The undertakers are over on the other island. They are there for what is called their Midwinter Conference: the name they give to the week in February every year when funeral directors from Michigan find some warm place in the Lesser Antilles to discuss the pressing issues of their trade. The names for the workshops and seminars are borderline: ‘The Future of Funeral Service’, ‘What Folks Want in a Casket’, ‘Coping with the Cremation Crowd’ – things like that. The resorts must have room service, hot tubs, good beaches and shopping on sight or nearby. No doubt it is the same for orthodontists and trial lawyers.

And I’m here on the neighbouring island – a smaller place with a harbour too shallow for cruise ships and no airport. I’m a ferry boat ride from the undertakers from my home state. But I’ve timed my relief from the Michigan winter with theirs in case I want to register for a meeting and write off my travel. It is legal and sensible and would reduce the ultimate cost of funerals in my town where I am the funeral director and have been for 25 years now.

But I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for spending any portion of the fortnight discussing business. It’s not that they aren’t a great bunch, chatty and amiable as stockbrokers or insurance types; and out of their hometowns, incognito, hell-bent on a good time, they can be downright fun, if a little bingy. It’s just that it seems I’ve been in a Midwinter Conference of my own for a long time now. Enough is enough, I need to walk on the beach now and contemplate my next move.

My father was a funeral director and three of my five brothers are funeral directors; two of my three sisters work pre-need and book-keeping in one of the four funeral homes around the metro area that bear our name, our father’s name. It is an odd arithmetic – a kind of family farm, working the back forty of the emotional register, our livelihood depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness, lawyers on crime, the clergy on the fear of God. I can remember my mother and father going off on these Midwinter Conferences and coming back all sunburned and full of ideas and gossip about what my father insisted we call our ‘colleagues’ rather than the ‘competitor’. He said it made us sound like doctors and lawyers, you know, professionals – people you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble, people whose being had begun to meld with their doing, who were what they did.

Our thing – who we are, what we do – has always been about death and dying and grief and bereavement: the vulnerable underbelly of the hardier nouns: life, liberty, the pursuit of ... well, you know. We traffic in leavetakings, goodbyes, final respects. ‘The last ones to let you down,’ my father would joke with the friends he most trusted. ‘Dignified Service’ is what he put on the giveaway matchbooks and plastic combs and rain bonnets. And he loved to quote Gladstone, a great Victorian Liberal who sounded like a New Age Republican when he wrote that he could measure with mathematical precision a people’s respect for the laws of the land by the way they cared for their dead.

Of course, Gladstone inhabited a century and an England in which funerals were public and sex was private and, though the British were robbing the graves of infidels all over the world for the British Museum, they did so, by all accounts, in a mannerly fashion. I think my father first heard about Gladstone at one of these Midwinter Conferences and lately I’ve been thinking how right they were – Gladstone, my father.

My father died three years ago tomorrow on an island off the Gulf coast of Florida. He wasn’t exactly on a Midwinter Conference. He’d quit going to those years before, after my mother had died. But he was sharing a condo with a woman friend who always overestimated the remedial powers of sexual aerobics. Or maybe she only underestimated the progress of his heart disease. We all knew it was coming. In the first year of his widowhood, he sat in his chair, heartsore, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then he started going out with women. The brothers were glad for him. The sisters rolled their eyes a lot. I think they call these ‘gender issues’. In the two years of consortium that followed, he’d had a major – which is to say a chest ripping, down for the counter – heart attack every six months like clockwork. He survived all but one. ‘Three out of four,’ I can hear him saying, ‘you’re still dead when it’s over.’ He’d had enough. Even now I think of that final scene in David Lean’s old film when Zhivago’s heart is described as ‘paper thin’. He thinks he sees Lara turning a corner in Moscow. He struggles to get off the bus, loosens his tie, finally makes it to the sidewalk where, after two steps, he drops dead. Dead chasing love, the thing we would die for. That was my father – stepping not off a bus but out of a shower in his timeshare condo, not in Moscow but on Bocca Grande, but chasing, just as certainly, love. Chasing it to death.

When we got the call from his woman friend, we knew what to do. My brother and I had done the drill in our heads before. We had a travelling kit of embalming supplies: gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends. We had to explain to the security people at the airlines who scrutinised the contents of the bag, wondering how we might make a bomb out of Dodge Permaglo or overpower the cabin crew with a box marked ‘Slaughter Surgical Supplies’ full of stainless steel oddities they’d never seen before. When we got to the funeral home they had taken him to, taken his body to, the undertaker asked us if we were sure we wanted to do this – our own father after all? – he’d be happy to call in one of his embalmers. We assured him that it would be OK. He showed us into the prep room, that familiar decor of porcelain and tile and fluorescent light – a tidy scientific venue for the witless horror of mortality, how easily we slip from is to isn’t.

