It’s only a body. That’s what I said when we talked about death, mine in particular. I pictured my body in a bed (how often do people actually die in a bed?) and my spirit, the real me slipping away, suddenly untethered from its bodily constraints. Free at last.
I won’t be there, I said. So I don’t care what you do. Put me in a coffin, burn me up. It’s all the same to me. Except I’d rather you not waste any money on a final presentation. Give me the money now and I’ll do my own makeup and hair, thank you very much. Ditto for flowers. Buy them for me while I’m alive, so I can enjoy them. And don’t visit me at my grave because I won’t be there.
I drew the line at donating organs. I don’t like the idea of anyone rooting around in my body (even if it technically isn’t me anymore), slicing open my naked, cold flesh and pulling out items like I was a heap of used but useful parts.
But then my father died. It had been a long day, a long weekend, waiting at his bedside. We held hands and watched him breathe his last shallow breaths. We stood around him, rapt attention, the way we might salute a flag. Eventually, without the assistance of the tubes, his heart stopped beating. And then it was over. My father slipped into the other world, unnoticed, even though we had been watching so carefully.
Then it was just his body, there in the bed. We stayed there with him in the semi darkness. My practical self thought how weird it was to be in this room with a dead body. Shouldn’t it be creepy? But my father was still my father. He hadn’t yet turned into a dead person. The sun was setting and the hospital lights in the room were dimmed, the darkness feather brushing death into something like sleep.
We probably wouldn’t have stayed much past an hour more, but we had to wait for some friends who wanted to see him one last time. When they came, we talked about my father. We all looked at him lying there in the middle of the room like some strange centerpiece, a work of art that everyone had come to see.
I had made arrangements with the funeral director earlier that evening. When I called again, he said, Don’t worry, I’m in contact with the hospital. We know what to do. I’ll pick up the body from the hospital in a day or two.
A day or two? I guess I had imagined he would come to the hospital room immediately to take my father away, but of course that was ridiculous. How would they take him? Would they strap my father to a bed in an ambulance or would he just roll around in the back of a hearse? Would he wear his hospital gown?
Of course the hospital didn’t just let dead bodies take up space in expensive rooms until someone came to pick them up. I had heard the hospital had a room, a cold room, where they kept the bodies until they were picked up. I didn’t like the idea of my father waiting there by himself in a cold room, probably in a sub basement with no windows. Not that he would be looking for a view. Then I realized even the funeral director had to put my father somewhere, and it probably wasn’t a guest room in the funeral home.
On my way out, I talked to the nurse. Don’t worry, she said, We’ll clean everything up and get him ready. Like clearing the table and wrapping up the leftovers. It felt strange leaving my father there, with no one to speak for him. But I was exhausted, and there was nothing more for me to do.
Over the next few days, I called the funeral director. I checked in with Medical Records. I wanted to make sure my father was okay. Had they come to get him? It’s just a body, I told myself. But I didn’t like the idea of my father waiting there, forgotten. And besides, it was cold. I knew it was absurd, but I found myself wishing he had a blanket.
The Bible patriarchs buried their dead while the heathen burned theirs. I believe in a bodily resurrection, and I don’t know if cremation is antithetical to resurrection, (What happened to people who burned to death?). It was a relief to have my father’s ashes. I didn’t have to think about him — my father, his body — somewhere under the ground or in a bag. He wasn’t cold, lonely, or slowly decaying. The ashes were proof of that.
It was only a body, but it was the father I knew while he was with us on this earth. Those arms held me, those lips brushed the top of my head. That face was the one I searched for in a crowd. Those eyes smiled and watched me grow up. I saw that hair grow white, that head nod off to sleep.
My brother released my father’s ashes into the Pacific on one of his scuba dives. My father is gone, and it’s somehow fitting that his body is also no longer here.