post-mortem preservation


LITTLE HAS CHANGED AROUND THE INFANT BURIAL PLOT except for a headstone and a monument here and there in this city cemetery. A stone lamb lays across the top of the grave where this woman sits and visits every Friday. She’s calm, her grief matured with the years passed since she began this Friday visiting ritual. On the periphery of this burial ground, minute-hands adhere to their intervals of seconds, but inside the boundary they sweep a little slower. Rituals slow their ticking, like reading aloud, Oh, The Places You’ll Go on every birthday, lighting a candle every Christmas Eve, and releasing balloons on the anniversary of her daughter’s passing. The latex bouquet is now large enough to lift small notes and Baby’s Breath into the sky. Other survivors have similar routines on their children’s graves. Jack-O-Lanterns and stuffed bunnies with potted lilies, even favorite sports paraphernalia often punctuate the turf. Other than these, there’s not much that happens in this cemetery making most movements bigger than life and that’s what caught her eye today, the remains of a small interment and its procession reduced to a limousine, revealing to her the mourner they left behind.

The ignition and diesel idle rattle of a yellow front-end loader takes her attention in a different direction. It’s put into gear and moves along the service road past rows of graves, past her and the manicured marker and the lamb until it comes to a slow arrest a respectable distance from the scene at an open grave–its casket is still suspended above it–where there’s a mourner seated in a folding chair on the front row of others now vacant, his chair covered in a dark green fabric embroidered with a mortuary logo. His elbows are on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him glisten from the tears that have fallen from their apex on his chin.

It is heartbreaking for the woman of the ritual to see. Any similar scene is to one who has buried another, not for the grief of the mourning, but for the void ahead that they will inevitably face, the habit of someone else’s being alive, like flipping the light switch on when the power is out. Obituaries call them survivors, but the grief feels interminable, unendurable, let alone survivable.

According to the obituary, Ian McDaniel is the survivor, the man in the chair. The man at the gas station just a week before. He is old enough to have been married sixteen years, with chin whiskers and short hair wearing a white Oxford over rust Chinos, a tie loosened in the collar buttons, covered with a black sportcoat from a two-piece suit and slip-on loafers, the formal attire of a college professor, his only jewelry a wedding ring.

The tractor operator shuts off the diesel engine and the solemnity of the cemetery is restored. Ian snorts back the accumulation of runny snot, breathing through his mouth. More tears accumulate on the tip of his chin and drip to his hands. The woman can’t pretend in her best cemetery manners not to notice Ian’s complete isolation now and he appears more lonely the longer the man in the tractor waits. She’s changed her position, her knees drawn up, wrapped about with her arms, nesting her chin as she watches the scene.

A truck pulls in behind the tractor, the squeak of its slow braking louder than its idle. It is a pickup with the bed replaced by a frame that supports a girder which supports a chain winch that holds the top to the vault of the casket beside which Ian is still seated. The driver of the truck walks to the tractor operator and they exchange a silent greeting out of habit and look in the direction of the work they need to complete. The woman watches the standoff between the mourner and the cemetery workers.

Ian is one who is terminally polite. Even at a moment like this, the threshold of which truncates anything he knew before, he considers the waiting men and rises and walks around the casket suspended above the vault by wide green straps. He stops at the new headstone lying on two two-by-fours on the Astroturf waiting to be placed. Engraved across the top of this double marker is McDANIEL, with IAN on the left side, his birth date below, and LINDA on the right, her birth date on one side of a hyphen and the date of Wednesday last on the other. He bends down and takes a corner of the Astroturf and peels it back to reveal a second headstone beneath, one that is well weathered. Its engraved Blue Highway font is more frail, worn thin on the vowels in the family name, McDANIEL. Ian was a survivor then, too.

He lets the turf go and it rolls back into place. He then removes the simple corsage from his jacket and places the carnation on the coffin, the only flower. There is no accompanying spray. There are no arrangements on stands surrounding the interment. This funeral appears to the woman looking on to have been little more than a formality. With so few present to pay their respects and the absence of interment accoutrements, she confirms her own intuition that this must be a service for one who took their own life.

In the business of the burial the funeral home edited Ian’s obituary draft censoring the word suicide as if the stigma of the word itself would somehow be bad for business. Immediately following the phone conversation between Ian and his mother-in-law, everyone knew and few, if any, were surprised though none made any attempt to intervene. So, it didn’t really matter that the obituary danced around the truth of the deceased. People ignore the homeless vet asking for spare change at the traffic signal or the young lady with Down Syndrome on the bus for the same reason. To recognize the plight is to admit its possibility. To have seen Linda in any way other than her perpetuated fraud of being happy would have taken time, effort and sensitivity, three resources most people are unwilling to invest in others, especially those close to those who suffer. To empathize at this vulnerable level may admit the possibility, even the ability one might have to self-terminate.

The death of a terminally ill child is handled with no less separation. The saddest rift in the natural order of things, as the woman who sits by the stone lamb can testify, is outliving a child. This wake of grief is most disconsolate. Anyone who is a loving parent is reduced to a sickened silence when the notion of their own child’s death is emphatically introduced by some vicarious association. While most people struggle with existential ideas about mortality, the thoughtful consideration of losing a child to death is so abhorrent that it is easier and safer to ignore it. To empathize with a mourning parent is to admit the possibility of the death of one’s own child. No one wants to go there, so the grief of a mourning parent becomes isolating, especially beyond that designated time when the cycle of grief should be complete, a myth of mourning.

The driver of the limousine steps out of the vehicle and crosses the turf toward Ian. They stand for a moment, the driver appears to contemplate something and then places his hand on Ian’s shoulder trying to persuade him – guesses the woman – to leave the grave and be driven away to the sanctuary of funeral potatoes and quiet talk. Ian struggles a bit to get his feet underneath him and to get beyond the self-consciousness of his runny nose. Composure regained, he appears to reassure the driver who shakes Ian’s hand, turns and walks back to the stretched Lincoln, starts the engine and drives away. Ian shifts his focus to the truck holding the heavy vault lid and walks between grave markers to it.

The perspectives of those who watch this tableau are as varied as their vantages. For the woman it is a previously unseen display, a break in interment protocol wherein the mourner dismisses the limo and now seems prepared to remain for the lowering of the casket and the sealing of the vault. For the driver and the operator it’s a condition of the job, waiting for the mourners to leave and then respectfully complete the interment. For Ian it is something he will struggle to remember and may not actively recall until he has reached the place where his grief is infrequent enough to allow him respite in this city cemetery. That’s what cemeteries are for.

The woman watches Ian approach the two men. She can hear their voices carry a bit in the breeze of this afternoon, though nothing is really discernible. The driver and Ian walk to the bed of the truck and stand together, looking at the suspended vault lid. Up closer it looks massive to Ian, rocking just a bit in its chain cradle. He runs his hand along the top of the lid while he cranes his head beneath to look at its underside, concrete Tupperware to last till the end of time, to contain a coffin of fine wood and rare metal, designed to remain long after its contents have decomposed to dust and bone enveloped in their Sunday best. The idea of post-mortem preservation is a cultural quirk where the more it’s considered, the queerer it becomes.

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