It was something we had always promised him, though I can’t now, for the life of me, remember the context in which it was made – the promise that when he died his sons would embalm him, dress him, pick out a casket, lay him out, prepare the obits, contact the priests, manage the flowers, the casseroles, the wake and procession, the Mass and burial. Maybe it was just understood. His was a funeral he would not have to direct. It was ours to do; and though he’d directed thousands of them, he had never made mention of his own preferences. Whenever he was pressed on the matter he would only say: ‘You’ll know what to do.’ We did.

There’s this ‘just a shell’ theory of how we ought to relate to dead bodies. You hear a lot of it from young clergy, old family friends, well intentioned in-laws – folks who are unsettled by the fresh grief of others. You hear it when you bring a mother and a father in for the first sight of their dead daughter, killed in a car wreck or left out to rot by some mannish violence. It is proffered as comfort in the teeth of what is a comfortless situation, consolation to the inconsolable. Right between the inhale and exhale of the bonewracking sob such hurts produce, some frightened and well-meaning ignoramus is bound to give out with: ‘It’s OK, that’s not her, it’s just a shell.’ I once saw an Episcopalian deacon nearly decked by a swift slap from the mother of a teenager, dead of leukaemia, to whom he’d tendered this counsel. ‘I’ll tell you when she’s “just a shell ”,’ the woman said. ‘For now and until I tell you otherwise, she’s my daughter.’ She was asserting the longstanding right of the living to declare the dead dead. Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms, lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It’s how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.

And the rituals we devise to conduct the living and beloved and the dead from one status to another have less to do with performance than with meaning. In a world where ‘dysfunctional’ has become the operative adjective, a body that has ceased to work has, it would seem, few useful applications – its dysfunction more manifest than the sexual and familial forms that fill our tabloids and talk shows. But a body that doesn’t work is, in the early going, the evidence we have of a person who has ceased to be. And a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: ‘Is that all there is?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why is it cold?’ ‘Can it happen to me?’

So to suggest in the early going of grief that the dead body is ‘just’ anything rings as tinny in its attempt to minimalise as it would if we were to say it was ‘just a’ bad hair day when the girl went bald from her chemotherapy, or that we hope for heaven on her behalf because Christ raised his ‘just a’ body from dead. What if rather than crucifixion he’d opted for suffering lowly self-esteem for the remission of sins? What if, rather than ‘just a shell’, he’d raised his personality, say, or the Idea of Himself? Do you think they’d have changed the calendar for that? Done the Crusades? Burned witches? Easter was a body and blood thing, no symbols, no euphemisms, no half-measures. If he’d raised anything less, of course, as Paul points out, the deacon and several others of us would be out of business or back to Saturday Sabbaths, a sensible diet and no more Christmases.

The bodies of the newly dead are not debris or remnant, nor are they entirely icon or essence. They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses, as surely in the eyes and ears of our children and grandchildren as did word of our birth in the ears of our parents and their parents. It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honour.

I had seen my father horizontal before. At the end it had been ICUs mostly, after his coronaries and bypasses. He’d been helpless, done unto. But before that there had been the man stretched out on the living-room floor tossing one or the other of my younger siblings in the air or napping in his office at the first funeral home in full uniform, black three-piece, striped tie, wingtips, clean shave, or in the bath-tub singing ‘from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’. He had outbreaks of the malaria he’d gotten in the South Pacific. In my childhood he was, like every father on the block, invincible. That he would die had been a fiction in my childhood, a fear in my twenties, a spectre in my thirties and, in my forties, a fact. But seeing him, outstretched on the embalming table of the Anderson Mortuary in Ft Myers with the cardiac blue in his ears and fingertips and along his distal regions, shoulders and lower ribs and buttocks and heels, I thought this is what my father will look like when he’s dead. And then, like a door slammed shut behind you, the tense of it all shifted into the inescapable present of this is my father, dead. My brother and I hugged each other, wept with each other and for each other and for our sisters and brothers, home in Michigan. Then I kissed my father’s forehead, not yet a shell. Then we set to work in the way our father had trained us.

He was a co-operative body. Despite the arteriosclerosis, his circulatory system made the embalming easy. And having just stepped from the shower into his doom, he was clean and cleanly shaven. He hadn’t been sick, in the hospice or intensive care sense of the word. So there were none of the bruises on him or tubes in him that medical science can inflict and install. He’d gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope. And massaging his legs, his hands, his arms, to effect the proper distribution of fluid and drainage, watching the blue clear from his fingertips and heels as the fluid which would preserve him long enough for us to take our leave of him worked its way around his body, I had the sense that I was doing something for him even though, now dead, he was beyond my kindnesses or anyone’s. Likewise, his body bore a kind of history: the tattoo with my mother’s name on it he’d had done as an 18-year-old marine during World War Two, the perfectly trimmed moustache I used to watch him darken with my mother’s mascara when he was younger than I am and I was younger than my children are. The scars from his quintuple bypass surgery, the AA medallion he never removed and the signet ring my mother gave him for his 40th birthday, all of us saving money in a jar until 50 dollars were accumulated. Also there were the greying chest hairs, the hairless ankles, the male pattern baldness I see on the heads of men in the first-class section of airplanes now and in the double mirrors in the barber’s shop. And embalming my father I was reminded of how we bury our dead and then become them. In the end I had to say that maybe this is what I’m going to look like dead.

