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.

Her hands were clutched in front of her making small nervous motions as she walked. She was slightly bent from age like something heavy weighed upon her shoulders and her feet shuffled along the carpet. Her head was down, her eyes focused on the floor and she never looked up as she walked seeming to be nervous of what was to come and why she was here. She was surrounded by her children who, whether on purpose or not, ringed her protectively as they all entered the funeral home. As I walked towards them I adjusted my suit and checked that my buttons on my jacket were closed, always wanting to look professional and capable. I observed the group for signs of defensiveness, fear, sadness, or any of the other “feels” that are typical of people who have just experienced a death. She came across as nervous and in need of comfort and support, her family around her were shielding and wary.

I greeted her first, extending my sympathies that the death of her husband was the reason we were meeting. I stretched out my hand with the intent of holding hers for just a moment and hopefully create some sense of ease that is needed in these instances, but she quickly recoiled both hands to her chest and sank into her crowd of defenders, still never looking up but in a mighty voice she demanded, “Who are you?!” I took a small respectful step back and answered, “I am your funeral director.” In response she looked up into my eyes and with a glare belying her previously nervous stature said, “Well, I … don’t … like … you.” Proving that sometimes I am wrong in my assessment of people.

In hindsight, moments such as these can be comical. But the distress experienced while they are occurring is real and painful. Some people fear the mortuary and the funeral director, choosing to believe that we are out to get their money and steal their loved one’s body parts.  They choose to be cocooned in a world where death doesn’t exist for them. I admit, this is the easier way – until someone dies. Then, it becomes a trauma that no one should have to experience. It is hard to watch someone internally wrestling with what they perceived wasn’t even possible to the reality that it has happened and now they are living a nightmare.

In an attempt to take the hostility out of her comment and show her that I did not take her remark personally, I answered with a friendly smile and said “Of course, I understand.” I made my introductions to the rest of the family who were silently mouthing to me “I’m sorry.” I waved them off, assuring them that it was fine and then spoke to them all as a whole as to what they should expect while they were there with me. I then asked them all to follow me and turned around to lead them to the room where we would be spending the next hour or so together. As I walked away I heard the widow say “I don’t trust her, let’s get someone else.”

Comments like these usually come from being in pain and in shock and not knowing what to do with these emotions. It can’t be taken personally. I knew at this moment that it wouldn’t matter who her funeral director is, she would feel the same about any of us. So, understanding this, I continued walking away, acting as if I didn’t hear her.

During the time we spent together making arrangements, most of the questions I asked the widow were ignored by her and had to be repeated by a family member. I would ask a question, a family member would echo my question to her, and only then would the widow give an answer. She was determined to show me who was boss, and I was obliged to let her think she was in control. This went on during the entire arrangement. The family would give each other side glances, roll their eyes and sometimes even giggle at the absurdity of how their mother was behaving. At one point the daughter asked her mother “Why don’t you just answer the lady?” and again she said, “I don’t like her.” And so, we continued the ask twice, answer once regime. Which made me also giggle internally at the widow’s resolve to be difficult.

When it was time for them to leave I walked them to the door and said goodbye, addressing the widow by name. I heard her grunt and mumble something I couldn’t make out as she ignored me and walked out the front door. Her daughter stayed behind to apologize for her mother’s behavior which I could only respond with that she was in grief and scared and sad and her behavior was nothing for them to worry about. The daughter was truly embarrassed. I assured her that I was not offended and with a smile I told her that her mother has great personality. She gave me a big smile, thanked me again and left to join her family in the parking lot.

As a funeral director, I am subject to see all kinds of emotions. Sad, angry, numb, these are all things I expect from families during the time I interact with them. I didn’t feel threatened by the widow’s behavior, I felt sad for her pain. And to be honest it does make me giggle a little when sweet little old ladies are rude, as it belies the behavior we expect from our elders.

The next time I saw the widow was when the family came in for a private family viewing. I had the man dressed and in his casket. I made sure his shirt was pressed and tie was straight. As the family walked into the lobby, I addressed the widow again, making sure that this time I stayed at a distance and didn’t reach for her hand. She looked at me but said nothing. I greeted the rest of the family with hugs and walked them to the door where I had their father’s body ready and waiting for their arrival. I talked them through what they would see once I opened the door, where the casket was located, what flowers had arrived and that they should take as much time as they needed, and that the room was theirs for however long they stayed.

