Some funeral directors make it a habit of watching the news before beginning the day. We are, sadly, looking for the shootings, accidents, fires or any disaster that may mean “work”. I had had a long night and awoke the next morning in a rush, taking no notice of the day’s headlines. Apparently, during the night a man had robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk who worked there, then he was able to run away before the police could arrive. After some detective work the police were able to track down who he was and where he lived. The swat team surrounded his house and his confused and elderly mother opened the door. She tried to get answers from the men in black gear, carrying shields and guns, pushing her out of the way they entered the house just as her son was coming out to greet them, he brandished a gun and before he could fire he was gunned down by the police, in his living room, in front of his mother! The man was in his 40’s, he had a drug problem and his mother, the ever-nurturing kind, had no idea what had just happened. We got the call later that day to come and pick up his body.
We laid the man down on the embalming table and looked over the wounds. He was riddled with bullet holes. He was not autopsied, yet, it was still a mess. All we could think of was what his poor mother was going through after watching this happen to her son, in her own home.
When the family came in to make arrangements, it was determined that there would be a small graveside, no obituary was to be published and no one was to know when the service was to take place. The family religion was Bahai which meant a traditional shrouding with prayers and rose water. The church would not agree to perform the ritual and none of the family members wanted to do it, no one even wanted to see his body. This meant the funeral home was to perform the shrouding. We were given instructions by the church on how the shroud was to be wrapped and a sheet detailing the prayers to be said. We had no idea what we were doing. The family dropped off the shroud and the rose water and my coworker and I took all of these supplies and headed to the prep room to start the task. The table the man laid on was in the center of the embalming room, ringed on two sides with white cabinets and counter-tops. The back end of the room was slightly dimmed where open shelves of towels and chemicals sat. The rest of the room was covered in bright fluorescent lighting, making the room feel much more cheerful than the situation called for. We laid out all of the instructions given to us. We then sutured the mans wounds to prevent them from seeping through the shroud and washed and dried the body. The shroud came in strips and the strips were to be wrapped in a specific way and the rose water was to be sprinkled at certain points of the shrouding. It turned out to be a relaxing experience, wrapping, sprinkling, saying the prayers. Once we finished, we placed the shrouded man in his casket and closed the lid. Giving us our own kind of closure to the experience.
The day of the graveside was bitterly cold, the grass and trees were covered in ice. We loaded the casket in the hearse, grabbed all of the supplies we needed, tissues, blankets etc. and drove to the grave-site. We wanted to make sure that everything was set up and ready by the time the family arrived. We laid out the carefully folded blankets and tissue packets on the chairs. My staff and I then pulled the casket out of the back of the hearse and walked through the crunchy, frozen grass to place the casket on the open grave, its final destination. The family arrived all at once bundled in black coats and scarves. When anyone spoke, it was in hushed tones giving a reverent silence to the air. I watched the scene as the handful of family members took their seats with the backdrop of the simple wooden casket, bare of any adornments or flowers. Stretched out on all sides were the silent graves of others, huge trees covered in ice stood as watchmen over their dead. The grass was slightly frosted with white aside from the trails marking where people had walked over from the street, and ominous grey clouds hovered in the sky above. There was no color other than the green of the tent and chair covers. The clergy stood at the head of the casket and I took my place at the back of the tent to watch and listen and reflect on what this family was going through. Why did this man do what he did? What drives someone to the desperation of killing another person? As the clergy spoke, his voice reverberated off the trees and yet seemed strangely muted as the freezing rain started again adding the quiet tinkles of tiny ice droplets hitting the already frozen landscape.
When the service was over, no one spoke, the family got up and walked to their cars then quietly drove away. I waited at the grave until the vault lid was closed, then got into the hearse and drove back to the mortuary. Once back, I noticed the tingling in my fingers and toes as they defrosted from the hours of standing in the freezing cold. I was so wrapped up in the experience that I did not notice how I was close to losing limbs to frostbite. As I thawed, I considered what this family was experiencing. Their son, brother, friend was dead, yet it was the brutal death of a man who brutally murdered another man. The silence of the cemetery and the colorless backdrop seemed fitting for laying this man to rest. I hope the family has found some peace, I hope the dead man has found some peace. I will always remember this experience and how the choices we make directly affect the people closest to us.