My First Death

October 4, 2015 at 12:00 pm (Life) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

There are many first in our lives: first picture, first day of school, first confirmation, first love, first kiss, first heartbreak … the list goes on and on.

In this goth-filled month of Halloween, I want to talk to you about my first death. Not the first death I experienced – that would be my great-uncle’s death. His was the first funeral I attended at thirteen years of age.

I want to talk to you about the first death I noticed. I was young. She was young. When the undertaker’s daughter died, this was the first time I had heard of a child dying and it made me realize that I too was mortal, that I too would die.

I was eleven or twelve and she was younger (seven I think). She was born with a hole in her heart in a time and place where this was still a death sentence. I was born with a congenital heart murmur. We grew up in the same small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. So even though I never met here I knew who she was and why she died.

Her funeral was in the Fall just after school had started. It was a Catholic funeral. I did not attend as I was not catholic. I heard that the coffin was small and white. I heard that she was buried with her favourite doll.

“What does a child take with them?”

Where did she go? What did she remember as she paused between life and death? After all these years (parents now gone also) who remembers her? I remember her but I cannot name her.

Mount Osare (Mount Doom/Mount Fear) is an extinguished volcano far in the north [of Japan], where the dead are said to pause before leaving the world completely. (p. 26) Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye By Marie Mutsuki Mockett; New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

We all knew what she left behind. Grieving parents and a grieving small town. She was an only child. Her parents never had another. Her father was the local funeral director but I don’t know if this was a profession he entered into before or after her death. I knew him, many years later, when he was an old man and I was a young adult. His wife had already passed on by then. I didn’t know him well enough to ask him such questions.

We don’t talk about death. It is morbid. It is wrong. But I am the child who use to haunt graveyards and read tombstones. There is art in such places. There is nature. There is joy. There is laughter. There are children there both living and dead. Maxine, my best friend, and I use to wander through the local cemeteries learning local history and speculating about what our grown-up lives would be like.

Our ancestors use to picnic in graveyards before there were parks. They use to remember. They use to prepare and bury their own. Is this why the father become an funeral director or was he one before tragedy struck?

I think about things like this. I am morbid by nature. Maybe it’s all those fairy tales I read in my childhood. The ones with death and witches and ghosts and ghouls and the true fey, lurking, plotting death and destruction on us mere mortals.

I always wanted to live in a gigantic and ancient place. Houses like those featured in Six Feet Under and the book The Undertaker’s Daughter. Houses haunted both metaphorically and literally by the past.

Just as the funeral home was a house for both living and the dead, this house seemed to exist somewhere between the past and the present.

I often wandered through the old part of the house when no one else was home. It felt like eavesdropping on another era. (Chapter 15)

The Undertaker’s Daughter
by Kate Mayfield
New York: Gallery Books, 2015

October. Death. Memory.

Samhain. El Dios de Muertos.

All I ask is that you remember me.

SC Funeral Home 01

To Be Sure

I wouldn’t want to bring him back
from his permanent internment
even if I could
but I wouldn’t mind a visit now and then,
a trip down
to keep each other company.

(Beginning of a poem by Larry Sorkin; the remainder of the poem can be found at the front of The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield.)

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