Sitting Up With The Dead …

John-Maler-Collier-The-Sleeping-Beauty-1921

John-Maler-Collier The Sleeping Beauty, 1921
Find Kate Mayfield’s THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER
and read the story behind this amazing memoir.

Welcome once again to Flash Fiction Wednesday. I must say that some of your sentences have proven to be a wonderful challenge. This one stumped me for a long time.

Please enjoy the story I’ve written for Laura Drake’s sentence:

She’d have believed her mother’s assurances more, if it weren’t for the empty casket, waiting in the next room.

Sitting Up With The Dead

Auda May wasn’t expected home that day. Sarah and Conroy were asked to keep the child with them for the night until her mother could find a way to explain.

“What’s to explain, Mama?” She craned her neck toward the sliding doors. She’d have believed her mother’s assurances more, if it weren’t for the empty casket, waiting in the next room. “Either you’ve got Gran’s dead body in there or not.”

“I told you, your grandmother is fine.” She quickly closed the doors. “She’s in her room watching her soaps.”

Auda snatched up her book bag and went to her grandmother’s room. Gran had not moved out of her room for weeks. April had come and Gran was in the yard cutting lilacs for the big vase on the dining room table. She turned to hand the branches to Auda and fell over. What Auda remembered from that day was the icy chill of her grandmother’s hands.

The doctors told them it was her heart. And what she needed was complete bed rest. At that moment Auda’s heart pounded in her ears and the walk to the back of the house was agonizingly slow, as though she were slogging through mud.

When she finally opened her grandmother’s door, sweat dotted her upper lip and her mouth was so dry her tongue felt glued to her palette. “Gran, you okay?”

Auda quickly rushed to touch her hands, to feel their warmth and know Gran was safe. “Gran, why am I supposed to stay away? Why can’t you leave this room yet? Why… ”

“Child your whys are about to wear me to the bone. No tellin why. Just do as you are told.”

“Mama tried to hide it from me, but I saw. I saw a casket in the living room. Those are only for dead people.”

“Well, you’ve got that right.” Gran patted her hand. “Is that what this is all about? You think your mama’s getting ready to put me under?”

“Who is gonna be in the box, Gran?”

“At least you’ve changed from the why to the who.” She straightened the quilt over her legs and motioned for her granddaughter to sit. “Sit and let me tell you a story.”

Auda smiled. She loved her Gran’s stories.

“When I was a little girl, if a person passed, we kept them in the house. We didn’t leave them with strangers or let strange hands tend them.”

“Mr. Oliver tends to the dead.”

“Yes, he does. And he charges more than a body needs to do it,” she said. “So, we’re bringing back some of the old ways. Me and your mama that is.”

“What old ways?”

“The ways of sitting up with the dead,” she said. “The ways of taking care of our own and helping the ferryman take our loved ones across the river.”

Auda leaned on her gran’s shoulder and listened to the tale of the ferryman of the underworld river. “Charon’s duty was to ferry the dead across the river. And the payment was two shinning gold coins.”

“Why did they do that?”

“Well, in my day we rested pennies in the eyes to reflect the soul of the one we had lost,” she paused. “And it also fills in the eye socket so not to frighten those who come to visit.”

“You mean we’re gonna have a dead person up in that box in the living room? And strangers are gonna come and visit?”

“They won’t be strangers, child. They’ll be our neighbors. Those who lost their jobs when the factory closed and can’t afford the new ways.”

“Why don’t you put the body in the garage?”

“Well, that’s not very hospitable now is it, Auda May? Leaving  our neighbor in the cold of the garage.”

Auda was allowed to stay home and watch the events of the next twelve hours. Her mama explained, “Old Jonas Marks has passed on to the other side. But his body will be with us for a spell.”

Women came to help, some to cook, some to wash the old man. Gran showed her the new pennies she would put in his eye sockets.

“Then we’ll sit up with the dead.”

This meant that for two days and two nights someone would sit next to the box. “Is that so he doesn’t get lonely?”

“Yes, child.”

The morning he was put into the ground, the preacher came to say prayers, Auda May’s cousin sang a sad song, and some of the men dug the grave where the family had picked for his mortal body to rest. “Of course, you know Auda, that his soul has already gone to rest with Our Lord.”

“Yes, Gran.”

It turned into  a feast. Men brought in kegs of beer and fired up the outside grilling pit. The women brought in lots of fried chicken, salads and tons of pies and muffins. Auda May ate until she felt stuffed like a Christmas bird.

