I may have made a mistake in going to see my father’s body. It was one of those choices you may regret not making so I made the journey with my wife to see him one last time. On Halloween.
I’ve seen dead bodies before. I was with him when he saw his mother, so small, frail and deflated in a coffin that dwarfed her. I remember the utter devastation of a man I had seen so rarely cry as he softly repeated “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” over and over, taken from grown man to tiny boy in a heart beat.
I had seen my sons lovingly presented in the hospital chapel overlooked by the button eyes of teddy bears placed there as a comfort.
This was different. It haunts me in a way it didn’t with my sons. I have photos of that day of us both gently laying our hands and tiny kisses on their cold heads.
Before I went I asked people on Twitter what the etiquette on viewing a body was. I follow lots of funeral and death positive tweeters but received only a short ‘it depends’ message from Dying Matters. I needn’t have bothered asking. When I saw the body I didn’t want to take a picture. I didn’t want to have a record of that. It haunts me.
His body is there in the corner of my eye. In quiet moments I have a flash of that cold, dreary room and that doily of a shroud. What funeral director doesn’t have at least a box of tissues in a viewing room? Grieving is not a dignified matter, there’s all sorts of leaking fluids that need wiping away discreetly. The chapel of rest stretched the definition by a mile. It was closer to a changing room complete with pull across curtain and awful piped music.
What surprised me most was how big he seemed. He had always been self-conscious about his height but in death he seemed to fill the coffin. I had a semi-hysterical moment of realising we were wearing matching suits (“well, now one of us is going to have to change”). He did look asleep but I could tell from the discoloration of his nose that this wasn’t sleep.
I asked for a moment alone and said nothing. His wife stood outside and even if she hadn’t I don’t think I would have said anything. Not of consequence. It would have been for me not him.
As with my sons before him, I laid my hand on his chest, stroked his tidy shaven chin and kissed him briefly on his cold, cold forehead before a whispered goodbye.
I then sat in a room devoid of care or comfort, preserved in the 1970s, decorated with sepia photos of the long proud history of a family firm and overheard a discussion about how repeat viewings may not be possible as natural processes were starting to overwhelm preservation.
This was irrelevant to me. I never wanted to go back. I don’t need to. Now I fear that it’s this image that will dominate my memories. Not of the smiling and waving after a day out to celebrate birthdays but his body in that cold pitiless room with a soundtrack of bloody pan pipes.