I’d never seen a corpse before. But there he/it/the body was, in a small studio apartment the size of a basic motel room, on the bed, on his/its/the body’s back, the face frozen in suffering, spelling out every single effort of last breath and pain. Not a peaceful death even if perhaps it occurred in sleep, the eyes closed.
If I had not known this was my friend’s deceased father, I might have initially guessed he was asleep, until the stillness of his body would make it clear that he had passed.
She had called me an hour earlier. “My father died last night.” He had been fighting, and losing, his battle with prostate cancer. “I don’t know what to do, he was Jewish, I don’t know what to do.” She was not a practicing Jew–she had grown up in Russia behind the Iron Curtain, with little knowledge of Jewish practices. She wanted me to help.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be over.” I didn’t know much, either, just what I’d learned in my studies during Orthodox conversion. Just what was in books. Asking me to help was an act of desperation. I spotted my copy of Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and slipped it into my purse before driving over the bridge to the City.
And now there I was, feeling inadequate in the room with her father’s body, a corpse, armed with…a book.
“Hi.” What else could I say?
“Hi,” she said, and I could see she was very far away, by the way she moved. She was a nurse, and she worked with a familiarity with the dead, businesslike and well-practiced in the art of caring for bodies. The only evidence that this was not a normal patient was the way she periodically sighed as she idly straightened his blanket.
Together we opened the book and figured out what to do. We should get a candle. It was the Mission, a candle was fetched. It was an altar candle. Was this okay? I shrugged, it should work. It was lit. We should say a prayer. We should not leave him alone. We should try to bury him today. We should try to find a burial plot. There was a Jewish cemetery nearby. Buy the plainest wooden casket.
We whispered, we moved around the room as if he was asleep. But he was not asleep. He was dead.
I am ashamed to say that I felt a great fear of his body, the corpse, sitting in the room. When the mortuary people came to take his body away, I watched with great awe and relief as they, with great grace, carried him away.
Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.