’ to do,'' they say, “baptize ‘im?” I s’pose so. My granddad was a Preacher, as you probably know. That part hasn’t escaped the stories, either. I remember going down to the river with him on Sundays, standing on some rock, barefoot in the shallows as he brought people out waist deep. And he’d dunk ‘em three times. Once in the name of the Father, then of the Son, and last the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does always seem to be last, don’t He? But I remember watching them, trying to see some noticeable difference. Like a dull light coming out from their chest or their gut, or at least a few less wrinkles. Shouldn’t it look like something? Someone being given a new life? But no, it was always the same. Old Jack or Jill, still as sulky and slovenly as ever, now just a bit wetter. But I never stopped believing that something had actually changed. And now I had the proof. I’d seen it for myself, seen his eyes dancing with that silvery light. I’d brought his body out into the water sent down by God Himself, and it washed away all the makeup and the powder, leaving nothing but the man. It washed away all those trappings of death to make room for life, the life I knew he still had. Yes, for some reason I was the one given the last look. And I had to do something ‘bout it before it was too late.
Turns out I never made it very far. The family was driving up when they spotted me with Larry in the vacant lot right around the corner from the funeral home. They called the cops, of course, and they came wailing in with their sirens. That’s when I came to. I was kneeling on the ground, completely soaked through, cradling Larry in my arms. Everything seemed to slow down, then. In a second I realized what must’ave just happened and what was about to happen. There was no way outta’ this one. I was caught red handed, as they say, with Larry still in my arms. I remember him feeling strangely light. A body, once the embalming’s all said and done, weighs a decent bit. But for a man his size, he felt almost lighter than a child.
The police told me to drop him and get to my feet. I stood up, and I felt like I was waking up from a bad dream. The rain was starting to let up, then, and the sun was poking out — one of those hard, mid-morning suns. All around me, steam was burning off the grass and dissolving into air, and the sun was scattering the raindrops into all these small flashes of silver. I felt buoyant, lighter and freer than I’d felt in my life. I had this huge grin across my face, couldn’t keep it off. It must’ave looked something odd, me smiling as the officers were putting handcuffs on me. But all I felt was relief. I’d done what I had to do. The rest was in God’s hands.
They sentenced me to six months. And my license is being revoked. But like I said, it was never ‘bout the business, anyway. It was always ‘bout the last look, ‘bout getting it right. And on that point, I’m satisfied. In the end, I found out, they cremated Larry. But that’s ok. By some absurd grace, he’d had his day. He may never have been known by his family or his buddies or by any other living soul. But before the coffin had been closed and he’d gone back to the dirt, he’d been known by me. I’d seen him as a child, and then I’d seen him as a man. I’d looked in his eyes and seen some wild, silver dance of life still pent up in them. And I’d hoped. I still hope, even now, that things can be different. He doesn’t have to be a stranger. He can go to the Gates and God’ll say, “I know you, of course I do. How could I forget such a wack-a-doo story?” And they’ll both walk through.
By Mary-Kate Burns