I opened the door and allowed the family to walk in first. I stepped in behind them watching how the widow reacted to seeing her husband for the first time since his death. She walked up to the casket and placed a hand on his chest, her head was bowed forward and she was quickly surrounded by her children with their arms around her shoulders. I walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind me.

The widow never fully warmed up to me, but she at least stopped being rude. She allowed me to direct her husband’s funeral and burial. Her children were no longer apologetic but grateful that I handled the situation so well and accomplished creating a memorable funeral for their father.

My hope for the widow is that she found a way to calm her inner turmoil and grasp the joy that her children and grandchildren will bring her as she learns to survive without her husband. I will continue to love the families I serve no matter how they act towards me.

I am sitting at a conference table of dark glossy wood, I am straight-backed, I have my hands clasped in front of me and my legs are crossed. I am patiently waiting, watching, listening. Around the table in other chairs and sitting on couches are family members who have just experienced the death of someone they love. At this moment, I am the audience.

I watch as expressions of confusion, understanding and consideration swim around the faces of the family as we broach the subjects relating to the funeral, the burial, picking out caskets, vaults and all of the many things that they must decide on. Sometimes the death is expected, and I empathize as I observe those with down-turned, dark sunken eyes and hunched shoulders showing complete exhaustion because for weeks, sometimes months they sat next to the dying waiting for this one day, and it has taken its toll on their reserve.

Sometimes the death was unexpected and the shock of it all leaves the family silent and unable to make decisions. Then there are times when the heaviness of everything gets the best and someone ends up in hysterics of crying or anger.

There are young mothers who planned for their baby’s birth and are now picking out caskets instead of cradles. Teen brothers and sisters are stuck in shock realizing they have to face their friends at school and explain that a sibling took their own life. And husbands and wives who lost their sweetheart after fifty years together are now faced with learning how to live a life alone.

And I am watching. I am familiar with the facial expressions and the body language and it all tells me a story. It tells me what these people are feeling and who the dead person was to them.

It’s not always dark though. There are families that have accepted the place they are in now and prepared for this meeting, giving me accounts of a life lived that was fun and full. I get to hear about the antics pulled by people I never knew, yet closely resemble someone in my own life. Many times I have laughed with a family about the father who was a trickster or grandfather who told them dirty jokes. I can relate to the Grandmothers who always had candy available and would not let you leave her house without a full belly. A mother who made the rules and stuck by them and only now it is understood that it was all in your best interest and the intent was full of love. Brothers who gave us nicknames and sang silly songs. A sister who after years of fighting over bedroom boundaries, now are willing to share everything together. Life, and death has its place and time. It is in these moments that I revel in my own family dynamics and appreciate the smallest moments.

I get an intimate look at a person that I will never meet. I get to make friends with people that I otherwise would have never known. Family dynamics that I compare to my own family come to life in this room around a conference table of dark glossy wood. It is an honor and it is remembered. So many stories, personal and real and I get to be a part of it. Here, I am the audience.

One day a gentleman walked through the door of the mortuary. He was expertly dressed in a high-end suit and tie. His shoes were definitely real leather and polished to a high sheen. He sported short, dark hair which was spiked on top, undoubtedly styled by a barber in a fancy shop where your cut comes with a clean shave and a warm towel. These were things that we were not used to in our small country town. He was impressive as he walked into our office with his resume in hand. He enchanted us all with his beautiful toothfull smile and natural charisma, his charm could rival any salesman. I think we hired him on the spot, if only for the sheer ambition he exuded and dared us to test.

Sometimes people just click the moment they meet. If you have ever felt this, then you know. It is a strange, immediate feeling of familiarity like you had known each other well before that moment. That is what happened to me the day he walked through the door.  The mortuary was not necessarily looking for another employee. We did okay, sometimes the days and nights got hectic and strenuous but overall, we had enough downtime to get small hours of much-needed respite. We even had the occasion to tend to a little vegetable garden at the back of our red brick building. But he walked in the door and we found ourselves with a new set of helping hands.

He and I hit it off like two teenage girls. We loved the same 80s music and old black and white movies. On his first day of working with me, as we were running errands, we stopped at a convenience store for a coke. The bins at the check-out counter held colorful braided hemp bracelets. The ones that promised to last a lifetime. We never said a word, we both saw them, we gave a knowing look to each other and I said the cashier we’ll take two of those.  We ran to the car and placed them on our ankles swearing to each other that we would never take them off as long as we were friends.

As I taught him the ropes of the funeral trade, he loved and absorbed all of it. He took to funeral service like a moth to a flame. At least the service part, the embalming room presented challenges for my new-found friend. The reality that our beings could produce so many unpleasant noises, fluids, and smells made for a test in his seemingly unbreakable resolve. Many times I excitedly called him to the back room yelling “You have got to see this!”, and then chuckle as he ran for the exit when he couldn’t handle what I wanted to show him. He soon learned to approach my call with caution, carefully poking his head through the door, cracking one eye open just enough to look like Jack Nicholson in his  movie “The Shining,” only he was the one who was afraid and I saying, “Here’s Johnny”! Through squinted eyes he would peer through the doorway at me ready to look away quickly in case I was trying to show him something that I was fascinated about, meaning he would not be.

His skill in meeting and talking to people completely made up for his lack of ability to embrace the back rooms. He had an attention for detail and a flare for decorating with pictures and flowers that astounded the men and women he served. Every visitation room was a show, the family memorabilia he placed so skillfully you would have thought that you were walking through a movie set, or a model home. The flower arrangements that came in for the deceased were always positioned according to height and color for the perfect balance to accent the casket and the person lying inside of it. He made friends with everyone he met and many times I would talk about a family that we had previously served and he would give me the update on how they were doing, offer their phone number and say we should stop by their house for a visit. I was quickly learning that this man was a social butterfly of epic proportions. He knew people from all over the world. He was never without his phone which was constantly buzzing or ringing with messages or calls from Dave or Brian or Celeste, any number of names I could list here certain he knew someone who possessed it. His cell phone was his life and was either on his hip in a leather pouch or in his hand.

Our friendship moved outside of work and I eventually met his boyfriend and neighbors. We had barbeques and parties and spent many late nights sitting around a fire roasting some type of meat and toasting to each other’s accomplishments. These evenings usually ending in deep conversation or dancing on the porch. Eventually I ended up moving into the house directly across from the boys, making an even more intimate bond for everyone involved. Our friendship deepened and over the years we had accumulated so many memories, lived through tragic circumstances and celebrated holidays, birthdays and ordinary days. He was the man on the riding lawnmower waving to passersby in expensive cargo shorts, designer shirts and a wide brimmed bonnet that would make any decent southern woman jealous. He won awards with his Tupperware parties and could refinish a wooden counter-top like a professional. We were besties in the sense that besties are with the added bonus that to spend a day together was as easy as walking across the street. And like all good things, these things had to end.

He struggled with balancing a party life mixed with a work life. He struggled with his health. He struggled with his relationship. He struggled with being. Circumstances changed, and he found a new happiness in another state. After carefully weighing the options of staying and going, he chose to go. Packing his moving truck was painful, saying goodbye with his promise of frequent visits was painful. Our worn and tattered ankle bracelets that had weathered the best and the worst were a testament to a human attachment that desperately held its threads together. This adventure was one that wouldn’t last. His health declined, and his partner living across the street from me couldn’t keep taking him back.

If you have ever known a person who dances on the edges of a fast and furious life that their body just can’t keep up with, you will understand the hellish cycle of ache and agony that those who loved my friend went through, including me. The phone calls got further and further apart, the excuses got more and more grandiose and the patience of not being told the truth ran thin. More times than I care to admit, I cried for him. More times than I thought was possible I believed the stories that my friend was doing well. He was depressed and spinning out of control, doing things that were harmful to him and those around him. More times than I can count I planned a trip to scoop him up out of his “Happy,” “Fun,” “Worth it all,” “Pitiful,” “Sick” life and bring him to my home to force him back to health, to reality. I never acted on that, but I did eventually learn that his “sickness” could not be cured. My friend proclaimed that he had cancer and that his only option at this point was to go home to live with his mother, three states away. He said he was going there to die.

