It was a cold, brutal morning. One on which you could smell the foreboding snow in the air. I loved this weather, it reminded me of playing in the snow as a child, warm nights spent by the fire, family time around a dinner table, and the laughter and warmth of good company. It seemed fitting that today was also Joe’s funeral service and viewing. After all, who was warmer, better company than the man that stirred up passion in a young woman after she’d led a life filled with pointless college course in biology and anthropology up until she came across his internship.
I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face during my drive towards the funeral home. If I knew anything about the sarcastic, chipper old man, he would be in attendance, likely rolling his eyes during each speech from a lamenting family member or friend.
I entered the parking lot, pulled a black dress on a plastic hangar from the back seat, and quickly made my way through the heavy doors and into the foyer where I’d seen Joe yesterday. It was foolish to think his apparition would be in the same location, but I looked around anyway. There was no sign of him. My cheerful mood remained as I traversed the short hallway and down into the preparation rooms.
The preparation area had once been the basement of the convent, serving the homeless with baths, a place to eat and sleep, and serving as the showers for the nuns that lived and worked within the walls of this place. Thankfully, that meant little renovation was needed once Joe bought the place in the late 80’s.
When I first started my training, Joe told me that this place, above all, was to be revered like we were somewhere holy, just as the nuns had.
“After all,” he would say, “what place is more holy than the basement of a convent in which the dead now pass from one life to the next.”
As I approached the prep table, I moved the sheet from Joe’s head.
“I saw you running around upstairs yesterday, Joe. Can’t leave this place even once you’re gone huh? It was sure nice to see you again.” The silence that replied was deafening.
I couldn’t tell if it was the way I had stuffed his cheeks or the manner in which I had sewn his lips, but I swear, the whisper of a smile adorned his face that hadn’t been there yesterday.
I dressed the body with the effort it typically took to do so and placed crème foundation and rouge on his face and lips, if only for the comfort those that would arrive in less than an hour.
By the end of what never failed to feel like an exhaustive workout, Joe was dressed and ready to be lifted into the casket. I used the body lift I’d inherited from the man I was now arranging the leather straps around to place his body into the plush lined wooden casket. I recalled the smile he wore on the day he had picked it out himself after spying it at an undertaker’s convention, beaming and bright, filling his face with the joy he toted around each and every day.
I smoothed out his suit and mussed hair and pinned on a smile that softened his face and brought back some of what I used to see every morning. I felt tears threaten to fall, and I let them; a deep, sobbing, wailing cry followed that left me feeling utterly alone with my emotions and feelings about what today would be like. All memory of what had made me smile only yesterday, pushed from the limelight of my thoughts by a miserable cloud of darkness that obscured all light to be had.
I fell to the floor beside the casket, a whimpering mess in my sweatpants, thin t shirt and lightweight hoodie. Rough fingers on a large, icy cold palm were soon wrapped around my shoulder. It gave a reassuring squeeze before my bleary eyes flew open to see nothing and no one.
Joe was still here, not as gone as he felt thanks to the memories I still carried with me. He was still around and would be long after his corporeal being was buried in the ground. A few breathing exercises later and I was on my feet and undressing in the bathroom in favor of the black dress that had been worn for the last few years
Joe would always remark how the collar accentuated my features and forced a look of importance and prestige on such a young face, I would have bought a new dress, one unsullied by funerals past, but I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to bother.
It was the same dress I had hurriedly packed during the first funeral for which I had no part in preparing but was instructed to simply watch. It had been so long since that day and the places where this dress had ripped and I had repaired it were illuminated by the dim yellow light of the bathroom’s singular bulb in the small mirror.
Joe had left me on my own that day to deal with my nerves, so as not to upset the already upset family. I hid in corners and took mental notes of floral arrangements, the placement of the guest book, and the overall outdated décor. Today would be no different, though the décor, mostly restored by myself, would reflect a comfy living area prepared for the holiday season. Tasteful pine roping twirled around the bannister to the second floor, white lights around small indoor trees in the viewing room, and for the door, a fluffy wreath adorned with bright red bows and faux frosted pinecones.
Gentle, instrumental piano music of no specific variety played over a Bluetooth speaker. I’d found that as the family grieved, cried, and greeted each other, that it was better than stark silence in between weeping and families forced to explain to their young children why they couldn’t run through the halls.
The casket had been placed on a rolling cart in preparation for today by the cleaning crew that had come the night before. I was able to push it on my own onto the steel plate at the far end of the preparation room beside the staircase. I pushed a small red button and the plate lifted Joe to the second floor. I followed beside the elevator over the wooden steps to the main floor.
I wheeled Joe into position and gingerly arranged the poinsettias the family had chosen to display on either side of the casket. I lifted the lid to reveal his smiling face and tried not to think of all the stuffing, pins, and thread keeping his mouth shut like that.
I gasped aloud. I had forgotten something.
The grandfather clock in the foyer chimed once to signify the hour, and I knew I had little time to spare before the guests would arrive.
My plain heels clicked against the floorboards and up the stairs to the second floor. The small space was only the size of half of the floor below it, leading to a small attic with enough space to walk around. Tall windows on either side of a beveled wall framed the first snowfall of the season, and it was all just too perfect for a fleeting moment.
