I’ve seen stuff.
During the time I worked as a funeral director, I saw hundreds of dead bodies. After someone has died, the external trappings that we see when we interact with one another fall away.
When your body is emptied of your spirit, it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drove, or shoes you wore. Your IQ and your bank balance are meaningless.
After death some people look like they are sleeping. Eyes closed, face relaxed, it seems as if they could get up and speak to you. Yet, humanness is missing. Without expression you cannot discern what kind of person they were. You infer their characteristics through the people who mourn them.
Some bodies show the ravages of disease. But through pallor, or thinness, or scars of medical intervention, the body remains sacred. I have cared for the bodies of people whose deaths came about violently or through tragic or sudden circumstances. After death, even with injury or trauma, everyone’s body is peaceful. There is no pain present, and the manner of death does not define the life of the one who has passed.
If I have seen hundreds of dead bodies, I have interacted with thousands of people who mourn. What they remember is how the deceased made them feel, how that person’s life changed them.
I have served families who are mourning someone who was mentally ill, someone who was an addict or alcoholic, someone who took their own life. I have spent time with families who were estranged from the person who died and with people who wish they could have been. I have cared for children who have died. Black, brown, white, some of more than one race. Whatever the cause of death, the healing can be found in the love that they brought to those left behind.
I have served families of every race and class and faith. I have never seen a difference in how a person loves and grieves that is comparative by race or class or faith. Not to say that there are not cultural differences which should be respected and observed. (Like don’t forget copies of the obituary at an African Methodist Episcopal Church and don’t bring remembrance cards that ask for donations for Masses to your local synagogue!) Basically, it’s just learning enough about people to respect their traditions and practices.
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals and memorial services in the two decades I have spent serving families. Some were held in fancy churches, some were held in cramped taverns. The quality of the love shown is the one thing that never changes. I have cried with families at services where I was unsure of the immigration status of the participants. I have celebrated lives with folks who are uncomfortable with sadness and cover it with joviality and liquor. I have grieved with imperfect people who grieve a deeply imperfect person and still the quality of love was the same. I have stood and spoken prayers at a graveside with only the gravediggers in attendance. Still that life deserves a dignified close.
I have learned that each death brings to a close a way of life. Each passing changes who we are and how we will deal with the world going into the future. The poet John Donne says, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And if every death is equal in the grand scheme of the universe, then every life must be equal and deserving of respect and dignity, too. Regardless of race and faith and means and health and nationality and all the other ways we use to separate ourselves from each other. At least that’s what I think.
And I’ve seen stuff.
Patti Fitchett is a licensed funeral director and funeral officiant. You can read more of her writing on Facebook at Grief Blossoms. She can be reached at email@example.com.