I am left with the guilt that the years of his stories and embellishments and need for telling a grand tale left me lacking much sympathy. I had heard the woes of a desperate man who craved notice for his depravity and disguised it as illness so many times that I had already turned my head when the stories turned real and deadly.

I will not retell all of the details of his painful decline. I will only recount that he often called me with joyful accounts of some amazing opportunity that days later ended in some scheme that the company or the employees that worked there had executed to cause his separation with the establishment. My friend was talented on so many levels and to watch, in action, the deterioration of his gifts as he blamed the masses for his failure, was heartbreaking. I cannot fault him, he grappled with so much. He was a young and handsome man who loved other men in a world that hated men who loved other men.

I remember the shame I felt whenever my friend would call and tell me of his worsening ailments because I could not always believe the tale. I hated that in the background of my thoughts was an eye-roll and “Whatever” types of feeling. It was always dramatic, he was always weakening,  yet he always had more days to detail the fallout he was overcoming. I stopped answering his calls every time his name popped up on my phone and only chose to pick up the phone when I knew I had the strength to be present and encouraging.

Then, his partner decided to go pay him a visit at his mother’s house. He wanted to see in person, like the rest of us, how dire my bestie’s situation had become and he promised he would come back with a report on just how worried we should be. When he returned he was in a state of grimness that could only mean that there had to be some truth behind my friend’s account of his imminent death. I was shown pictures of the deterioration of a once proud and lively man. He bore no hair on his head, his clothes hung off his bones like a wet sack. I was caught between waiting for the next tale and hating myself for not rushing to his sickbed.

One sunny afternoon, I sat on my back porch enjoying the warmth of the sun when his name popped up on my phone, I didn’t answer. Moments later I listened to the message that he left for me. He sounded so happy and spoke clearly and stated that he had some great news! He ended with an “I love you” and “I cherish our friendship”. After listening to his message, I called him back right away hoping to talk to the jovial friend that I missed so dearly. Indeed, he was his old self, cheery and fun-loving. He amused me with his quick-witted jokes and vibrant conversation. He had just left the hospital for a refill of his meds and had been given a new colostomy bag. We had talked about his funeral many times before, but he went over the details with me once again. He wanted the black onyx casket, he was to be dressed in his finest suit and designer glasses, in his hand he would clutch his precious cell phone and I was to embalm his body.

Then he told me his exciting news. He had just been hired to work for a local flower shop. He would be arranging bouquets of flowers for birthdays, weddings, and funerals, which was among his many talents. I was given a detailed account of his interview and how fabulous the owner of the shop was and that his first day was tomorrow, the next day. He was so dedicated to this opportunity and certain that he could keep this position and finally thrive in this small country town. When the conversation was over I hung up the phone thinking he was finally on the upswing again and flourishing enough and that I didn’t need to worry for him for the moment, and I was so wrong.

It was the very next day that I received a call from his partner that my bestie had been found dead. He had died in his sleep, discovered resting peacefully in his bed, no longer breathing. The news was devasting and unexpected. I had just talked to him! He was happy and sounded so healthy. So many times I had expected the news of his death, only because he always tiptoed on the edge of life with partying and depression,  so when it actually happened, the shock of it took the air from my lungs. The zipping memories of laughs and smiles and fear and anger that had I shared with him and our friends flashed over and over in my head. You always think that the best years of a friendship, or any relationship for that matter will never end. The late-night talks on the back porch, watching the fashion shows as he paraded in front of us all to show off new shirts and jackets and shoes. The bonfires with all of us giggling together and the flames dancing as a happy background to our moments. No more phone calls of fabulous jobs that he would be fabulous at, and keep this time. No more stories of whatever ailments were harming him at the moment. No more heartbreaking calls begging for visitors or confessing that he had made a terrible mistake and he just wanted to come back home.

