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.

“I’m afraid it’s the law,” replied the mortician’s apprentice when we asked why. She was a pleasant young woman whose cheerfulness, I imagined, was the consequence of plying her trade in a subtropical land of blue skies and blooming hibiscus. She explained the cremation procedure: how the body would be covered by a cardboard canopy, placed on a conveyor belt, then moved along into the fire. Once the body was in the furnace, the process would take three hours.

Our mother had wanted it this way, I kept reminding myself. Beautiful and always vain, she had emphatically made it known that she did not want a wake. Nor did she want her body buried beneath the ground. Next to cold, my mother had dreaded dark, enclosed places most. She would panic in elevators and highway tunnels. “It feels like the walls are closing in,” she’d complain. “I can’t breathe.”

And yet I didn’t want it this way. As things unfolded, Mom would wait two days for the medical examiner, who was “backed up.” During those days, she languished in a body bag in a cooler—not only cold, but naked as well, since no one had asked us to provide clothes. I didn’t want her hidden, naked, and alone, in cold, dark places. I didn’t want her to be sliced by a circular saw and splayed on a table, her organs hefted and measured by some white-coated county coroner. And I didn’t want her closed up quickly, zipped back into the body bag, and hauled off to another cooler where she’d wait to be dispatched to the crematorium.

Instead, I wanted a mortician who loved his craft to work magic with my mother—to embalm her body, carefully and gently; to apply makeup and nail polish; to arrange her hair and dress her in her favorite suit. I wanted her placed in a mahogany coffin lined with silk the color of lilac. I wanted a wake at which we, her children and grandchildren, would bear witness to the reality of her passing, and begin our final farewells. I wanted to accompany her blessed body—the one that carried her five children—to the church for Mass and, finally, to her resting place beside my father, where the two of them would await the Resurrection together.

This is how Catholics bury our loved ones. We have observed this ritual for centuries, and though it may fill us with desolation, it also grants us the consolation of having fulfilled our obligation to honor the body, accompanying our dead on their earthly pilgrimage as far as we possibly can, then placing them in holy ground, consecrated by the saints around them, for safekeeping.

But this is not what happened. Before we left the funeral home, the pleasant young woman invited us to return and to see our mother one last time before the cremation, scheduled for Thursday. And yet on Wednesday, when we called to arrange this final visit, we were told that she had already been cremated. It seems they were less busy than they had anticipated, and so our mother’s body had been dispatched and processed. She was gone.

We children had a mixed reaction. One sister was relieved that the burning, which we all dreaded, was over. One sister was disappointed—an agreement had been breached. But I was angry. Angry to imagine my mother just waiting there, alone, like a piece of unclaimed baggage. Angry and ashamed at my lack of mindfulness, my failure to insist that her body be treated with dignity, regardless of her misguided wishes. Yes, misguided; for I was convinced that when our mother envisioned the cremation process (if she envisioned it at all), she did not imagine a scenario that would leave us all feeling so empty.

Yet even if she had—and even if she still would have chosen this route—I no longer believe the wishes of the dead should take precedence over the wishes of those left behind. The rites we perform in the presence of the beloved’s body are our gifts to the dead and to one another. They are the only means available to us to make the absurd, appalling, and enraging fact of death meaningful—the only means we have of asserting that life matters, the body matters, and our lived history together matters, both now and in the context of eternity.

Three days later, we held a funeral Mass for my mother. Prayers were said, Scripture read, bread blessed, and eulogies spoken. But heartfelt and faithful as these offices were, it seemed strange to be performing them in the absence of her body. It was as if she was not there.

For the months since my mother’s death, I have regretted the fact that I did not honor her body. I have tried to atone for this sin of omission in various ways. Her ashes now reside in my home, in a silver box on a table in our living room, ringed by photographs. There are flowers, as well—a spray of lilacs, smelling of spring—and dozens of Mass cards sent by kind friends. This makeshift altar is flanked by two bodega-bought candles bearing the image of St. Anthony, our Mom’s go-to saint for every occasion. Her rosary—blessed by the pope—is draped over her box.

Having my mother’s ashes in my house makes me strangely happy. I greet her every morning; I feel she is with me in some elemental, essential way, and I consider myself honored and lucky to be in possession of the relics of our familial saint. As the fourth of five children—an inauspicious position in the birth order if ever there was one—I feel my mother is finally mine in a way she never was before.

In a month’s time, my siblings and I will bury her ashes in the grave where her body was supposed to go. A hole will be dug, with a gravestone, and a priest will read the Gospel and lead us in prayer. The box containing her remains will be lowered into the hole she so dreaded, and the hole will be filled. And there—as ash, instead of bone and perishable flesh—she’ll await the Resurrection with my father.

And I shall have to give her up, at last.

My final rite of atonement is one that comes naturally to me, a poet. I’ve been writing about my mother. Poetry has enabled me to comprehend, at least partially, the incomprehensible—to get my arms around this absence at the center of my being. With rhythm and with rhyme I have exerted some measure of control over the chaos of death—have tamed the beast, and struggled to make my enemy my friend.

The wake I have held for my mother has lasted eighty-four days, and will continue for twenty-nine more, until the appointed day when we shall bury her, at last. And I ask her, now, as she waits patiently on her altar, Mom, though I failed in the duties of love, at first, have I succeeded now? Have I not waked you, after all, in my fashion?

Of course, I receive no answer. Instead, she smiles from the photograph on her altar, a picture taken of her in her white Woolworth’s uniform at age seventeen. In the photo, a tiny silver cross rests against her slender neck, and the words, “Love, Marion” are signed across the bottom of the snapshot in her broad, familiar hand: two words written long before my birth, and yet I believe that somehow they are meant for me.

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

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.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections