O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 1 Corinthians 15:55–57 (KJV)
The return address on the envelope depicted a two-tiered fountain, water pluming from top to bottom; printed beneath it was the name of a local funeral home and cemetery. With a groan, I stepped on the lever to open the lid of the trash can, but stopped.
“What is it?” my husband asked, as he riffled through the rest of the mail.
“It’s a solicitation from the funeral home, an invitation to stop by and check out their beds. No mention of whether the mattresses’ firmness is tailored for the customer.” With a flourish, I read with the voice of a town crier:
You are cordially invited to Breakfast with Bill, a Casual Open House . . .
There will be:
No sales pitch
No expectation to “buy something”
I thought to myself that maybe it would be a good idea to plan, to at least do the research and buy our plots. Friends of ours, like us in their fifties, had purchased their grave sites. As a cancer survivor, I knew death had sidled up beside me, put its hand on my shoulder, and said, “Not now. But I’ll be back.”
* * *
During the early seventies, my family’s olive-green rotary phone sat on a ledge that separated the kitchen from the den. Many evenings after dinner, usually around eight, the phone would ring and I would inwardly groan, knowing that mother sat dressed with “sword and shield” to deflect the bombardment of a funeral home’s sales pitch.
“Hello. I’m not interested. The Lord will probably come back before I need a burial plot, and I’ll meet him in the air,” she’d say. I’d about crawl under our Naugahyde couch, but as I grew older, I began to see the value in mother’s way of living: honest, earnest, with hope.
* * *
By the time I was eight years old, Heaven and Hell were as real to me as the wooden pew I sat on in church. During summertime revivals, we talked all week long about who was ready for Heaven and who was bound for eternal damnation. We were indoctrinated in a language of death; it was a natural part of our vocabulary. I spoke it well.
* * *
Stately and somber, the red-brick funeral home with tall, white columns overlooked a lawn thick with green grass mowed in straight, uniform rows. An asphalt driveway circled past the front porch; wide steps led to a set of double doors. Passersby on the highway could have mistaken the building for an old Southern residence if not for the hearses parked under the portico at the side entrance.
The perfume of roses and mums greeted callers as they stepped through the entrance. I walked, almost skipped, to search for the flowers our family sent to express condolences. Floral sprays, a variety of blooms and fresh greenery embellished with satin ribbon, were attached to wire easels lining the wall like entries in a county fair.
With anticipation I searched, reading the senders’ names on the message cards, hoping ours was one of the stunning arrangements next to the casket. I looked at every one of them, walking behind other folks as they gushed: “Oh, look. Our Sunday School class sent this one.” Or they groaned: “These are already wilted. They won’t make it to the cemetery.”
Curiosity compelled me to approach the casket to view the deceased’s body. I stood transfixed, staring, trying to will a twitch of an eyelid, the tapping of an index finger, or a slight heave of the chest. I gazed so long that I thought with a shiver: I saw it move!
I felt comfortable lingering, but a sudden stab of conscience, afraid of being disrespectful—especially of a relative’s passing—broke the spell. I tried to avoid a look from grieving family members who were sitting in large, winged chairs receiving visitors, and then turned and departed in a part-run, part-walk to find my sister.
* * *
I was six years old the first time I saw my father cry. It was an early May morning in 1965. Slivers of dawn’s light were peeking through the metal window blinds in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. Loud rings from the telephone in our den jarred me from a deep sleep. Sitting up, I clutched the corner of the bedsheet, bunched it under my chin, and calmed myself with its softness, like I had as an infant.
Daddy padded down the hall at his usual deliberate pace, followed by my mother who was chattering, wondering aloud if it was bad news or a wrong number.
It was not a wrong number.
Quiet whispers floated into my bedroom. Terrified and trembling, I tiptoed to the threshold of the den. I remember my parents’ embrace, close, tight, and silent, except for the sounds of my father’s grief.
Father’s tears scared me. My tall, strong, sturdy father swayed. How could I make him feel better?
He knelt, put his arm around me, and told me my cousin was gone, my sixteen-year-old cousin who treated me like a big girl, not a nuisance. I remember sitting with her on our grandparents’ front porch swing, gaining momentum as we swung our legs back and forth. The hooks in the porch’s ceiling must have been loose, because we squealed as the swing began to give way.
Later on, I overheard snippets of my parents’ conversations with other adults:
“She went quickly.”
“The doctor said a blood vessel burst in her brain.”
“She had her clothes laid out for the next day of school.”
