Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Five Year Old (Me) Wanders Alone Into a Murder Victim's Viewing at Funeral Home

Graveyard where great-grandmother is buried

At my first funeral (I was 5), a burn victim's viewing was at the same time my great-grandmother's. I wandered alone into that person's viewing. How I rationalized what I saw is what I remembered most about that day.


During Thanksgivings, our family went to the NC mountains to see my dad's family. But in '73, my mom went to Raleigh since she was going to take a real estate licensing exam that was to take place in Raleigh soon after the Thanksgiving holiday. My dad, brother and I went to the mountains without her.

I didn't remember much about the trip from the mountains to Raleigh except when we stopped in Greensboro to get some clothes. We arrived home at dark and I didn't suspect anything was wrong until we got back in the car and headed off to Raleigh. Not fully grasping there was a death involved, I was actually happy knowing I'd get to see my mom's parents.

What I didn't know was that my mom's grandmother had a massive stroke late in the night on Thanksgiving day and died. She went quick. This would be my first experience with death.

The Funeral

We went to the wake at night a couple of days later. I don't remember what my great-grandmother was wearing but I can still see her stern face. The deceased will often retain the expression on their face they frequently kept in life. 

I also remember the smells. There was the chemical smells from the embalming. On top of that was the fragrance from the flowers. Those smells clashed. 

Had I been a normal and most importantly a well-behaved kid, the story would end here. But I wasn't, so the story doesn't.

Curiosity Killed the Cat

Being restless, high-energy and curious, I went to other viewing rooms. This is where the story takes traction.

I went into an empty viewing room, empty except for me and a corpse. I felt sad for her since no one was there to keep her company. For reasons apparent below, I couldn't tell how old the woman was.

I walked towards the middle of the room and saw something I'll never forget.

Her casket was open yet there was an opaque material hanging from the open part of the lid and enveloping the top half of the casket. 

What further scared the crap out of me was the veil she had over her face. I couldn't get a good look at her face which is what the effect the funeral director had wanted with any viewers.

A Five Year Old's Rationalization

I didn't know what had happened to that poor woman, so I made up a story to explain this odd sight. I had only seen 2 or 3 other dead people before I saw her. But I knew something was different. So, I made up the story below.

I thought this woman had done something really bad in life and was an evil person. Therefore, she was going to hell. To protect us from her evil spirits, I thought the funeral home put up those barriers to protect us from her evilness.

Fast Forward About 30 Years

I didn't tell my mom this story until I was well into my 30's. Naturally, she was stunned. She even said "If I knew you had felt that way, I would have sent you to a therapist."

I'm glad I didn't know the real story. What really happened to that poor woman was sad and traumatic.

Like Mother Like Son

You see, my mom too had wandered into that woman's room though not at the same time I had. My mom told me what really happened to that woman ( I wasn't the only curious one in the family). My mom went to the funeral director and asked what happened to that poor woman.

The funeral director told my mom about the woman's sad demise. The woman's boyfriend had beat the woman severely. He may have even beaten her to death but that much wasn't known to the funeral director. To hide what he had done, the boyfriend burned the house with the woman in it. If the beating didn't kill her, then the fire did.

The effects of the beating and fire resulted in the woman's disfigurement. The embalmer could only do so much. The funeral home director used the veil and opaque sheet as props to make the viewing as tasteful as possible and to shock as few viewers as possible.

I'm glad I didn't know the real story while I was a kid. Knowing the real story would have been harder on me as a five year old than just seeing what I did. I suppose the cockamamie story I made up was a young kid's protection mechanism.

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