I’m going to see a lot of dead bodies, I said to my friend.
Yes, he replied, you are.
The first dead body I saw was my grandfather’s. In my family, it’s not really traditional to look at the body of our loved ones once they have died. “He’s not in there anymore,” as my grandmother put it. Fair enough.
But, I wasn’t as sold on that tradition as everyone else. I brought it up with my parents indirectly. You know, in America, sometimes people go see the bodies of their relatives when they’ve died.
Yes, sometimes people do that in England too, my parents told me, especially up north. You pay your respects to the person. Do you want to pay your respects to Granddad?
It felt… almost indecent to ask it. I loved my grandfather, and I hadn’t seen him in a year, and I wanted to say goodbye to him. Yet, along with my love, there was also a curiosity. A curiosity about who I was, about what I was, and that curiosity felt indecent. Wrong, somehow. As if, maybe I was a bad person for asking to see my grandfather’s dead body.
But, I was curious. And, I figured my grandfather loved me enough to forgive me my transgressions. So, I went with my brother and my father to the mortuary to pay my respects.
He was laid out in his coffin, with lace covering most of his body but his face showing. It was a coffin shaped coffin with a cross on the lid, which was standing off to the side. They seemed like objects that might have been taken from a vampire movie, but of course, that was backwards. Vampire movies had gotten their imagery from how people traditionally prepared the dead in victorian times. And, since we were in England, things tended to run on the traditional side.
His face — it was slimmer than I remembered, and very pale with closed eyes, but it was unmistakably my grandfather’s face. Some part of me had hoped, I think, to see a physical manifestation of what my grandmother had said; to see that his essence was gone and that his body was just a shell. But I didn’t see that at all. What I saw, was that so much of what I thought of as my grandfather was lying in that coffin in front of me. I so badly want to believe in something like a soul that I thought such a revelation would be distressing, but it wasn’t.
It seemed obvious to me that all our traits we’re so proud of — our beauty, our humor, our intelligence and whatever else — we don’t get to take that with us when we die. It was just so apparent that my grandfather had left that all behind, and it was laying in front of me undeniable for what it was. If there is a soul, it’s not a ghostly clone of our body. It is something far more formless and far more transcendent.
It was like seeing a solar powered car when there was no light shining on it, I wrote my zen teacher, but maybe now the light’s shining on something else. Maybe it’s making flowers grow, or racing round the galaxy from star to star.
If you trace your thoughts back to where they come from, you will find a place of raw awareness that is impossible to grasp.
My grandfather no longer had that awareness. My grandfather showed me what that awareness was by showing me what a human is when that awareness is gone. My grandfather showed me some deep thing about what it means to be alive, and I am so grateful to him for that. I am so grateful that he is the first dead person I ever saw. I am so grateful that I was able to face what terrified me in the presence of someone I loved, and in whose love for me I had complete faith.
There are some things that are primal for humans. Babies. Eyes. When we encounter these things, our body responds to them in a way that is deeper than our consciousness. The dead bodies of our beloved, I think, are also like this. I accepted my grandfather’s death far more quickly than my Nana’s because I saw him. I had never seen her body, and to this day, it kind of feels like she’s alive.
It’s nice, actually, in a way. I think I feel her presence more easily because my mind hasn’t fully absorbed what happened to her. Like, it feels like maybe I could write her a letter and she’d get it. I can see why people may opt not to see the body, that they may prefer to keep their loved ones close like that. I don’t really think there’s a right way, but I think I would usually choose to see the body of my loved ones if possible. You know, acceptance, and all that.
I’ve seen more dead bodies since my grandfather — five in total now. It’s strange, you know, because I can feel myself developing a sense of what happens with the dead.
I was watching TV, when a character said of a dead body that had been lying out overnight:
You have maybe 1 more day before bloat and putrification begin with the corpse. After that, this room will smell forever like death.
And… that didn’t seem right. My zen teacher’s teacher was lying in state for 3 days when she died, and the room she was in smells fine now. Yes, changes happen to the body over time, but in temperate San Francisco, the changes were fairly mild. But, I think the writers for the TV show didn’t really know what happens to people’s bodies after they die. So, they googled it, and the results were not quite right.
Which, like, is actually kind of weird. A lot of people die, and it’s strange that someone could get to adulthood without really knowing what happens to dead bodies. It can only be this way when dead bodies are kept hidden, out of view. Many people never see dead bodies. Some people see a whole lot.
I helped one of the nurses wrap up a woman who had just died on the hospice ward two weeks ago. Her torso was still warm, but her arms and legs were cold. Something about the heat of her body stayed with me, as if I was witnessing the last light from a dying star.
It is hard to describe the object-nature of what this woman had become. We taped her legs together in a way that was slightly unnatural, and I had to remind myself that she wouldn’t mind. Then, we placed her body in a white body bag. Other volunteers have commented that the moment of placing people in those bags is tough, and I agree. It’s the final moment of accepting what this woman wants no longer matters, because she doesn’t want anything any more.
I think now of the man who had laid my grandfather out for me. Had he unzipped him from a body bag to place him in his coffin? I think he must have, because bodies stay refrigerated in the morgue. He hid the full object-nature of my grandfather from my family, out of kindness and compassion. He placed the lace on my grandfather’s body, so we could understand he had been well cared for. Of course, he had been well cared for, but in a way that would look scary to us. Wrapping the bodies up, keeping them refrigerated — this is a way of caring for our dead — but witnessing this kind of caring reminds us that they have become something quite different from us. The full extent of this difference is hidden in our culture, even when you do see the body.
I have become one of the hiders. It’s ok, I think. I don’t know if I could put someone I loved in a body bag, I think I would need to ask someone to do that for me. Even though I understand it’s a kind of caring, those bags are haunting. Because the people you share love with, their bodies mark you. And, it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, once your body has been marked by the love of another, you will always respond to them on a visceral level.
Handling the bodies of strangers is nothing like handling the bodies of our beloved, and I think that connects to a deep truth of what we are.