Today

The office is buzzing. All of us worker bees are busy getting ready for the funeral about to happen. One black suit rushes to the video recorder and makes sure it’s pointed in the right direction and turned on. Another black suit rushes around the fleet of cars with a damp towel scrubbing the water spots left from the drive-through car wash. The family is arriving, and part time staff opens the door, ushering them into the lobby to await me, the funeral director.

In the back rooms I hear the family talking in hushed tones and imagine them nervously pulling on their skirts and adjusting their suit jackets, waiting for me to take them in the room where their loved one is lying in a casket. I walk through a door from the back hallway into that room to check one more time that everything is in place and ready for the family to enter. Once I am satisfied, I walk to a door that opens to another hallway connected to the lobby and greet the group as I gently close the door behind me. We give each other hugs and greetings there in the lobby and I can see the tension in their necks, the hesitation in their movements and the tiny quiver in their voices. They are certainly imagining what lay behind that door, wondering what they are about to walk in to.

During the last few days, the family has made many trips to the funeral home and delivered all of the things that we asked them to provide to get ready for today. They have brought us clothing, pictures, quilts and awards. They have proofed memorial folders and funeral programs. They may have even come in yesterday and visited with the deceased before she was dressed and placed in the casket. But, today is the day. It is the day that there will be no more visits, no more fussing over which picture should go on which piece of printed material. No more writing speeches, eulogies or obituaries. Today the casket will be closed. Today when they leave me their loved one will be buried, and they will have to go home with all of the things they had just delivered and all of the flowers that people have sent.

So now we stand at the door to the viewing room. The family gathered and waiting, me in my suit with hands clasped in front of me. I take a moment to explain what things look like behind the door. Where the casket is positioned, how many flowers were sent and how they are arranged around the room. I add descriptions like how the casket flowers match the red in her dress and the beautician did an excellent job on her hair. And then with the slightest hesitation, fingers crossed that they will be happy with the job I did, I turn the knob on the door and open it fully, then stand aside to allow the family to enter.

The reactions are very different but at the same time predictable. Many walk in with hands clasped with another family member, walking straight to their loved one and grasping at the reality that she is dead, and today is her funeral. Some hesitate and stand in the doorway, blocking those behind them as they see the casket then quickly veer their eyes to everything else around the room, one hand on their lips, the other wrapped around their belly, cautiously taking it all in. Others, enter slowly but steady, taking their time to look around the room but always moving toward the casket. There are some family members who bull-rush their way in, pretending like they have done this like a thousand times before and they are not afraid, knocking down anyone standing in their way, using bravado as a defense of their real terror or grief of what lay beyond the threshold.

As I stand to the side and let the family enter, I watch them and their individual reactions and behaviors. I have gotten to know these people over the last few days. We have had laughs together and cries and debates over the cost of things. There has been arguments over which dress to put her in, the color of her nail polish and the style of her hair. But today, and this moment, is telling. How the family members each react gives me a look through the chink in their armor. Mostly they forget I am there and the unabashed reactions of grief or awe or relief are revealed in these moments, because today is the last day they get with her.

Today it does not matter that she’s wearing the dress that her sister selected and not the one that her granddaughter actually wanted her dressed in. The conversations over what mentions to include in the obituary are over. The concerns about the cost of the casket or deciding how many programs to order have been settled. All of these other things are behind us and unimportant. Right now, today, she is the focus. She is beautiful in her casket, in her dress, hair coiffed, make up perfect, and nails painted. Right now it is only about her and the memories she left them. Her pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, her hugs when you scraped a knee, her gentle way of explaining why that boy was no good for you and why a college education is important. Memories of her scolding you because you came home late, or lovingly bandaging your knee after a fall. All of this followed with a warm chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Nothing is more important than these things today, what she left as a legacy. Not the rush of people of the previous days filled with phone calls, little sleep, errands and shopping because now… now it is today.

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About Chelsea Tolman