“Karen… can I have one of your dresses for a little girl who died in a car accident today? She doesn’t have a nice dress to wear.” Dad said. I was stunned. My shoulders slumped. My head hung. My heart sank. I could not speak. I was heartbroken. Tears streamed down my very recently smiling cheeks. I felt life draining from me as I thought of the life drained too soon from her young body. I gravely wanted her to have the dress… any dress! My prettiest dress! My most favorite dress! BUT the one thing I really wanted was for her not to be dead. My sadder and wiser seven year-old self said yes. Yes to the dress… yes to reality… yes to Life!
I guess you could say I was awoken early in life to my mortality. Being a funeral director’s daughter was certainly eye-opening and enlightening. We lived surrounded by death. We learned to laugh and make light of it all to perhaps lessen the darkness. After all, people were “dying to meet us”. And so I learned that my life was going to be an on-going lesson about living Life amidst daily death. When I say we lightened things up, my dad was ahead of the curve. We had white & light grey hearses, not the traditional black. The funeral home employees wore grey suits, not black. The funerals were celebrations of life long before that was avant-garde in the 70’s. The restrooms in our funeral home were true “rest” rooms where you could take time to sit and refresh in soft chairs with tissues, refreshments, floral arrangements and lava lamps until you were ready to greet mourners again in the warm and inviting living rooms during the wake.
Most children will say they love spending time with their parents. Many of my adventures with dad were reminiscent of seeing through the eyes of a mortician’s experience. “Dad time” was whenever & wherever he could fit us into his busy schedule. Riding in the back of a hearse after delivering a “body” to another city was a joyride with my dad. Driving enroute to said destination we rode in the cab behind the front seat. But on the return trip, we were in First Class! A hearse’s 17 ft. great length provided an incredible expanse of soft carpeted open space with a 360 degree panoramic view of the world. Clouds, trees, cars and luscious landscapes flew past my travelling windows of delight! It was truly a magical carpet ride quite literally! I often wished the dead could have had the awesome view before their “ticket to ride” life had expired.
Everywhere. Everything. Everafter… life would be flavoured with death. Walks in the woods were flavoured with death. Amidst exploring the beauty of nature in the park were tales of Indian gravestones when large rocks appeared along the paths. I mean, in my world, what else could they possibly be?
The loss of family pets were flavoured with death. Hamsters, fish, turtles, dogs and the occasional backyard bird were given lavish funeral arrangements and ceremonial tributes. There was pomp & circumstance and solemnity everywhere in our household. We knew how to be pall bearers and made lavish caskets out of shoe boxes. Magnificent floral arrangements adorned the carefully chosen gravesites. Exquisite eulogies and heartwarming hymns we’re sung over the tombs of the fallen.
Teenager jobs were flavoured with death. Cleaning funeral homes, obtaing death certificates, placing flowers at gravesites, digging graves, making interiors of caskets…those were the first jobs of the children of parents in the funeral business.
Social Media of the 50’s & 60’s was very different from today. I found myself unwittingly in a position of being “out there” to hundreds of people in my dad’s innovative advertising for the funeral home. I was a calendar girl twice!!! For a Funeral Home!!! First I was a toddler dressed as Dale Evans on a horse in my crib. Most embarrassing however was as a sulky teenager, once again with a horse. Are you kidding me!!! I am gobsmacked first of all to think that anyone would want a calendar for a funeral home in their house! Who wants that reminder? Much less a picture of the funeral director’s kid on a calendar in their house! OMG!!! It’s no wonder I was avoided on the dating scene! Little did I know how bizarre that must have been to my neighbours and schoolmates. I think I’ll call this my death to dating saga.
“Why don’t you pick out your favorite? I’ll be back in a minute” dad said as he left me in the display room. Rows of gorgeous velvets, soft and luxurious to touch lay before me. I silently hoped he would be gone much more than a minute. I clamoured at the joy of staying longer. I languished in every magnificent moment. Heaven is rubbing the smooth supple texture back and forth between my fingers. Feeling the the fluidity of the draping fabric forming waves of rolling delight. Feeling the silky softness like that of a kitten’s fur made me purr. Feeling extraordinary and extra ordinary tenderness at the gentle touch and the inescapable finality of it all. Exploring the amazing kaleidoscope of colours and discovering the perfect accompanying display case would be painstaking and sorrowful for most folks. It was tantalizing and joyful for me. Sky baby blue beckoned for attention. Megaphone magenta made her presence known. Pastel pink shone brightly from across the show room. My plan was to inspect the bevy of choices. I questioned if the colour clashed with my complexion. I queried if the fabric colour complimented dresses I possessed. After all, I was deciding the beauty & comfort for my future place of resting in peace! This experience could be dark to some. Deep and Grave matters can be intimidating. We’re talking about death & choosing caskets. Soft and inviting to me. I had made my decision. “I choose the the pink velvet with the mahogany casket” I said proudly to my dad.
When I was little dad called me “old sober sides”. When I was in high school I was asked “ why don’t you smile more?” When I look back now I see what a serious soul I was but what a gift I learned that death taught me about life.
One early Christmas morn as we gathered excitedly around the brightly lit tree with the shiny packages beneath the decorated branches… dad says “ let us take a moment to pray for a family of a young father whose body I had to remove last night so that his children would not wake to see him dead this morning.” Gasp! Tears welled up then and again today as I recount that sad day. I was so touched by that moment that I recall the deep feeling of gratitude and how blessed I was. I didn’t want anything for Christmas. I was just glad to have my dad.
Be glad. Be content. Be kind. Be grateful to be alive. It’s worth living.
The Funeral Director’s Daughter