The funeral home smells like it always does, a whiff of flowers overlaying processed air. I notice it every time I attend a wake. This time, though, the smell is discomfiting. This time, death has claimed my own father, and I am here with my mother and brother to choose the casket that will hold his body.
His body – once strong, scarred by injury all my life-long, now inert and hollowed of the love he gave us – will lie in a box which will be lowered into a hole in the ground and covered over by soil.
I am exhausted by grief, my eyes tearing, my heart broken, this is the last place I want to be.
The three of us stand huddled inside the home’s front door, my arm hooked through my mother’s, my brother hugging the suit of clothes we have brought from my father’s closet. The entry is painted in hues of calm. Paintings of Jesus and Mary looking serene hang on the walls. None of us want to move further into the building. The director comes to greet us and offer his condolences. He knew my Dad from childhood; Middletown’s Italian community is large, but tight-knit. My mother thanks him. He ushers us towards “the showroom.”
The room is large and plain with several caskets on display, like an automobile showroom without the posters and bright lights. Only people with no choice come here to choose. We stand in the center of the room. The moment feels enormous. It breaks over my brother and me like a wave; we sputter and gasp for breath in its aftermath. This is real. Our father is dead. We are wordless and weeping. My mother wears her reserve like a stone wall.
We begin to move from one polished model to the next – a diminished family, bodies close, arms brushing arms. I try to imagine my father in one of these boxes, his head resting on satin as it never did in life. I remind myself to exhale.
We come to a casket made of oak and stained in its natural color. The grain of the wood is beautiful. A sheaf of wheat, a symbol of resurrection, is carved into the hinged lid that covers the lower half of the body. My carpenter father would have approved of the workmanship of this piece.
“This one,” I say, my words break the silence I have kept since entering the building. My brother, his voice stolen by emotion, nods. The director looks to my mother. “Yes.” she says.
We walk from the showroom back to the land of the bereaved where couches and chairs offer rest to the living. The funeral director reaches for the suit my father will be buried in. My brother clutches it tighter and steps back. I weep. We wait. My brother gathers himself and allows the suit to be taken.
My mother signs the papers and we surrender our father’s body to the professionals of death.
Melina Rudman is a writer, spiritual director, contemplative activist, gardener and retreat leader. Melina holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University and is the Principal and Founder of Sage Consulting and Coaching. Melina lives in central Connecticut with her husband of 36 years, and her dog, Luna.