Last night I started reading Steven James’ The Bishop. By page 19 I was in full blown cry mode and had to put down the book until I could calm down. His description of a dead body in a casket hit home. Hard.
I’ve attended quite a few open casket funerals. I attribute this to my Filipino heritage. I know it is by no means a Filipino phenomenon, but all Filipino funerals I went to were open casket. Whereby, only some of the non-Filipino funerals I went to are open casket. I remember finding pictures of open casket funerals in my grandparents’ collection of pictures. Not just pictures of family at the grave site, but pictures of the family gathered around the loved one who passed away. Pictures of the dead body. As a young child I found this extremely morbid. It is also how I discovered my youngest uncle had a twin sister.
As an adult, I still find it morbid. There were funerals where I refused to go up to see the body even after family members attempted to get me up there. No way. No how. Nuh uh.
I still remember when Mom de los Santos passed away and I braved the line to see her body one last time. A friend next to me commented, “She looks like she’s sleeping.” All the while I’m thinking, No, she looks like just a wasted shell of her lively self. It really wasn’t the way I wanted to remember her. It’s really not how I want to remember any of my loved ones.
I don’t care how much makeup is used. No body I have ever seen looks like they are sleeping. A lie we tell ourselves to make our grief lessen? Possibly. Another perception of reality? Likely. After all, I tend to see things as they are.
When Granny died 7 years ago, I was the one who found her and had to check her to make sure what I knew in my heart was true. She was cold to the touch and one eye was half open. Definitely not looking like she was sleeping. Thankfully, we had her cremated so only pictures of her were at the service. When Papa died 5 months later I was nowhere near and never had to see his body.
When Lelang and Grandpa both passed away, they were in open caskets. Two services each. In a very small church that has since burned down. It is not uncommon to see mourners and visitors at the open casket wailing declarations of love and other things I can’t quite get the gist of since most of it is in Ilokano. There are quite a lot of things, on the ritual side, that happen surrounding the death of a loved one on the Filipino side of my family but I’m not going into it all.
What really hit me when I had to put the book down was the memory of standing at Grandpa’s casket after one of my aunties dragged me up there. I guess it was obvious that I was avoiding it. As soon as I saw him I started crying louder than I ever had in public. Or at least it seemed that way with the church’s acoustics. No one really needed a microphone to be heard in St. Sophia’s. I remember leaning on my auntie in an effort to not allow my legs to buckle under me as I felt they would.
It was Grandpa’s body there in front of me, but it was just his body. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t his smiling face. His singing. His story telling. It wasn’t him. It also wasn’t the man who had one foot in the otherworld for years. The man who kept asking who I was the last time I saw him despite the many times I kept telling him, “Ni Eddie, Grandpa.” The short way in Ilokano to let someone know who one of your parents is.
The last images of Mom de los Santos, Granny, Grandpa, Lelang, and other friends and loved ones are forever burned in my memories. There is no unseeing what I’ve seen. There is no changing my perception of what someone looks like after they’ve died. Because of my own perceptions and because of my love for others, I would never want their last image of me to be just my shell. I’m sure there is no way around one or two finding me or being there when I leave this flesh and blood world, but I do not want a church full of people remembering pasty makeup that approximates life when life has left me.