Gran was able to leave her room and life pretty much returned to normal until three months later when Auda May came home from school and saw another casket in the living room. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

But once again all the assurances wouldn’t make her feel safe until she found her gran and felt her hands. Once the warmth of her gran’s hands touched her face, she smiled and said, “I hope the women make lots of fried chicken and apple pie.”

Gran smiled, “I’m sure they will, child.”

##########

In recent years, there has been a trend of going back to the old ways when people kept loved ones in their homes. I chose this story because each time I read Laura’s sentence my mind was flooded with the memory of an incident from my youth and the first time I learned what it meant to “sit up with the dead.”

I was eight years old. One day after school my mother told me that a boy two doors down had died from leukemia and would be “viewed” in his parent’s living room. I found out that he was the baby brother of twin girls in my class.

Children were permitted to visit and my mother informed me I would represent our family since his two sisters were my classmates. It was a private house with a bay window in the living room where his casket sat on a high platform. It was small box, lined with pretty white satin and surrounded with all white flowers.

He wore a navy blue suit. What he would have worn had he lived long enough to receive his First Holy Communion. He was blonde and beautiful and their only son. His mother sat next to the small box with silent tears rolling down her cheeks.

It was our custom to say a pray when we were in front of an open casket. I walked over and looked into the box. I saw a small, blonde boy who looked like he was sleeping. I couldn’t pray.

I turned and saw my twin classmates, with swollen eyes, their faces rubbed red. I mumbled something, nodded to his father and left.

############

What was your first experience with death?

Do you think we should celebrate death as we do life?

fOIS In The City

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27 Comments

Filed under Flash Fiction

27 responses to “Sitting Up With The Dead …

  1. Florence – you are indeed a master of turning these sentences into your own unique stories. I grew up on a large working cattle ranch with many relatives within an eighty mile radius or so. Farming/ranching communites are tight and when tragedy strikes one family, most of the other families lend a helping hand however they can. Therefore, children are expected to help out at a young age. My first experience with death was at the tender age of 21 and Vietnam made a widow out of me.

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    • Sheri, thank you for your kind words. What I learned later in life was that even though we grew up in a Brooklyn factory district, out parents had taken the farm and family traditions with them and we often fuctioned like a farm family … everyone contributing, even the small children. I believe that becoming a young widow impacted on your perceptions of life, death and war 🙂

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  2. What a beautiful story, Florence. Even when I was younger, death had already become “new” and somewhat impersonal in our little suburb.

    But in 1994, I was on a dig in the Irish countryside. One of my fellow students was absent for a few days, and when she returned, she explained that her grandfather had passed and by custom, all the women in her family prepared the body for burying. It was done through the night with singing and drinking.

    I must have looked surprised, because she said the practice was still quite common outside the cities. She also admitted to initial trepidation since it was her “first time,” but found the experience deep and meaningful.

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    • That’s true, Debra. There are parts of the country where the “old ways” have always been tradition. And for the new generation to discover those ways is very intriguing.

      At eight years I had the sad distinction of meeting death twice.
      The blonde boy was the first I saw in someone’s living room, but my first brush with death came almost a few months before when my mother lost her best friend and I lost the woman I called my angel. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

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  3. Wow, Florence! GREAT job! I wouldn’t have guessed that was what my line was about! I thought you’d turn it into a mystery, but you made it a touching, beautiful story of love and loss.

    Simply beautiful. And how did you know that lilacs were my Favorite flower? 😉

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    • Mine as well because they remind me of my mother, The lilacs outside her bedroom window in our house made her so happy, and gathering branches in spring for my dining room, filled the house with their wonderful scent. I still love lilacs but they are not indigenous to South Florida.

      Your sentence could have been a mystery as well, but it truly brought me back to that little boy in a casket in our neighbor’s house. I saw his beautiful face and remembered when my mom told me the stories about putting pennies in eye sockets and sitting up with the dead.

      Glad you like it 🙂

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  4. What a great story, Florence. And it’s sad to think that Sheri was widowed at 21 because of Vietnam. Wow!
    Now I’m wondering in how many places this tradition of viewing the dead is still being practiced. Do you know? I can see it happening in other countries more than in the U.S.
    Patti

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    • Thanks, Patti. Yes I agree, it is sad to become a widow at such a young age.

      About the practice of viewing the dead at home? In some rural areas of theUS that has never changed.

      In many countries there are no choices. However, today in the US the tradition of sitting up with the dead has to do with two major issues. One: many no longer want to send tens of thousands of dollars to an undertaker and two, many believe that it is a kinder way to treat their dead. Environmentally, many of those also decline embombing which is forbidden by some religions. And it has always been the practice of farm, land and estate owners to bury their loved ones on their own land.

      Glad you enjoyed the story.