The floor was covered by a paisley area rug, oozing reds, oranges, and yellows into the otherwise wooden room. Around the rug were armchairs, a couch, a desk, and a counter space complete with a small refrigerator and a sink. It had acted as our break room, too small to be much else. Many a day was spent up here chatting about what the world of an undertaker was like, our personal lives and even what things we had in common.
Although Joe was older than me by a few decades, we had a startling amount in common and would often get lost in conversations about strange species of underwater animals, the kinds of foods we liked to eat, and all the places to which he had traveled and where I wish I could.
In the small set of drawers beneath the sink, lie the thing I realized I’d forgotten; a pin I had intended to gift him this Christmas. It was a small, enamel thing that read “What is dead may never die” in black letters on a white, square background. He loved old sayings like that and would use this and others in a constant rotation when speaking about his clients. I nearly giggled at how apt it was considering the circumstances.
As I retreated down the stairs, I saw a morose looking woman in a large winter coat and a dark blue dress. Eyeliner already streaked down her face and a tissue clutched in her fist, she looked up at me.
“Am I early?” she asked pitifully.
“Oh no, not at all,” I lied. She was, in fact, fifteen minutes early. “The others will be here in no time. I’m running a bit late in my setup.” I said with a customer service smile. “We have some refreshments in the room down the hall here, would you like some coffee or tea?” I asked hopefully and pressed a hand to her shoulder away from the viewing room; I had yet to close the door.
“Oh, yes. That would be lovely actually. Thank you.” She said softly. I guided her into to a room to our left and closed the door, telling her I would return promptly.
Hastening my steps, I entered the viewing room, closed the door, and lightly jogged up to the front of the room.
The pain tried to hit me yet again, seeing Joe lying there, but I pushed past it, fueled by the memory of his strong grip on my shoulder and the reassuring smile he’d sent my way. With nimble, steady fingers, I tacked the pin onto his lapel and smoothed over his wispy white hair for the last time.
Once I heard the door creak open yet again, I knew I had a job to do.
The service was beautiful. Members of Joe’s catholic congregation came to speak, some friends, and family also stood in front of the gathered guests. They said some kind things about the man I loved like a father, but no one seemed to capture his spirit like I knew him. None of them knew me, so I stayed back, watching from a distance as the casual funeral home attendant to assure all things fell into place properly.
Once the speeches started to die down and mutterings of heading to the church for the ceremony started rising above the crowd, I breathed a sigh of relief. They would all be gone soon, and the kind men from the limo company would soon have Joe in their capable hands on the way to his final resting place.
I would be left alone to begin processing my emotions with the wiry spirit of Joe to keep me company.
“Candles? Who has the candles?” someone asked. My ears pricked at the voice.
“Right here! There’s enough for everyone!” another voice shouted.
“Oh, ma’am, I’m sorry to interrupt, but you can’t have an open flame in here. Seeing as we do all of the preparation in this building, it’s full of flammable chemicals. I’m sorry, but if you’d like to do a candlelight service, you’ll have to step outside or wait until you arrive at your church.”
The woman, holding four candles in one hand and a lighter in the other, stared at me with a fierce look. Her pointed brown hair was cut just below her earlobes, tousled in the back, and immobile from all angles. Her full face of makeup was in-tact, unfettered, and extreme. Through black winged eyeliner and dark lids, she looked into my eyes and said
“This is a family gathering. We are grieving for someone very important to us, and I don’t think it’s any of your business to tell us how we’re allowed to do that.” She spat.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but with all due respect, this is my funeral home and I-“
“Excuse you!?” this funeral home belongs to my great uncle. He’s still here, you know. You don’t own this place till he’s gone.” She turned on her heel and swished away from me in a too-tight dark purple pencil skirt dress, stockings, and a pair of stilettos.
“Ma’am! Please don’t!” I called, uncharacteristically loud, but she simply stood beside the casket, stuck her tongue out at me, and lit one of the candles in her hand.
“See? The place didn’t explode!” She called over the crowd now lighting their own candles around the room. With this, she tossed her hand backwards, towards Joe, and dropped the small white candle into the casket.
A shrieking “NO!” bellowed from my lungs and I screamed even more as she failed to put out the fire with her that had now spread to his clothes with her bare hands. I knew in a matter of time, the gasses, chemicals and other facets of the large wooden box in which he lie would be fully engulfed. There was no saving him.
Smoke billowed from the casket and the gathered started to scream and wail, crying louder and with more anguish than before.
Thankfully, everyone made it out into the parking lot and within a safe distance from the building in under five minutes, but it was soon enveloped in a conflagration that filled the bright snowy sky with a dark plume.
Emergency services arrived, but thanks to the hazardous chemicals in the basement, I knew even insurance couldn’t foot the bill for this historic site.
I joined the mourners, shivering in the cold without a jacket in my black dress. As they screamed, spread blame, and wailed, I cried as I watched the flames lick at the structure that I knew was the only thing keeping the spirit of Joe from fading away.
For a brief moment, in the window of the rounded break room pyre that stuck out from the stone building and gave it the look of a castle or old stone fortress, I saw a pale misty figure, black suit, blue shirt, purple tie, and small, square, white pin.
Last Story: Home, Sweet Funeral Home (Part 1)
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