Good Grief

WHEN A MOTHER DIES, HER BODY STILL MATTERS

We did not wake our mother when she died.

The night her soul parted from her body, in a Florida hospice room, my sisters and I left her for the staff—experts at handling the dead—to take care of. “Where will she go?” I asked the kind nurse, who had hugged me and my sisters long and hard after she verified the absence of our mother’s heartbeat.

“To the morgue,” she replied—reluctantly, I thought. “In the basement.” My mother, who had moved to Florida thirty years earlier to escape the freezing Northeast winters, suffered dreadfully from the cold. Yet, stupefied by loss, we consigned her in death to the one condition that pained her in life.

The next morning, we drove to the funeral home to discuss the logistics of Mom’s cremation. We were ushered into a room equipped with comfortable chairs and a conference table. Magazines featuring glossy photographs of burial urns and coffins were stacked at the center alongside a box of Puffs. We learned that our mother’s body had been transported to the county medical examiner’s office to await an autopsy. Because she had died as a result of a fall several weeks back—a fall that broke her hip and precipitated the inexorable deterioration of every system in her body—her death was deemed “accidental,” and therefore warranted the invasive, humiliating procedure that is an autopsy.

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About the Author

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. Her most recent book of poems, Moving House, was published in 2009 by Word Press. Her mother was buried in May.