by Dennis Vannatta
Photo by Dennis Vannatta
Finally we come to it. No more diversions or evasions, no more of the literary niceties we’ve been so fond of-indirection, ambiguity, irony, and the like. At the end we are left with this: the dead.
From a perspective of my almost three-score years and ten, it seems to me that the Irish wake is as good a way as another to deal with the dead, but I’d never even heard of such things when I was a child. We were Baptists, and wakes were Catholic affairs, and if they’d been alluded to at all I’m sure it would have been as something scandalous and a bit perverse. All that drinking, and the deceased laid out right there in the same room. I suppose the Protestant equivalent is the “visitation”: a time set aside for friends of the family to come to the funeral home to offer condolences and sneak a peek, if one were so inclined, at the corpse in the coffin. But I don’t recall visitations when I was young. Maybe they were something my parents spared me, but it doesn’t seem to me we needed them. At the end of the funeral service, we mourners would file past the open coffin for a last look at the dearly departed, and if we wanted to express our condolences to the immediate family, we did that at the cemetery after the interment or back at the family’s house around the kitchen table laden with plates of ham, Jell-O salads, candied apples, fresh-baked bread, and so forth, supplied by friends and neighbors.
My first funeral, so far as I can remember, was my Grandma Vannatta’s, and of that I remember only one thing: my Uncle Dud (Durward) standing by the coffin taking one last look at his mother before she’d be loaded into the hearse for transportation to the cemetery in Windsor, Missouri, where she still lies. I was partial to Uncle Dud because everyone said I took after him. The typical Vannatta male was a big, heavy-boned, long-faced Dutchman, prone to putting on weight and easy-going, even a bit phlegmatic; but Dud never quite made six-foot and was wiry and dark-complected. Me, too. I also share, I must admit, a bit of his choleric temperament without, alas, his leavening humor. Uncle Dud was a funny guy, and not just witty but crazy funny. Like walking with his family on the square in Springfield and suddenly feigning a seizure, flopping around on the sidewalk like a fish out of water as my aunt and cousin Wanda Lee fled in mortification and my cousin Johnny collapsed in laughter-then promptly joining his father down on the sidewalk. As much as I loved those stories and wanted to be like Johnny and his father, I knew I could never let myself go like that. And I knew I could never do what Uncle Dud did at Grandma Vannatta’s funeral.
The ritual of filing past the deceased for one final look serves several functions, the most obvious coming under the heading of something like “paying respects,” I suppose. Puerility abounds. “They did a real good job on her, didn’t they?” “She looks just like herself.” Or, alternately: “She don’t look like the same woman.” “She almost seems to be smiling.” “She wouldn’t have been caught dead in a navy-blue dress.” And one tries not to laugh. Indeed, nervous laughter is often just beneath the somber surface of funerals. But tears, of course, too. “Good-bye, Ma.” “Good-bye, Sweetheart.” Heartfelt good-byes. Heartbreaking good-byes. Tears.
If paying respects and saying good-bye are the “public” functions of that final viewing of the deceased, I think a more profound, call it psychological, need is fulfilled: to confirm the death. We recently bereaved are in shock. We don’t want to believe it. Sometimes we can’t believe it. We need to see the dead person. Only then can we accept it, accommodate ourselves to the fact of it, and get on with our lives. In theory, anyway.
In attempting to resign ourselves to death, though, we are also seeing, up very close and very personal, something we so rarely encounter: the dead. The most common expression of those shuffling past the coffin is not grief but bemusement. So it was with my Uncle Dud as he stood looking down at his mother. That’s when he did what I never would have been able to bring myself to do, what I have in fact never seen anyone else do at a funeral: he reached down and touched his mother on the cheek. He reached down and touched the corpse.
I say it both ways—his mother; the corpse—because I’m certain that was the question at the bottom of his (our, my) bemusement: just what is that thing? Oh, I’m sure others who saw it thought it was a sweet, tender gesture from the youngest son, Annie Vannatta’s little boy, fingertips to his mama’s cheek one last time. Fine, if it comforts them to think that-and we all need comfort in the face of death-but I know better. There was no tenderness in his expression as he reached down. Rather, there was a—how can I describe it?—a certain almost hopeless savagery in his determination to force his hand downward, downward until he touched the thing that his mama had become.
Maybe it had something of the expression of the soldier, surrounded and almost out of ammunition, rising up from his foxhole to charge the enemy. But no, not that, either. That scene has been played out in countless movies, and in little boys’ imaginations at playtime, too often for us. We think we know that expression. If we were truly in that situation, we might even adopt the expression we think we know and charge to our deaths with a John Wayne savagery on our faces. But we do not know the expression on my Uncle Dud’s face. He could not prepare a face to meet the face he encountered in that coffin. We can prepare ourselves for the concept of death but not for the thing itself: the dead.
