Side-by-side

I was informed of a husband and wife who were killed together in a car accident and our mortuary got the call. The couple had gone for a drive. Maybe they were going 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 back end of the rig, ultimately shearing off the top of their car. Neither of them survived.

This would be my first opportunity to see, in real life and on the job, the destruction that motor vehicle accidents can have on a body and on their surviving family members. I remember the words of the director that I was working with. He explained that I was welcome to observe the couple, but I didn’t have to, there would always be others. He warned me that both bodies had been greatly damaged from the accident and this could be just too much for a young funeral assistant in the beginning days on the job. I hesitated for only a second before I assured him that I wanted this experience now. I felt this was like a rite of passage, preparing me for my career ahead. With a small nod he turned and beckoned me to follow.

I followed the funeral director down the long hallway in the back of the mortuary toward the garage where the couple lay waiting. The team that went to receive the husband and wife had only just gotten back and while they had removed them from the transport vehicle, they not yet been taken the pair inside the building. As we walked I couldn’t help but imagine what this would look like. In my young mind, influenced by TV shows and movies, I imagined the worst scenario possible. I had no idea what an accident this bad really did to a body and no real-life experience to compare it to.

The director opened the door to immediately reveal two cots sitting side-by-side, lying on each was an occupant enclosed in a thick black body bag, like the ones you see in crime TV shows. Surrounding the couple against the walls of the space were shelves that accompany any funeral homes garage. Ledges lined 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 like loose door knobs and loose toilet handles. In the center of the garage stood a body lift (a device designed to assist lifting the deceased from tables into caskets). The room smelled slightly of exhaust fumes from the cars recently driven. The hearse and the flower van were parked on the opposite side of the room, silently witnessing what happens to people when vehicles are not driven carefully.

The image of the cots 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 thick bag while I stood a few steps away. I slowly stepped closer to see the man lying inside, looking for blood and tissue and gruesome accident things. There was no way to identify him through facial features.  The man was wearing dark blue jeans and a shirt of red and blue plaid, all of which were soiled. Scattered about his head and what was visible of his clothing were bits of road debris, glass and shards of broken car pieces. He looked like he had been created out of wax and cosmetics like a movie prop for a horror film, he just didn’t look real. What hit me first though was his wallet, lying on his belly it was encased in a sealed plastic bag that had biohazard printed in red over the top. It 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, patiently waiting for the next drive to the grocery store. In that moment my heart sank as I realized that his children had just lost both of their parents, without warning and without getting to say goodbye.

Years after this experience, I bought a house in a small town in the South 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 clear out the house that they grew up in. It was just too painful. On my first walkthrough, it looked just like someone had left unexpectedly and never came back. Tiny house shoes sat next to the door patiently waiting 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. A sewing machine whispered that there was hemming left undone, closets full of clothes never again to be worn 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, and it was dim due to lack of electricity, the only light was what came through the windows which were covered in cobwebs and dust. 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 who were left with a only a house full of memories.

Tragedy is a necessary part of this job. When people ask me questions of how I handle these situations every day, 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 lifetime of remembrances that they were not yet ready to dismantle and sell to a stranger. So, it shouldn’t be how I could handle these things, the question should be how could I not? The families who survive the death of a loved one, always have 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 that dotted the cemetery beyond our blue funeral tent 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, will for all eternity be side-by-side.

4 thoughts on “Side-by-side

  1. So tragic. Our family experienced this several years ago and you captured the event perfectly. We still experience the original emotions today.

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About Chelsea Tolman