I spoke with his mother about embalming him. She relayed to me that the funeral home had already performed the procedure after they picked him up from the medical examiner’s office and it was too late for me to fly out and help.

I was managing a funeral home in another state when he died. The job was one that was almost impossible to take any time off from. So I made a plan to drive the ten hours there, attend the funeral, get a couple of hours of sleep and then drive the ten hours again to return back to work.

I woke up hours before sunrise on the day of his funeral and drove to this small town, where my friend would be buried. It was like I was in a dream, as I drove the miles and the sun started to rise I wondered if I had imagined it all. I was delirious with emotion and grappling the reality of what I was doing. I was wicked tired but so full of adrenaline that my body felt out of place with itself.

As I approached the address for the funeral home I was overwhelmed with what was waiting for me in that building. I was not ready. I could not stop the car. I drove right past and burst into tears while looking at  this building as I drove past where my friend lay waiting for my arrival, decked out in his finest no doubt, and dead. My friend was dead. I could see his lifeless body in my head, I could feel his cold skin. I couldn’t imagine walking in that building with people all around me and having the energy to stifle my grief. My anger. My guilt. I wanted those people to leave so that I could be with him alone and explain why I never came to see him in the darkest moments of his life that were real and not fabricated. These people were in the way and rude for being so present when I needed them to just go away. Then, I was a funeral director, I had seen this before. So many funerals I had directed where I heard from the guests in attendance about the one person who never came to see the deceased while they were living, yet that very same person was the one who was making the most fuss and carrying on about their own grief. I felt that I had turned into that person. I drove to a convenience store on a corner up the road and one block over from the funeral home, I did not want to be on the same road as my dead friend at that moment. I didn’t want to be in the same town.

I needed gas, I needed some water, I needed sleep and I needed my friend to be alive so that I could go visit him just like he had begged me to for so many months. Eventually I couldn’t stall any longer. I pulled myself into my car. First one leg, sit on the seat, then the other leg, adjust the mirror. The seat belt needed latching, so I did that. I was thirsty, so I gulped from my water bottle. Next was to close the car door but first I needed to make sure I was really ready. I should use the restroom again. Splash more water on my face. I was so tired. Every movement was a chore, my limbs felt caked in wet mud, heavy and sluggish as I ambled back to the restroom, ignoring what I was certain were sidelong glances at my state of suffering. I made a final check of the things that I felt were necessary to pull myself together.

Finally, I had myself in my car, buckled, door closed and turned the car key to rumble the engine to life. I drove to the funeral home. I parked my car where the lot attendants told me to, a job I had performed for so many other grieving people. Now, I was the one grieving and their instructions were confusing and impatient. A teaching moment for the future. In that moment I went from a total mess, grieving my friend, to funeral home manager. I felt like I should instruct these young kids on how to perform their job of directing traffic well enough to pack a hundred cars in a fashion that would allow for a smooth transition to the cemetery when the funeral was over. I cased the parking lot, the exit from the chapel, the direction of where the procession needed to go. I needed to let it go. Funeral directors are terrible funeral guests, even if we are professional enough to keep our thoughts to ourselves, we still observe the way a funeral is run by others. I felt I should be in charge but I was not and so I kept my thoughts to myself, exited my vehicle and walked the walk to front door.

The funeral home was buzzing with people. They were moving about unorganized and loud. I didn’t recognize anyone there. I kept walking until I saw  his name, his name, on a placard, in a funeral home, hovering just above an open book for the guests to sign. I made my way to there. The light that glared down on the book was hot as I tried to scribble my name and leave a sweet message for his mother. I then walked into the room jammed with people smiling and talking, I wish that they would all just shut up and leave! And then I saw across the room bits of the silver and black casket, through the throng of bodies I also caught a glimpse of dark spiky hair peeking over the lip of the box. I excused myself through the jumble of people seemingly intent on preventing me from seeing my dead friend and just before I approached my destination, I was stopped by a hand on my arm. I turned to see who could be so rude in preventing me from finishing my quest. It was his mother. She grabbed me in a full-bodied hug sobbing, “You came, you came!” I could only squeeze her tighter as I held my own emotions in my throat. She let go of me and then wrapped one arm around my waist as we walked to the casket containing the body of her sweet, baby boy.