We see them so very rarely, after all. The living are around us in their multitudes—people, animals, birds, fish—and every living thing dies, but where are the dead? Why have I never in my sixty-five years seen a bird fall from the sky, topple dead from a tree? Of course, I’ve seen dead birds lying on the ground, but surprisingly few. I can’t recall the last one; it must have been months ago. I remember saying to my wife just last spring that there seemed to be a rash of dead squirrels on the streets in our neighborhood. How many over that spring season did I actually see, though? Maybe four or five. I see that many live ones at any given moment in the trees in our back yard. Dead cats? Perhaps I’ve seen one or two in my life, but I don’t recall it. Dead dogs, yes, I’ve seen a number (for being such a smart animal they can’t quite seem to get the hang of the whole car-chasing business) but in the last twelve months, say, I’ve seen maybe two or three along the highway-out of the hundreds of dogs I’ve seen in that same year.
Why are the dead so shy in their dying? Indeed, death seems to be not just a private but a shameful thing to bird, beast, and man. Do it in the dark. Do it out of the sight of the living. When we do see it we avert our eyes as from something disgusting, obscene.
But we so rarely see it, especially in reference to the obvious subject of this essay: the human dead. There are exceptions, of course: soldiers in combat see far too many dead, so do doctors, nurses, and morticians. But these are all special cases. Because of their unusual familiarity with death, we see them differently, and I suspect they see themselves differently. I would imagine that, see the dead often enough, you no longer view the dead as others do. I think it’s altogether possible that, view the dead often enough, you no longer see the living as others do. Meat. Perhaps just meat. But I really don’t know, and since I don’t I’ll leave it to those blessed or cursed with such knowledge to share their wisdom, or spare us from same, as they think best.
No, I’m not writing about them. I’m writing about me. My dead.
There have been surprisingly few despite my advanced age. Although my wife and her family are Irish Catholic, I’ve never been to a wake, so no dead bodies there to look at, whisper to, learn their secrets. I have been to visitations, but not many. Most of my family and close friends live several states away, far enough that one is tempted to make excuses “when the time comes”; few people are both geographically and emotionally close enough to me that I’d feel it appropriate to attend a visitation after they’ve had their appointment in Samarra.
Funerals, though, I’ve been to at least an average number, and perhaps more than my fair share. In the army, I was an MP at West Point and served on many funeral details, either as a pall bearer or one of those assigned to fire the three-volley salute. But to the best of my recollection, although we sometimes carried the deceased, we never actually saw the dead body.
As for the “civilian” funerals it’s been my dubious pleasure to attend recently, almost all had the mourners filing past, not the coffin, but the immediate family of the deceased. We’re so sorry. I was shocked to hear. Our prayers are with you. Hundreds in line, sometimes, the bereaved battered with condolences until they can hardly stand. It must be enough to make one envy the dead. This ghastly business generally transpires near the front doors of the church or funeral parlor so that the attendees can then make their escape. Meanwhile, the coffin with its dead has been forgotten by all but the pall bearers, who hustle it off to the hearse. The coffin was probably closed, anyway. It’s my impression that the closed coffin has been more and more the choice at funerals of late. I approve; close mine, please. Let those so inclined guess at the results of the mortician’s efforts on my behalf. Filing past the deceased in the coffin at the end of a funeral service—I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve done that. Probably no more recently than my mother’s funeral, spring 2001. (At the visitation, my daughter walked in, saw her grandma in the coffin, and screamed. April is indeed the cruelest month.)
But all told, doing a rough calculation, mostly guesswork, the number as likely to be exaggerated as underestimated, I’d say I’ve seen no more than fifteen to twenty dead bodies in my life. And by dead bodies, I refer in this case specifically to embalmed corpses, drained and purged and stitched and glued, the faces at once waxen and chalky, cheeks rouged as they never were in life, less the remains of a living thing than the plastic simulacrum of a living thing. A life-size Ken or Barbie, but only from the torso up.
Of the “real” dead, the freshly dead, the just died and not yet subjected to the embalmers’ arts, I have, in my entire life, seen only two.
It was a Sunday morning, January 16, 1966. I was nineteen years old, sitting in the living room reading the newspaper. Then I heard my father drop dead. The correct phrase is “drop” dead, not “fall” dead. The dead do not fall off something but from an upright sentient being drop into nothingness.
I heard it, not saw it. I’ve never seen a person drop dead in real life although I’ve seen documentaries of, for instance, soldiers in World War I coming out of the trenches and dying not in balletic pirouettes a la Hollywood movies or even throwing their arms up in pain and horror as in Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, but dropping like marionettes with the strings cut.
