During one of my first days working at a mortuary we received a husband and wife who were killed due to a car accident. The older couple had gone for a drive, maybe to the grocery store, maybe to see a movie, I didn’t know the details. What I did know was that somehow, they didn’t or couldn’t stop their car fast enough while driving behind a semi-truck. As a result, they ended up underneath the semi which sheared off the top of their car. Consequently, neither of them survived.
This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the director pulling me aside and explaining that I was welcome to see the couple, yet he warned me that I didn’t have to. There would always be others, and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him I was ready for this experience, it was like a rite of passage in preparing me for the career ahead. I couldn’t help but imagine what the couple would look like, my young mind, taught by TV shows and movies, had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body.
I followed the funeral director as he walked toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. He opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, each holding an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the room were shelves that accompany any operating funeral homes garage, shelves lines with boxes holding signs, water, towels and décor for the seasons. A tool box caught my eye reminding me of the things we were constantly fixing around the funeral home, loose door knobs, running toilets. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device, looking like an engine hoist, designed to assist a funeral director in lifting people from a table and into their caskets). The room smelled slightly of gas from the cars being driven in and out during daily operations and the hearse and flower van were parked on one side, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully. That image alone was enough to invoke just how tragic the situation was. Side-by-side they married each other, side-by-side they raised children together and side-by-side they got into their car that day. Now, side-by-side they lay on cots in the garage of a mortuary.
We walked to the cot closest to us and the director carefully unzipped the bag while I stood off to the side. It seems that my imagination was much more graphic than real life. As I slowly stepped closer to the cot, it looked like this man had been created out of wax and cosmetics, like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real! There was no way to identify him through facial features and my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye, they would never see their parents again. He wore blue jeans and a blue and red plaid shirt, all of which were soiled and scattered with road debris, glass and car pieces. What stood out more than anything else were the personal effects, his wallet which probably held his driver’s license, credit cards, and memberships passes, never to be used again. There was a handful of change that I imagined, like most men, he kept in his pocket and jingled absently while standing in conversation, a set of keys that at one time resided in a bowl on the counter in their home or hung on a hook next to the door, resembling use and daily life.
Years after this, I bought a house in North Carolina that reminded me of this couple. The house had been owned by a husband and wife who had also died in a car accident together. The children they left behind did all they could to get through their pain and loss yet ultimately could not bring themselves to completely clear out the house. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes lay next to the door awaiting their owners return. A shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen held instructions for meals and treats for family gatherings. Each room had its own tale of previous use, unmade beds, a sewing machine held the latest project unfinished, closets full of clothes never to be worn again by their intended owner. The house had sat empty of life long enough for the cobwebs and moisture of the South to take up residence. The air was thick and moldy, it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows. So naturally, my thoughts went to this first couple I had experienced accidental death with, lying next to each other on cots, in black body bags, surrounded by garage things, nestled amongst their belongings that they had taken with them that day, and their children left with a house full of memories.
Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations day in and day out, my mind almost always drifts to this couple. The children were never going to see their parents again, they had to trust the doctor that their parents were dead, they had to trust that the funeral director had the right bodies and they had to deal with other family members, friends and a house full of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I handled these things day in and day out, the question should be how could I not? The family left behind from this tragic and horrible experience had it worse than I.
I was not involved in making the arrangements for this couple, but I was present when they were laid to rest. It was a chilly fall day and we were surrounded by huge trees half covered in orange and red leaves, signifying the end of one season and preparing for the next. Surrounded by their children this husband and wife, just like they did in life, would for all eternity be side-by-side.
Photo credit: Free stock photos