Clumps of ash choked my throat as I tried to breathe. To swallow. To not break into shards of grief. My vision was blurred as it was confirmed that my friend was surely dead. So many times, I have stood at a casket after fussing and tucking and straightening, looking at the person lying inside with my friend standing next to me. He would tell me how good a job I did preparing this person, “You have a gift,” “You are an artist,” “The family is going to be so pleased,” “One day you will prepare my body and you better make me look just as good!” Now I stand at his casket that I didn’t help pick out, looking at his body that I didn’t embalm and assessing the folds in his suit that I did not dress him in. And he looked good. At that moment it did not matter that I did not do these things for him, at that moment I was not a funeral director, I was grief-stricken and mourning and my dear friend was surely dead.

I left his mother and scanned the room to see if I could find my friends partner. I found him across the room talking to a gentleman and so I made my approach. Once he saw me he grabbed me in a huge bear hug and couldn’t believe that I had driven the ten hours in only ten hours. And then the introductions started. It was a furious affair of being dragged from person to person, all of these people I did not know, yet when introduced with my name almost every time these people responded “Chelsea! You are Chelsea, his best friend? I have heard so much about you,” “He loved you so much,” “He always talked about you.” This was flattering. This was uncomfortable. I was this person who everyone knew as his best friend. He talked about me, shared our stories, made me up to be like this amazing angel that he looked up to and I had left him to die all alone.

After the funeral, we all drove in procession to the cemetery, a trek I had made so many times to so many cemeteries, never before driving in a car trailing behind the hearse. The cars snaked through stop lights and around the turns and bends of the small-town blocks to end at the snow-laden cemetery with only one dark patch of earth dotting our destination, my friend’s grave. I didn’t feel the cold although I am certain it was biting. I don’t remember much of the graveside service either other than I was placed up in front of the crowd, standing with the family, right where I was told I belonged.

I can still see him in his casket, I imagine him lying enclosed in his box, sealed in a concrete case, buried in the earth. He is dressed to the nines, pressed, clean shaven with perfectly spiked hair and clutching his beloved cell phone. On occasion, for months, I would send him a text letting him know of my sorrow. My guilt. I could imagine him lying there still and lifeless clutching his phone to his chest as it lit up his darkness with my messages, never read. Eventually the batteries would go dead, and my confessions and heartbreak would only be sent into the digital wasteland of regret, and grief.

Death is a certainty and it never discriminates race or age, it just is. Young unexpected deaths are hard and young expected deaths can be even harder. When a child knows they are so sick, that they will die before they get to drive, go to prom, have a first kiss or get married, the life experience has a much different meaning than for the rest of us. It becomes more about making the best of what you are given than to imagine what could be.

In this case it was a young girl, not yet thirteen. She had always been sick and she knew that she would die young. Still, she fantasized about doing the things that most girls her age do. She loved being a girl, wearing pretty dresses and painting her nails. She also dreamed of being a bride. She wanted to wear the beautiful gown and have her hair curled and primped, to get her nails lengthened and painted. To walk into a room pretty as a princess , to be the center of attention, to be the beautiful blushing bride. In the weeks before her death she decided she wanted to be buried dressed and adorned as the bride she had imagined herself being. She hand-picked her gown and gave her mother pictures cut from magazines of how she wanted her hair styled. She went to the nail shop and had a manicurist apply long polished nails to her small, child hands, only days before her tiny body gave out.

I remember meeting her mother after the young girl died. I remember her telling me how much her daughter talked about being dressed like a princess in pink layers and lots of sparkles. I watched the pain and sorrow in the mother’s eyes as she described her child’s talking being dressed in a gown and parading around for all to see her. She described these things in detail, knowing that she would never get to plan the wedding, or gain a son-in-law or spoil a grandchild. She would only get to buy the gown that would accent a casket and make the arrangements for her daughter’s funeral. We planned out the details and the family went home.