I did not see but heard him drop and felt the vibrations on the hardwood floor under my slippered feet because when the strings are cut, the body is all weight, no longer anything but weight. My father was a big, tall man, but when he stepped through the back door onto the landing between the stairs down to the basement and the shorter flight up to the kitchen, the strings were cut and 220 pounds dropped like a sack of rocks to the floor.
I can still hear it, still feel the vibration in the soles of my feet. I can hear my mother’s voice: “Paul! Paul! Oh, Paul!”
I ran into the kitchen. He was lying on his back on the short flight of stairs with his legs folded under him, his head back looking sightlessly upward, from my angle so strangely foreshortened I could hardly tell what I was looking at. I’m still not sure. It wasn’t my father. He was gone.
“Oh, God!” I said. But God stayed out of it.
My first and only other “just dead” body was around a decade earlier.
I was eight or nine at the time. I was walking down Third Street in my home town of Sedalia, Missouri. I had just passed Sacred Heart Catholic Church across the street on my left, and its tall narrow spire loomed over me as I walked toward the next cross-street where a car was parked at the corner. That church spire as a backdrop to what I was about to witness is a “neat” coincidence that I’d ride for all it’s worth if this were fiction. In reality, the church is significant only for having utterly no significance. I did not seek emotional or spiritual shelter there. No priest or nun came out to console or explain. God, once again, seemed to be occupied elsewhere. No, that church was simply there, a thing of atoms and molecules arranged in a form familiar enough that I could give it a name and say in this way or that it resembled other arrangements of atoms and molecules, but otherwise without function or life. Just like, in other words, the man in the car.
Is he—? I asked myself as I came opposite the car and looked in. But I knew.
He was sitting slouched just slightly to his right but with his head canted back to the left and upward as if he were staring at something on the inside roof of the car. On the driver’s side visor of my Ford Focus is a decal proclaiming
I know that because earlier today, thinking about the first dead body I ever saw, I went out to the car and sat behind the wheel slouching slightly to my right, head canted back and left, and that warning was what I saw: Death can occur. But I’d guess the man died first, and then his head flopped back and to the left, and he saw the warning too late. Or rather didn’t see it at all. Those eyes saw nothing.
I walked on. I don’t think I even paused. Certainly I never ran for help, for which I feel not the slightest guilt. Help for what? I think even then, a child with his first dead, I knew that there was no help, no understanding to be had. The corpse is mute. There is no consolation. Walk on.
I walked on.
It’s hard for a writer without understanding to know how to proceed. I find no development here, no rhetorical vector, no movement toward climax or conclusion. I lay my dead down and say, there they are. But then what? What conclusion have I reached? And how to end it?
Logically, and predictably, I should end with me. But I really don’t find the issue of my body, what happens to it when I die, very interesting. “When I die, they can throw my body out with the trash,” I’ve said numerous times, perhaps thinking of Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” tossed out by the charwoman, and then his family rides off in search of a more suitable apartment.
Poor Gregor. We feel bad for him, bad for his grotesque dung-beetle’s body. In fact, despite the bravado of my “throw my body out with the trash,” I’m not so sure I’d want my poor body to be subjected to such an indignity. It hasn’t always served me so well, I must admit—indeed, it fails me more and more in my declining years—but it did its best. Its heart was in the right place.
I do not want to be cremated, I know that. When I was very young I had a nightmare in which I was trapped inside some apparatus in the general shape of an upright piano, but made of metal, and where the hammers and strings should be were burners like on a gas range. The burners were lit; and there I was, trapped. Now, I have no more than a healthy respect for fire, no special fear of being burned. I can only conclude that my nightmare—the very earliest one I can remember, my ur-nightmare, as it were—so hunts me because I don’t want my body to be burned up, consumed.
My father always said that he didn’t want to be embalmed but to be buried in a wooden coffin so that the living things of the earth could feed on him and he’d become part of the soil, part of the whole life cycle once more. A transparent, pathetic grab for a sort of immortality, I suppose, but not a bad idea for all that—and certainly “greener” than cremation. Count me in.
The worms crawl in
and the worms crawl out.
The worms play pinochle
on your snout.
My father and I would settle for that.
But how to end it?
This was twenty-odd years ago. My son was six or seven. We were visiting his grandparents one summer in Belle Harbor, New York, walking down the street to the local grade school playground for a little stickball. A squirrel ran out into the street just as a car drove by. The car passed right over the squirrel, the wheels missing it entirely, but the squirrel, startled, leaped straight up and hit its head on the undercarriage of the car. It quivered on the pavement and then lay still. We stared at it for several long moments. It did not move. Then Matthew said, “That’s the first time I’ve seen something die.”
He looked at it for another moment and then reached up and took my hand and led me on to the playground.