I wanted to hear the story over and over again. I imagined a red plaid jumper spread over the back of a chair; a pair of black-and-white, scuff-free shoes with new laces waiting under the chair. It comforted me to think of red plaid and saddle oxfords, because those were what I wore to school, and I liked to think that she had, too.
Memories of the following week are hazy, like looking through a veil of pale, blue voile. Perhaps my mother described my sixteen-year-old cousin’s dress and the pillow beneath her head as she lay in repose. Relatives photographed her in the casket; images melded with memory stuck in my tender mind. Unmarred by injury, my cousin’s face was still and serene like the face of the antique doll Mother kept boxed in her closet.
* * *
As a nurse, I grieved over the body of a dead child, bathing his cool skin and knowing his mother once did this herself. As a wife, I stood by my husband weeping at the bedside of his dying brother. As a friend, I felt angry and vengeful at the funeral of a beautiful young woman killed by a drunk driver.
Death arrives like an unexpected phone call with an insistent ring in the middle of the night. Empty beds go cold. Clothes lie limp, lifeless, seams of life ripped apart against the grain of the way things ought to be.
I grew up in a culture in which we talked about death, not flippantly, but with the certainty that life goes on. We live. We die. To embalm our feelings ignores the reality of death.
* * *
Soft grass, slippery from previous rain, and shallow tree roots threatened to pitch me forward. Daddy held on to my arm as we navigated the path in the cemetery where his parents, my mother’s parents, aunts, and other family members were buried. It was late afternoon. In the distance, a small, green, canvas tent used to shield grieving families at a graveside service leaned on spindly legs, about to topple over.
I remember as a child sitting on a chair under one of those tents, thinking how lucky I was to avoid hot sun or bitter wind. But most of all, those chairs felt like a place of honor, and I was proud to be kin or friend of the beloved person about to be lowered into the ground.
Dad and I walked towards a row of gray granite markers that faced the main road to the east, just inside an entrance gate. We read names, as we always did, of our flesh and blood whose life spans were sandwiched in the space between chiseled date of birth and date of death.
Our duet of laughter and quiet contemplation seemed to pierce the thickness of death seeded in the dirt under our feet. We remembered my grandfather's need for medicines crowded on his bedside table and his hunger for oxygen; a tank was stationed by his bed like a sentry guarding him from the inevitable.
Dad said quietly, “He needed to go on.”
“Yes, he did,” I replied.
“He would have been tickled to see all ten children together after his funeral, cousins having a good time, and Aunt Dee yelling at Roger Staubach and her Cowboys on the television.”
* * *
Mom had waited in the car, joking that her walker would get mired in the mud. She was anxious for me to see the headstone she and Dad had purchased.
It was left to my parents to choose and customize their headstone. Prospective buyers could view a virtual slideshow of possibilities that could be tailored to one’s hobbies, profession, or religious affiliation.
My mother had explained the process to me a few months earlier: “Well, your dad was in the Army, so, of course, the saleslady at the funeral home suggested he put the Army insignia on his side of the headstone. I couldn’t think of a thing to put on my side.”
Mom continued chattering, “The lady kept showing me different ideas on the computer. Finally, I told her that my favorite activity when I was a little girl had been taking care of my chickens —and collecting chicken figurines. So the lady showed me a picture of a chicken. I chose a chicken!”
Dad and I plodded up a sloping path to view their reserved plots. “Everything from funeral to grave is taken care of,” Dad explained in his calm, reassuring voice, “so you girls won’t have to worry.”
At the top of the rise, we arrive. “Here it is,” Dad said.
I looked down. Engraved on the left of the bronze-colored plaque is Dad’s Army insignia, simple and patriotic. The Army is flanked to the right by a chicken with feathers and a pair of four-toed “feet.”
Dad shakes his head and grins.
“Well!” I say, and laugh until tears burn my eyes.
Someday, I’ll sit under a tent next to my mother’s casket, which will be adorned with yellow roses. Tears and laughter will mingle as I think of that chicken brooding over her, a symbol left behind for her loved ones of her humor and care. I will remember how I was shepherded in childhood, surrounded with death in life and life in death. And I’ll go on.
Lisa Taylor Phillips is a writer, and managing editor and contributing writer for You Are Here Stories. Her passions include collecting antique glass, vintage silver, and books. (A signed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird is her favorite.) Lisa and her husband live in Memphis. Their two grown children are her pride and joy. You can read more of her work at youareherestories.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.