My Mother Was An Undertaker
Lessons for The Living in A Dying Time
My mother was an undertaker.
My mother’s mother was an undertaker too. For that reason, I grew up in funeral homes abundant with the sights, smells, and sounds of death all around me.
As a little girl, I remember caskets in the showroom made of hard woods and cold metals. I can still smell the sickeningly sweet scent that stiffly hung from the front door to the back stoop. With it were the mysterious pumping sounds that at times could be heard from behind the scary closed door in the backroom where the white jackets hung. It was scary only because it was closed and off limits to me. I had no clue what it all really meant back then, but over the years, my understanding of that place graduated with my understanding of life and death.
I’m sure some would wonder whether growing up in a funeral home made for an odd upbringing, but what is more natural than death in, what was at the time, the murder capital of the country? In itself, Flint, Michigan gave me an education not afforded anywhere else. This small, proud city seemed to mourn its historic past as the birthplace of the brilliance of General Motors. Yet all that remained was a remnant of that memory, bravely, but unsuccessfully fighting off its negative characterization as the most violent city in the country. For me, it was my playground and my boot camp — both at once. It put life and death into perspective in a society that valued neither.
Death was confrontational for me.
Aside from the passing of elderly relatives and church members who’d lived a good life, dying at ripe old ages, I have countless stories about its ugliness. Times when I understood that no White angel was floating down to escort folks back to heaven where they’d stand at the pearly gates chatting it up with St. Peter. The death angels I’d heard about had no wings and neither was heaven their home.
After having a fourth grade classmate misused and murdered by her mother and brother, I asked my own mother why God didn’t let her live her life and Mommy said, “She did. Hers was just short. Babies begin to die the moment they begin to live.”
At the time, I thought my mother was just being mean. I thought that she should be a normal mother and roll with the sadness of the moment and let me cry like a kid, like all my friends were doing. Not my mother. She plainly taught me the importance of living life to the fullest, with no time for fairy tales. So at nine years old I learned to savor every moment because tomorrow is not promised to any one of us.
I learned to cry without tears during my senior year in high school.
My mother had left me at the funeral home for a couple of hours to show the body of a premature baby who had only been blessed to breathe in life a couple of hours before giving up his fight. She had given me strict instructions not to allow anyone to disturb the baby in his crib-like casket. That was easier said than done when Mommy walked out the back door and his grieving mother walked in the front, her primal groans filling every corner of the chapel as she gathered her creation into her arms whispering lullabies he’d never hear.
I was not supposed to let her touch him, but that day I learned compassion and I wept on the inside, standing silently by as her lookout just in case my mother returned before this mourning mother had settled her baby back into his resting place. I somehow understood the temporary insanity that overtook the young woman as she rocked, cradled, talked to, and kissed the son she’d never know. The memory of those few moments would be all she shared with him and I wanted her to have them.
I remember 1010 Russell Street where five black teenagers and one adult were all murdered in one night on Flint’s North side.
Everybody in my school and neighborhood was talking about the mass murder because most of the young victims were neighbors or classmates. It hit even closer to home for me because my mother was responsible for serving several of the bereaved families in what was a very scary time for our community. For several days, no one could explain why this evil thing happened or who had committed the heinous crimes.
My middle school bully just happened to be one of those six victims. Dead and gone. My remembrance of him was that of a fair-skinned, thinly built guy with dark curly hair who all the girls said was fine. He had a mustache before all the other boys, but didn’t have the sense to let his good looks work for him. He was unnecessarily mean as he tried to intimidate all of us our entire seventh grade year. Because I was assigned to sit next to him, he was always pressing me to give him all my answers in science class, always talking shit, and always being nasty.
The other girls called him mannish when he molested them or humped their booties. I was always ready to fight him if it came to that. It never did. His presence did, however, create the stress of me always having to watch my back when he was around. I was relieved at the end of the year. His meanness and nastiness made him little more than a menace to me.
Those few years later, my awareness of his body on the table in the back room with the scary door now open was vivid — no longer a boy, just a corpse with his cap peeled back and visible bullet holes through several of his fingers and wounds everywhere else. He gave me nightmares for several weeks, but I couldn’t understand why. He wasn’t the first dead body I’d seen and we were never friends because he was never friendly to me. At the same time, I felt an immense guilt because here was an instance where everyone around me was grieving, but I was not. I wondered if my lack of grief was finally the gene pool kicking in, preparing me to take over the family business.
Over the years, people would often ask me if I’d be following in my mother’s footsteps, but I’d decided long ago that I’d rather help people in life than in death, so I became a teacher in a city much like my own home town.
In fact, Gary, Indiana was dubbed the murder capital of the country the first 10 of 11 years after my arrival there. Unfortunately, like Flint, this little city was an education all its own with its dead and dying kids.
As a young teacher, there were so many lessons I knew I should share with my students especially with the life I’d lived and all the things I’d seen.
Some I could articulate, but for the others there were no words, so I shared what I could:
Life is short, but it can get shorter, so be grateful. Life is not fair, but no one ever promised that it would be. I want you to love while you can. Love your parents, love your siblings, and love your friends. You should even love your enemies and treat all folks right because at the end of this life, people will only know you by your fruit.
I love you with my whole heart.
An Undertaker’s Daughter