The next day the mother walked into the mortuary bearing the dress her daughter would wear, she carried it almost like a sleeping child. Holding the hanger in one hand while the bulging plastic bag that protected the cherished wedding dress draped over her other arm. Before she allowed me to take it from her hands, she told me the story of how she had spent hours with her daughter shopping for the perfect dress. She described to me how this young child would try on dress after dress and prance and giggle while turning around on dress shop platforms admiring the flow of fabrics around her legs and watching herself in the tall mirrors. A mother’s love is a powerful thing. For her to take her baby to dress shops and endure the looks of the staff judging her for shopping for a wedding dress for one so young. Or, have to answer, when questioned, that they were searching for a burial gown for this beautiful, very lively child. She watched and bore these moments that should have been for a planned wedding and signify the beginning of a new life, not for the end of one.

I was given the dress which I carefully held in my arms just like the mother had done. After saying goodbye to her, I immediately went to the back rooms of the mortuary to uncover the dress wrapped in a plastic bag. It was a gown of pale cream with a hint of pink. The skirt had so many layers! Included was a slip that would add even more tiers of poufiness to the dress. It bore tiny bits of glitter nestled throughout the fabric that sparkled with every movement. The torso portion was sleeveless and made of satin with a hint of pink gently peeking through when the light hit it just right. I hung the dress on a clothing rack with the little girls name on it.

Later the beautician arrived at the mortuary and I walked with her to where the young girl lay. I had her already lying on a table in the center of one of our viewing rooms covered with a white sheet tucked all the way up to her chin and on top of the sheet I had placed a burgundy blanket neatly folded over at her shoulders. Burgundy couches and dark wood end tables surrounded the room and stood against cream colored walls. I stayed in the room, watching as each blonde strand was formed into a curl and placed just so to become a lovely frame around the girls’ cherub face. I thanked the beautician when she finished and walked her to the front door, and then returned to the girl to finish getting her ready.

Dressing this child was a challenge in more ways than the heartrending one. Wrestling with the layers that were designed to be placed on a bride standing up on her wedding day was a true test in futility. Each layer had an agenda to move in its own direction and had the aid of bulk and gravity. My attempts at forcing them to behave like I wanted them to, I am sure, was comical. The throw down of funeral director and wedding dress, the epic battle of human versus Tulle (a fabric of fine yet stiff netting). It ended in a compromise, the fabric puffing where it wanted to yet mostly laid in the in the right direction. With her hair neatly coifed and dress adorned I then applied her makeup as her mother had instructed me to. Light powder, rosy cheeks, a hint of mascara and clear lip gloss was all that was needed.

When it was time to place her in her casket. A coworker and I wrestled with the rows of the still rebellious fabric as we lifted the child in our arms and gently laid her down on the soft mattress tenderly resting her head on the pillow. I spent some time arranging the dress, attempting to make it all fit inside the boundaries of the casket. The dress won that battle, the pouf that surrounded and rose above the child’s tiny legs spilled off the sides of its intended vessel and her small feet barely peeked out from the bottom of the dress and were veiled in thin, pink tights.

I had scheduled for the family to come and see the child bride before the day of the funeral, when they arrived I had them gather in front of the door to the viewing room where the girl awaited their arrival. I explained what they would be walking into. It was the same room that I had led the beautician into just the day before, only now the girl was nestled in her casket against the right-side wall of the room. Both lids of the casket were open, revealing her entire body and showing off the glittery folds of the prized wedding dress. As I opened the door to the room the family cautiously walked in. They were all quiet, muted as slowly stepped closer and beheld the child lying in a casket designed for those who had lived to grow old. I waited and listened as the silence turned to sniffles, then small cries and then the unforgettable cry of a grieving mother. This is a sound one never forgets; the grief gets inside you and makes your heart feel too small. Wordlessly, I left the room to give them time to mourn in private and stood in the hallway just outside of the door for whenever I was needed.

