Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet take way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried or cremated. I have had people tell me about the bodies that sit straight up, “ I saw it with my own eyes!” Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or twitch a finger, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that the dead are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like in that show I saw” people have told me. I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because so and so opened their eyes for split second, or their mouth twitched “I swear I saw it”. I don’t mean to make light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth, is unless you are around the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, combine that normalcy with the yearning for the person to still be alive and hope to not have to handle the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It is heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family that they are seeing things that are not there and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.
The hardest of these moments for me was a young girl who lost her mother unexpectedly. She was probably early thirties and an only child. She had not been close to her mother in recent years and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The daughter was unmarried, and her father estranged, there was no other family to support her.
When she came in to see her mother’s body, she brought with her four of her friends for support, one of them a hospice nurse. I walked them into the large viewing room, the lights were slightly dimmed, and the woman lay on a table covered to her shoulders with a sheet. The daughter was rightly upset, and emotion overtook her as the girls stepped up to the body. I felt the daughter had all the support she needed so I stepped out into the hallway to give them time alone, letting one of her friends know that I was right outside the door if they needed anything.
It took less than a minute for one of the girls to burst through the door into the hallway practically yelling, “Call 911, she is still alive!” and “Call a doctor quick!” I have to say that I was only surprised because one of these girls was a hospice nurse. She should know that dead bodies don’t come back to life funeral homes. Yet, this is what happened, and the girls were most assuredly feeding off of each other’s frantic energy.
I calmly walked her back into the room and listened as they all told me the same story of an eye twitch. I thought it best to look the woman over again myself in an effort to look like I was investigating the situation, but she was just as still as before, not at all twitchy. I turned around and addressed the girls while standing next to the dead woman explaining to them what they were or, more accurately, were not seeing. To give context, the woman had not been embalmed, there would not be a service and she was to be cremated later that day.
I remember the daughter as if it happened yesterday. She turned to me with clear, bright blue tear filled and hopeful eyes as she argued that maybe the doctors got it wrong “Can you please just call?” she pleaded. My heart ached for her. Her pain was real and tangible. She argued where had seen a show where a dead person was only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after more explanation of the trickery of our eyes and helping them understand the real, hard truth, the girls finally calmed down. The daughter slumped her shoulders and hung her head in resignation and I asked her friends to come into the hallway with me and leave the daughter to have a final conversation with her mom and hopefully resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.