Thoughts On Death

by Richard Packham

During most of my childhood I was close to death.

My father was a mortician, and we lived in an apartment upstairs, above the mortuary. I was the oldest child, born during the depression, and to support his new family my father had to take whatever job he could find, which happened to be as an embalmer's apprentice, at a salary of seven dollars a week.

After he got his license, he was offered a job as embalmer in his home town (an agricultural community of about 5000 people) at Brown-Eldridge Furniture and Mortuary, a relic of the old days when the primary function of the undertaker was to furnish a casket, thus putting the local cabinet-maker into the funeral business. Its motto, for the furniture side only, was: "You furnish the girl, we'll furnish the home!" They had no motto for the mortuary side.

When I was about nine, Brown-Eldridge closed its doors and went out of business, and the senior embalmer, Mr. Peck, proposed to my father that the two of them go into business as a funeral home. Mr. Peck would furnish the money, my father would furnish the building and do most of the work. My parents purchased a huge, old boarding house in an old residential district and remodeled it into Peck and Packham Mortuary: the living room became a visitation parlor, the dining room became a combination chapel and casket show-room, the kitchen became the preparation room or embalming room. Upstairs became our living quarters.

The business of dealing with the dead permeated our daily lives, so that death was no big deal.

When I was sent down to fetch Dad for supper, I might interrupt him at work on a body, embalming it or dressing it or applying its make-up. Dad was a craftsman, proud of the quality of his work. Whenever we got a ship-in from California, someone who had died there but was to be buried in our local cemetery, with Dad supervising the local funeral service, he would complain about the shoddy work of California embalmers.

Naturally, our childhood games were influenced. My younger sister loved to play "funeral," with one of her dolls as the deceased. My toy cars were often in a lengthy funeral procession, driving to a burial ground in the sand box, where a tiny grave was waiting. The longer the procession, the more impressive, just like in real life. ("Seventeen cars drove out to the cemetery for the burial!" my Dad would proudly announce to my mother after a large funeral.)

Our playmates never seemed to mind coming over to play at the mortuary, but we were limited somewhat if there was "a body downstairs." Downstairs was off-limits to visiting children at those times, and even upstairs we had to play only quiet games if there were visitors downstairs.

My boyhood chores naturally included work around the mortuary: setting up folding chairs for a service, vacuuming the carpets in the visitation and show rooms, putting the dust covers on the display caskets or taking them off and opening them all up when a family was coming in to make a selection. As I got older, I could help more. I would often go on calls with Dad to pick up a body. I was basically a town boy and didn't get out much into the farm country outside of town, and I would have seen a lot of the countryside, going on death calls with Dad, except that usually it was during the night, and pitch dark. Most people die at night. The family is often gathered, hoping and praying to God that he will not take Grandfather, but when he finally does, at 2 a.m., they usually want Grandfather gone as soon as possible. So the mortician is often awakened in the middle of the night. My going along was to help Dad lift the wheeled stretcher into the hearse so that he wouldn't have to depend on a family member to help.

One evening Dad asked me to drive with him to the hospital in a nearby town to pick up a body, an hour's drive. I was tired, but went along. I kept falling asleep, and finally Dad pulled the hearse over and told me I might as well climb in the back and sleep on the cot. When we got to the town, Dad wanted to get something to eat before picking up the body, so he pulled up in front of a downtown restaurant. I was still sound asleep in back. He opened the back of the hearse and said, "Get up, let's get something to eat!" When I sat up and climbed out of the hearse, it made quite an impression on the passersby.

I also helped him dress bodies and lift them into the casket, especially if the deceased was a large man. Nowadays there are special derrick-like rigs that make the lifting easy, but my Dad just used his back, and mine.

Later I also helped at funerals, setting up the floral displays, acting as usher, assisting the pallbearers, and generally being the go-fer.

Naturally he was hoping that I, as the oldest son, would want to take over the business, but I made it clear from the start that I was not interested. He seemed to understand why I would not want to be on call 24 hours a day.

When you grow up as I did, death loses some of its mystery and dread. When I was home for a visit last year, my younger brother, who now is running the mortuary, took me into the casket showroom and wondered if I could guess which caskets my mother and father had selected for themselves when their time came. My sister has spent a great deal of thought in planning her own funeral service. She has had to make a great many changes over the years as the people whom she had scheduled to speak or to sing gradually preceded her to their own funerals. When Dad writes to me, he always includes a summary of who has died in town, and mentions whether we got the case or the other, competing funeral home.

As my friends and acquaintances die, I usually weep bitterly for an hour or so, and spend a few days of depression and mourning. But it passes. It's not grief over the death as such, but the realization that part of my own life is gone, never to return, the same sense of loss as when you think of long-gone, happy days, that can never be relived. The difference is that with those memories you often can't quite pin-point the precise moment of loss, whereas with death, you can.

One death, a few years ago, affected me more than I had anticipated. It was my office mate, a fellow college teacher, ten years older than I, with whom I had shared office space for over twenty years. We had never been close friends, only colleagues, but every day we had shared small talk, gossip, and professional chit-chat. When he fell so ill from some ill-defined condition that he could not start the fall semester, but was prescribed rest at home, it did not seem to be serious. But as the weeks passed, and he did not come back to work, only dropping in occasionally to say hello and to check his mail, looking pale and weakened, we all assumed that he only needed more rest to regain his health. Only when he was finally hospitalized, diagnosed with lung cancer, and his only relative, a niece, flew in from St. Louis, did we realize how serious his condition was. I went to see him in the university hospital, but when I went to the room whose number I had been given at reception, he wasn't in any of the four beds in the ward: the patient in the only occupied bed was a skeletal old man with stringy, long white hair, staring off into the distance with a glazed look. I went to the nurses' station and asked, "Where have you moved Mr. Timmerman? He's not in 1207." "I'm sure he's there," said the nurse. "I checked on him just a little while ago." She took me back to 1207, and I realized that the old man was indeed my friend Sid. I hadn't recognized him. He could hardly talk, but he said, "I always said I could quit smoking whenever I wanted to. But the cigarettes have killed me first." He died the next day.

As he had few friends, and no family but the niece, the funeral at the tiny crematorium chapel was small, attended mostly by colleagues, and one student, who came because he understood that Mr. Timmerman's ashes would be scattered on the bay, and he thought he would like the outing. When he learned we were not going to be taking a bay cruise, he did not stay for the service. The minister, hired by the niece, obviously had never even met the deceased, but bravely tried to console us all.

Afterwards we all adjourned to a private home, where, following Sid's suggestion, we drank a case of champagne and told each other stories about some of our experiences with Sid. I never laughed so hard in my life.

The cliches about death are all true. We all take our turn, as inexperienced we may be at it. No one has ever failed to do it successfully. We never know just when our turn will come. We are standing on the station platform, waiting for the train, but no schedule of departure times is posted, and our ticket is in some illegible code. But there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going.

I wrote this sketch in 1996, when I was preparing to play the part of Emil, the undertaker, in a production of Three Viewings, by Jeffrey Hatcher. Since then, both my parents have died, my father in 1997 and my mother in 1998.

It soon will be all over,
And we're waiting for the train,
And none of us can really know
When we'll all meet again.
So let's all kiss and wave goodbye
And sing "Auf Wiedersehn"
For soon we'll be in Heaven,
And we won't be back again.

- Richard Packham

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©  1999 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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