Maybe it was at a Midwinter Conference my father first thought about what he did and why he did it. He always told us that embalming got to be, forgive me, de rigueur during the Civil War when, for the first time in our history, lots of people – mostly men, mostly soldiers – were dying far away from home and the families that grieved for them. Dismal traders worked in tents on the edge of battlefields charging, one reckons, what the traffic would bear to disinfect, preserve and ‘restore’ dead bodies – which is to say they closed mouths, sutured bullet holes, stitched limbs or parts of limbs on and sent the dead back home to wives and mothers, fathers and sons. All of this bother and expense predicated on the notion that the dead need to be at their obsequies, or more correctly that the living need the dead to be there, so that the living can consign them to the field or fire after commending them to God or the gods or Whatever Is Out There. The presence and participation of the dead human body at its funeral is, as my father told it, every bit as important as the bride’s being at her wedding, the baby at its baptism.

And so we brought our dead man home. Flew his body back, faxed the obits to the local papers, called the priests, the sexton, the florists and stonecutter. We act out things we cannot put into words.

Back in 1963, I can remember my father saying that the reason we had funerals and open caskets was so we might confront what he called ‘the reality of death’. I think he’d heard that at one of these conferences. Jessica Mitford had just sold a million copies of The American Way of Death and Evelyn Waugh had already weighed in with The Loved One and talk had turned at cocktail parties to ‘barbaric rituals’ and ‘morbid curiosities’. The mortuary associations were scrambling for some cover. Clergy and educators and psychologists – the new clergy – were assembled to say it served some purpose after all, was emotionally efficient, psychologically correct, to do what we’d been doing all along. The track record was pretty good on this. We’d been doing – the species, not the undertakers – more or less, the same thing for millennia: looking up while digging down, trying to make some sense of it all, disposing of our dead with sufficient pause to say they’d lived in ways different from rocks and rhododendrons and even orangutans and that those lives were worth mentioning and remembering.

Then Kennedy was shot dead and Lee Harvey Oswald and we spent the end of November that year burying them – the first deaths in our lives that took for most of us boomers. All the other TV types got shot on Gunsmoke on a Friday and turned up on Bonanza, looking fit by Sunday night. But Kennedy was one of those realities of death my father must have been talking about and though we saw his casket and cortège and little John John saluting and the widow in her sunglasses, we never saw Kennedy dead, most of us, until years later when pictures of the autopsy were released and we all went off to the movies to see what really happened. In the interim, rumours circulated about Kennedy not being dead at all but hooked to some secret and expensive hardware, brainless but breathing. And when the Zapruder film convinced us that he must have died, still we lionised the man beyond belief. Of course, once we saw him dead in the pictures, his face, his body, he became human again: loveable and imperfect, memorable and dead.

And as I watch my generation labour to give their teenagers and young adults some ‘family values’ between courses of pizza and Big Macs, I think maybe Gladstone had it right. I think my father did. They understood that the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions – only those who do it well and those who don’t. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment: McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues. This is the mathematical precision the old Britisher was talking about and what my father was talking about when he said we’d know what to do.

Thus tending to his death, his dead body, had for me the same importance as being present for the births of my sons, my daughter. Some expert on Oprah might call this ‘healing’. Another on Donahue might say ‘cathartic’. Over on Geraldo it might have ‘scarred him for life’. And Sally Jesse Whatshername might mention ‘making good choices’. As if they were talking about men who cut umbilical cords and change diapers or women who confront their self-esteem issues or their date-rapists.

It is not about choices or functions or psychological correctness. A dead body has had its options limited, its choices narrowed. It is an old thing in the teeth of which we do what has been done because it is the thing to do. We needn’t reinvent the wheel or make the case for it, though my generation always seems determined to.

And they are at it over on the island. Trying to reinvent the funeral as ‘a vehicle for the healthy expression of grief’ which, of course, it is; or as ‘a brief therapy for the acutely bereaved’ which, of course, it is. There will be talk of ‘stages’, ‘steps’, ‘recovery’. Someone will mention ‘aftercare’, ‘post-funeral service follow-up’, Widow to Widow programmes, Mourners Anonymous? And in the afternoons they’ll play nine holes, or go snorkelling or start cocktails too early and after dinner they’ll go dancing then call home to check in with their offices just before they go to bed. Maybe I’ll take the boat over tomorrow. Maybe some of the old timers are there – men of my father’s generation, men you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble. They remind me of my father and of Gladstone. Maybe they’ll say I remind them of him.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences