The real person is so very real, so obviously living and different from what is left that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing. It is not faith, it is not reason–just a "feeling." "Feelings" are in the long run a pretty good match for what we call our beliefs. - C.S. Lewis
It was Sunday, June 19, 2005, Father's Day. I arrived at the funeral home to meet my mother, my younger brother, and my older brother's wife and children for the purpose of planning his funeral. My brother had died suddenly of a massive heart attack the night before .
He was to be cremated, but there was one more task after the arrangements were finalized which had to be performed: a brief viewing of my brother's remains. This was necessary because of my mother's insistence. She is one who has to actually see and handle the corpse of a loved one in order to assure herself that some horrible mistake has not been made.
This was something I could have done without, I suppose. I passed on the opportunity to view my father's corpse before his cremation. I wanted to remember him the way he was in life, not as a lifeless "nothing" who had just recently been a living person.
I asked my mother if she was sure this is what she wanted to do. Earl, after all, would not be enhanced the way funeral directors usually enhance a corpse before normal viewings. We would be looking at death in all its unadorned starkness. But she insisted.
We were led to a room where my brother's remains were laid out in a cardboard box - the box, in fact, which would be used during the cremation. Inside my brother lay wrapped in the hospital sheet he was pronounced dead upon a short while earlier, his arms awkwardly folded across his chest. He was cold and stiff from the freezer and was the most hideous shade of pale. Not a pretty sight. Yet my mom kissed him and loved him and cried the tears of a grieving mother. In fact, we all cried.
When it was my turn to spend a moment alone with my brother one last time, I took hold of his forearm and looked at his face - that face that had made me and those of us who knew him laugh so many times. His wit and ability to find something funny in just about every aspect of life were a main theme in the eulogies offered at his funeral.
As I looked into his face I thought back to when we were teenagers and had listened to a promo for the old Tomorrow Show which host Tom Snyder announced was going to feature someone who "talked to the dead." My brother and I looked at each other and snickered. Of course, the show was about a medium. But my brother, who was reclining on his bed at the time, dutifully mimicked a corpse as I asked questions to this unresponsive "dead person."
Only now he wasn't playing, and there was no laughter to be had.
My brother wore a neatly trimmed beard. But I noticed the newly emerged whiskers from around his trimming. Life had been going on as usual for him when the end came and no doubt he planned to shave that very day, his day off (he worked the day he died but left early because he felt bad). My brother was always careful about his appearance. But now he was no longer in a position to be.
It's odd the thoughts one has when looking upon the remains of a loved one. I didn't really discuss mine with the others. My mom's thoughts were obvious as she told us the very minute of the very day she gave birth to Earl and just what his birth weight had been. She was there to bring him into the world and now she was there to see him off. Then Earl's wife looked at his remains and then at me and tearfully said: "He promised me we were going to grow old together ... and now look what he's done."
Does something indeed turn into nothing? Human hearts have overwhelmingly answered "No!" down through the centuries of recorded history. Even so devout a rationalist as Robert Ingersoll observed:
The idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear, beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow – Hope shining upon the tears of grief.
I can't bring myself to douse that hope or ignore that rainbow, even as I stand face-to-face with doubt.