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  5. I know Laura’s prompt was not your first line, but it could have been. It never ceases to surprise me when writers choose to ramble through their opening instead of hooking and delighting the writer from word one.

    That said, you hooked me with plenty of interest and speculation yourself. Why Miss Auda May was not expected home that day, indeed. Oh, yeah, I had to keep reading. Tasty bait led to a satisfying read. Well done, again, Florence.

    My first experience with death was when my great grandmother passed. I didn’t know her well, we rarely saw her. I’d just turned five and was, incidentally, proud new owner of a dress bought for the first day of school that would, as my mother said, do nicely for the funeral. It had big green dots, a bow at the neck and buttons down the bodice. It was great fun to be dressed up, to spy my shining buckle shoes between folds of the skirt when I twirled. Shortly after, my bottom was stinging. How was I to know a funeral was serious, solemn business?

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    • Thanks, Sherry. I am still chucklikng over your stinging bottom. You’d think the adults would have thought it precious that you were twirling in joy. Oh well, lesssons to be learned.

      Glad you like it once you got by Auda not being expected home that day 🙂

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  6. You did it again. Love the voice in this post.

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  7. annerallen

    Beautiful, emotionally gripping story, Florence. These are good enough to be submitting to contests and literary journals– I hope you’ll publish a collection.

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    • Gees, Anne … from your lips. I wanted to try the new “Compose” but they consider anything pub’d on a blog … previously pub’d. I’m so glad you are enjoying the stories. You’ll be pleased with what I know I “can” do with them 🙂

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  8. Vicki Batman

    An amazing story, Florence. I have never been in a house with a casket and a body. The first person’s funeral I went to was my granddaddy. He was 78 and had had a tumor near his stomach, but it wasn’t cancerous. Maybe the surgery was too hard on his old bones. We used to sit on his back porch and watch the birds trying to get to his figs. He loved his figs. He’d strung up a rattling contraption to scare them away. We’d rock and sing.

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  9. Florence,

    I especially loved your addendum about the young boy who died and you went to the wake alone.

    But to answer your question, my first clear understanding of death and funerals was about the time I was 10 and my dad’s younger nephew, who lived through the Korean War as a Marine in many battles, got out, came home, and was killed 2 days later in a car accident. My father was devastated. So was the young man’s mother. I was not allowed to go to the funeral.

    My next time were the death was very personal for me was when my mom’s father died very suddenly on December 23 during a snow storm when he was shoveling snow. I was very close to him and was devastated. Still mourn him.

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    • Casey, I think that no matter how old we are, the first or second or the last time death touched us … our connection to someone has been broken. Even the little boy I never knew somehow made me feel like I had lost a friend.

      Is it not true that each loss dimiishes all of us. Thank you so much for your experiences 🙂

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  10. My first experience with death was my grandfather dying while I was in high school. I do think it should be celebrated . . . too often our society tries to hide it from our young ones, and I think that sends the wrong message. I think it’s important to take them to say their goodbyes and let the older ones give their last words of wisdom and blessings. Plus, I think it makes it easier for the kids to say goodbye b/c they can see how much the person was in pain.

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  11. Oh yes, Jamie. It is so important to let the little ones be part of this process … to learn that death is just another part of living and we will all face it one day. How truly wonderful that you have such an open heart and can teach them to be that wasy as well 🙂

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  12. A beautiful story, Florence. I first experienced death when I was five years old. I didn’t understand it, though. All I knew was that my favorite uncle was gone and my aunt, who was eight months pregnant, was crying in the house. She asked my mom, “What am I going to do?” The image of her swollen with child and crying has stayed with me all of this time.

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  13. christicorbett

    Florence,

    I love the twist of being led to believe the first casket was for the Grandma, and then finding that it was for another. And then I fell for it again when you mentioned the second casket. Nicely done!

    My first experience with death was at around age five or six, when my favorite great aunt died. I remember eating my breakfast cereal and watching cartoons, and the phone ringing, my mom talking in whispered hushes for a moment, and then breaking the news to me.

    I pushed my cereal away so hard the bowl went over the edge of the table and my stomach roiled as I thought of not being able to see my great aunt at the next family function.

    As always, a great post!

    Christi Corbett

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    • As always, Christi … I appreciate your comments. Yes, having that experience at a young age remains with us for our entire life. Even when you tell about it, I can still feel the emotion of that kid. Thanks 🙂

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  14. Ooh, excellent. Loved it.

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  15. Hi honey 🙂

    I’ve nominated you for a blog award, but please don’t feel obligated to accept. If you do, you can find the info here…

    http://the-view-outside.com/2013/06/26/an-avalanche-of-awards/

    Xx

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