A short time later I was beckoned to come back in the room. The mother stood before me holding a pair of pale pink ballerina slippers. She held them in front of her, close to her belly, in cupped hands like trying to hold water. She explained that her daughter had also wanted to be a ballerina, so she thought the slippers were a fitting addition to the wedding gown. She also explained that she wanted to be the one to place them on her daughters’ feet but was afraid of doing it wrong or hurting her or breaking something, a common fear with people who are unfamiliar with the dead. She transferred the precious slippers to one hand and held them against her gut. She clasped my hand, gently tugging me towards her daughter. As we reached the foot of the casket she let go of her hold on me as I talked her through what to do. We then placed a halo of little white embroidered flowers with yellow centers around the crown of the girl’s head, she truly looked like an angel. She was so beautiful and the moment precious and I watched her mother’s heart break as she prepared to bury her child bride.

Before I tell this story, I want to give my thanks to all of you who are supporting this project. I have been working on this for years. I have written stories that have been sitting in a folder on my desktop and hand-written stories in notepads, even stories and poetry written on a word processor from so many years ago. I have truly dreamed of making this project come true for years, not having the confidence that I was a good enough writer. Family, friends, coworkers and all of those in between have quieted the doubts I have had of myself and now I feel that I can finally share what is in my head.

 Two-man cot:

I was given the task of picking up a man at the medical examiner’s office and transporting him to one of our other locations. We were really busy and I only had access to one of our older cots. As I backed the hearse into the garage to load the cot, my coworker was waiting for me.  He opened the back door and loaded the cot for me so I could get on the road quickly. I got to the medical examiner’s office, got out of the car and rang the bell and waited. Soon a worker came out and just being friendly he got the cot out for me and we walked inside. After transferring the man onto my cot, he walked out with me and courteously loaded the cot into my hearse. Once I got to the funeral home, I backed in near the embalming room door and proceeded to pull the cot out. The way I was used to a cot working is, you hold a lever to release the wheels as you pull the cot out of the vehicle and let go of the lever before the other end is completely out of the vehicle to lock them once again, as the second set of wheels unfold, they would automatically lock and then you can roll on. I did just that, pulled the lever while I pulled the cot, locked the wheels and continued pulling until the cot came out on the second set of wheels. Before I knew it, bam! the other half of the cot was on the ground. Shocked, I waited, looked around, thought about it. What just happened? So, I did what anyone would do, I went to the side of the cot on the ground and pulled it up but the wheels stayed folded. I tried again with all my might and the wheels stayed folded. Then I decided to try and get the cot back into the hearse, I pulled the cot up and unsuccessfully tried to get the cot onto the lip of the bumper. To give you a visual, this was in Georgia, in the summer, in the middle of the day. I was wearing a thick Fraternity polo shirt, long khaki pants and a hat (bad hair, casual day). So, already hot and sweaty, I called the funeral home to avoid walking inside and risk families seeing me casual, sweaty and disheveled. I was greeted by the answering service. No one was there. No one could help me.

At this point I am still trying to prove my worth and that I could handle situations just like this, so, I thought this through and decided I would put the entire cot on the ground and drag the whole thing into the embalming room. Just imagine this small girl, red faced and sweaty, dragging a cot on the concrete one inch at a time, literally, one inch at a time. As I got to the threshold of the door and wrenched the first set of wheels over the doorway and onto the tile of the embalming room I felt like I was being watched so I looked up. Hunched, drenched and straining and to my horror, there were my coworkers, two in a hearse and two in a van, just coming back from a funeral service. They had stopped to watch the girl dragging the cot into the embalming room…. laughing hysterically of course. These men were laughing so hard that getting out of their vehicles to assess and figure out what I was doing was entertainment in itself. It was like watching a bunch of drunkards trying to get their footing and falling all over each other. After some discussion through their tears, the men told me that the cot I was using had two levers on the foot end (the end you push with) and another lever on the head end (the end that goes in the vehicle first) and was called a two-man cot. The reasoning here is if you are by yourself you use the two levers at the foot end at the same time and if there are two of you, the other end had its own lever, and I just wrenched this poor man out of the hearse without pulling the second lever! And I didn’t even notice that the second set of wheels never unfolded. So, lesson learned, always know your equipment before using it. With the help of my coworkers, we got the cot up on all four wheels and the man was rolled normally into the embalming room. Hopefully this man wasn’t too mad at me, however, I did apologize to him profusely for my lack of knowledge on the workings of a two-man cot.