Dressing the Dead

Jun 11, 2014 | 0 comments

Here is a moving guest blog post by Kathy Wagoner, an award-winning essay titled “Dressing the Dead.” She and her sister helped dress both their deceased parents prior to their funerals. It is a healing activity that you can ask the funeral home to allow you to do. Kathy’s essay expresses it beautifully.

Dressing the Dead

My sister and I clutched plastic grocery bags stuffed with the remains of an old soldier’s pride as we hurried across the deserted parking lot. We were a few minutes late for our appointment, and though we knew the undertaker would understand, we still hurried.

A nagging thought from one of the shallower crevices of my fragile mind took me through the list of things we were supposed to bring. My sister stopped me short of the entrance.  In the past week, we had made arrangements for the casket, music for the service, photos for display, motorcycle escorts, but today we had forgotten the socks. Yes, we both agreed, they were important. Any pair would do as long as they were dark. Thankfully, we had already dropped the skivvies off the day before. She left me on her detour to the store. I rushed through the double doors of the mortuary and into a place hushed by heaviness.

Soft lights, peaceful paintings and a room full of patterns gentle to the eye were immediately alienating. Here was an elegance I was not accustomed to, stiff in the classic cut of impeccable furnishings and unnatural neatness. It was meant to bring comfort but instead brought a reminder of the dividing line between life and death, the difference between wishes and reality.

Hours seemed to pass as I waited alone on the edge of an overstuffed couch in the empty mortuary, and time waited with me.

Then Dianne burst through the entry doors and paused to gaze around the room just as I had done. She joined me on the couch and handed over a bag filled with a dozen pairs of socks. My sister, the practical, ingenious one who could make a table out of a ball of string, had not been able to make a decision on such a simple thing as a single pair of socks. She had bought dark blue and black, stretchy, stiff, smooth, and cozy warm. But I understood her dilemma. What would look best with a dress blue uniform? Was it all right if the socks weren’t military issue? Since we hadn’t found the spit-shined shoes, we decided, the uniform would not be the deciding factor. The warm socks would do, the cozier the better. We didn’t want our father’s feet to be cold.

An undertaker soon appeared. With gentle sympathy, he ushered us down a long hall to a solemn grey room void of decoration. He left us alone with our father who waited on a polished stainless steel table, naked except for a pair of baggy, white skivvies.

This was not the first time Dianne and I had stood in an icy room with a loved one between us, determined to do what most considered bizarre. Years before, we found comfort in doing the same for the one who gave us everything, including life. Again, it would be our honor to gently brush hair from a face insistent on sleep and dress the outer shell – an expression of final tenderness in this less than gracious world.

The white button-up shirt slipped smoothly over fingers touched with an edge of shadow, skin that was cool but not cold, firm but not stiff. He fought us as we rolled him from one side to the other and tried to pull his pants over knobby knees and bony hips, until at last he crossed his legs. I don’t suppose that hollow place had ever heard such laughter. We knew then that he approved of our efforts. He lay there relaxed and enjoying our plight.

The jacket was more difficult. The problem wasn’t the uniform. It still fit more than thirty years after the last time he wore it. And we couldn’t really fault our father. We were just children again trying to force clothes onto an unwieldy Ken doll and worrying that the stress on the arms would be enough to pop them out of joint. We finally gave up and asked for help.

The undertaker returned and nodded his understanding. There was an art to it, he said, as he stepped up to wrestle with the dead. When the battle was won, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and put a proper military knot in the tie. Then he bent over to replace the medals that had fallen off in the fray. He left us alone again.

It was done, and there was still time to touch our father’s hands and face, to stroke his hair into place. It was not a last goodbye – how can you say farewell completely to someone who won’t let go. Instead, it was our last embrace. The physical had passed away, but we held on to that superficial silhouette for as long as possible, perhaps because there was not much else to cling to.

Humenick Wedding 1950Our mother took the heart of the family with her when she left us for a world without pain. Loving her had been easy. And we knew without a doubt she loved us in return, evidenced by her absolute acceptance of us no matter how huge our mistakes or how often we made them. She had faults, she had to have, but we never really noticed.

Our father, on the other hand, was the no-laughing-at-the dinner-table kind of father. He handed out the same harsh punishment for spilling milk as for talking back. The kind of drunk who might forget where he left his car keys but always remembered where he hung his belt, and how to use it. He was the opposite of our mother, his love conditional and impossible to earn. Still, his death seemed to leave an even larger hole.

Even as an adult I believed he must have loved us. He was our father after all, and aren’t fathers supposed to love their children? But now the chance was gone to hear him express what he never had before. Now we were completely incomplete.

The next day we pushed through melancholy pipes playing “Danny Boy” and held hands through the solitary tones of taps. We flinched each of the three times the sharp military salute cracked the sky. And as expected, the ground swallowed our father whole.

But it wasn’t until later that night, when his friends paid tribute to the old soldier they had dearly loved, that we faced the truth and the lie. They dressed him in humor, in the gold braid of a gracious and kind heart, in the pressed uniform of honor and loyalty. The women called him the “Kissing Angel.” His buddies said, their voices breaking, he was the kind of friend you could always count on.

We listened to every word of praise, unable to say a word ourselves. Knowing we never knew him was difficult enough, but knowing he bestowed these precious gifts of himself on others was the most devastating of all.

Even so, we knew what life would hold from that moment on. It was as inevitable as death itself.  He would never let us go.

Our father would be there every time we saw our nation’s flag or heard the first notes of taps. We would see him reflected daily in our own need for perfection, in our own stubborn tendencies. But we would strive to be to our loved ones what he had never been to us. When the end came, we did not want our children to dress us in strangers’ clothes.

Guest blogger KL Wagoner writes speculative fiction and also uses the pen name Cate Macabe at her blog that deals mostly with memoir and facing fears at http://thisnewmountain.com/blog/.

A Good Goodbye