In the movies when they show scenes with bodies long dead, they are almost always blackened corpses with mouths agape, giving expressions of horror. Scenes of white teeth gleaming against dark, desiccated skin. They have patches of wispy, white or gray hair that mottle the scalp and their limbs are stiffened in unnatural poses with bony fingers seemingly grasping at what could have been desperation in their final moments. The actors walk up to the scene with handkerchiefs held over their mouths to stifle the acrid smell of advanced decomposition. The rooms are almost always dimly lit and dirty with flies swarming the space, signifying new generations of maggots. Almost always there is dripping water somewhere adding to the musty environment creating a sense of disrepair and dirty living conditions as if this is the only environment where people die alone.
While this may be true in some cases, it isn’t always. People die alone in normal, clean and bright homes with pictures of the people they loved all around and yet still alone. I marvel when we come into a situation where the sick are left unchecked because family members have jobs or have moved far away. So many shut out the burden of the elderly, forgetting that hopes and dreams don’t dim with age. The role of a funeral director is not to judge. We don’t know the details of family dynamics. We walk into what seems to be a terrible situation only to learn things that we didn’t previously know, things aren’t always what they seem.
I pulled up to an apartment complex in my van and was greeted by the police. They explained that the woman I was there to receive had been dead for several days. Another case of abandonment is what I imagined. Finally, my coworker arrived and we followed the policemen up to the apartment. As we entered, the space was bright and cheerful. Upon walking in the door there was a cat litter box immediately on the floor inside a modest kitchen to our right then after taking just a few steps there a small hallway to the left that led to a bathroom and a bedroom. I asked about the cat, the police explained that it had been taken to a shelter since there was no one around to take custody. There was a living room where a woman was busying herself with tidying things up, seemingly trying to find something to do. She avoided eye contact with us so we respectfully left her alone and continued. We walked down the short hallway and could see the woman lying on her bed. Her mouth was wide open, her limbs stiff. She had been dead for some days. The bedroom was tidy, the top of her dresser was filled with trinkets arranged lovingly. Her closet door stood open and I got a glimpse of organized, well cared for clothing hanging and pressed.
We assessed how we would get her moved from the bed to our cot and then went back to the living space. We explained to the police the steps we would take in getting the woman transferred to our van. At this point we got a good look at the living space. There were pictures everywhere of family, friends, and adventures she had been on. The carpet was clean and vacuumed, an afghan gently folded over the arm of the couch. it was a striking comparison to the body that lay in the bed just footsteps down the hall, seemingly abandoned by everyone who claimed to have loved her once.
The details of the transport are not important, what was important is that the woman tidying things up turned out to be a long-time friend of hers. She told us how the woman had siblings, nieces and nephews who loved her and talked to her on the phone regularly. The family had all moved away from each other and this woman had lived alone. She was divorced with no children. The deceased woman had been healthy enough and only days before had a phone conversation with her niece. She was loved and cherished and the pictures in her apartment reflected that. Due to the state of her body in advanced decomposition, all alone in her room, her body could have easily fit in a scene from a horror film, but her life and the family that loved her could not. I was not present for her funeral but understood that her family was there and told stories of her and rejoiced in her life and loved her greatly.
My career has been filled with small surprises in caring for the seemingly forgotten dead. I have told stories where funerals have had only one in attendance, where a person was truly alone and we never found any surviving family or what seemed to be a forgotten soul was actually loved by many. These are all realities. The truth in death is a slippery slope of learning and growing. I knew death before becoming a mortician. I knew death by illness, suicide and murder amongst my own friends, family and a boyfriend. This journey of sharing my love for people and helping them in their most vulnerable and broken state has been a test in my fortitude. Anyone in this business, and yes, it is a business, have these stories and experiences.
In this second wave of funeral stories I hope to share not just my experiences but the experiences of others. If you have a story that you would like published in my second book please submit it by mail to: P.O. Box 1961, Salt Lake City, UT 84110, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information and any pictures you would like to include. If you have not yet read my first book “Speaking of the Dead” you can get a copy by clicking here.