Inspired by Stand By Me, which is based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, the following tale is my own experience of witnessing my first dead body. Actually, my second time you might find even more interesting. You be the judge.
Oh, and I’ve changed the names of people and places to protect the innocent.
As a young and idealistically enthusiastic college student I was jobless, girlfriendless and somewhat homeless (summers in between semesters are kinda like that). I was so eager to work in a church that I was willing to get paid a ridiculously low amount of money to do two jobs with a ridiculously high amount of work. Somehow, I found a church who would be willing to oblige me.
The lead pastor was also eager. Eager to teach me things about ministry. And I was eager to learn from him. It was a bit discouraging at times though, because in the learning process I wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise. Maybe I just needed to keep my mouth shut and be a good listener, I thought. But I would walk away from our one-sided conversations wondering if I really understood what I had just learned. I wanted to ask questions but by the time I thought there was even a second of dead air he was needed by someone or just needed to get back to his work in his office.
Just a quick aside: I really did love this guy. He was fun, inspiring and I learned a ton from him. But he was a lead pastor. They are a unique animal with unique characteristics. Sometimes it was a joy to observe and interact with them in and out of their natural habitat, but sometimes you could get bitten, taken aback by a roar, or looking down to find you’ve stepped into a pile of rich yet pungent fertilizer. Animal and nature lovers, you get me, don’t you?
So anyway, one day in the early stages of this ministry/learning experience he asked me to do him a favour. A woman in our church had just lost her grandfather. I had heard of this, felt for her and hoped I could somehow help her, her family, and the pastor. “Can you go to the visitation for me?” I readily agreed but wondered what he meant. To me “visitation” was visiting folks at their home and praying with them after some pleasant conversations over a cup of tea.
“It’s tomorrow at 2:00. Do you know where Sunnyside funeral home is?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering what that had to do with my visiting of this family.
“Ok, well can you ask her when the funeral will be?”
Turning to to his office door that would swallow him like a giant man-eating Greek lexicon he said, “Ok thanks Troy.”
But I was quick this time. “Um, Pastor Eli?”
He half turned. “Yes?”
“Where does she live?”
“Well… you don’t have to go to their house.”
“Oh. I don’t?”
“No. Just go to Sunnyside.”
The door shut and his office seemed satisfied with tucking this pastor away once again into its thoughtful, spiritual recesses.
I stood outside the door thinking I should know what’s going on. Surely I could figure it out. But since I’d never been to a funeral, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as family gathering a couple of days before the event took place. As a matter of fact it was two years later that I had even heard of this being called a “wake.” A rather ironic synonym.
To that point in my life, the only death of a person close to me was my maternal grandfather when I was eight. His funeral was out of town, out of province so I wasn’t at his funeral, let alone this newfangled visitation wake thingy. In my mind I was going to visit a church family, and for some reason I was to meet up with them at the funeral home, precisely at 2:00 in the afternoon.
The next day I walked up the steps of Sunnyside, opened the big wooden door and looked in for the first time of my life at the inside of a funeral home. I saw a social gathering that taking place in a room to the right for some reason. Ok, whatever. I didn’t want to interrupt them, but there didn’t seem to be a front desk or anything. Who was I supposed to talk to? And then I saw something that didn’t make sense. It was the name of Helen’s grandfather spelled out on a sign that sat on a tripod easel beside the threshold of the room hosting the pleasant finger food get together. Were these people and their party somehow connected to him? What in the wide world of sports is going on here??
I decided to take a deep breath and walk into this room. Slowly I walked in hoping no one would notice. I mean, I wasn’t invited. Wouldn’t they wonder why I’m crashing the party? Half way in is when it happened. There was some kind of big furniture to my right that called my attention from my peripheral vision. I looked over. A casket. But not just a casket. A casket with the top wide open, as if it was supposed to be. But why would it be? Why… A body!!!
No Ace. Just you.
What looked like a wax statue of a complete stranger was laying there with too much make-up on. I have trouble comparing the shock I felt to any other experiences I’ve had. This was new and startling. Why was everyone else ok with this?? (My brother had a similar experience. He says at that point he looked around the room and thought, “You sick people…”).
Just then the deceased’s granddaughter approached me. I prayed silently and quickly that she didn’t see the shock on my face. I was blindsided. Thanks Pastor Eli. Learned a ton today.
The second time was less traumatic, but most people tell seem almost traumatized at hearing it. It was only two years later, but I was now a full-fledged licensed pastor. Assistant pastor that is. This means that I carried on the illustrious arrangement of high level of hard work and stress without the burden of an unnecessarily high salary. But I really did enjoy myself. The people were great and I loved the work I was doing. I was living in an apartment in the basement of the church that year, and one night we hosted a wake in the “old sanctuary.” After that I went to meet up with a friend and didn’t get back until 10:00 at night. Not wanting to disturb the pastor and his wife who’d offered their guest room to me for that night, I decided to just go to bed in my own apartment—which was situated directly below the “old sanctuary.” So that night I wasn’t alone as I slept in my bed. One floor up and almost directly above me was a casket. Thankfully he didn’t make a sound.
It’s funny, but despite the shock I’d experienced at Sunnyside Funeral Home, I had no uneasiness, no fear, no heeby-geebies that night. I slept sound and even vacuumed around the casket the next morning. I guess by then I’d finally seen a human corpse as what so many describe it as: a mere carrying case for the human soul. Ever since I have always felt at ease at funerals, even at the ones held for dear friends and family members. I enjoy helping people through those difficult events. Thanks Pastor Eli. And I mean that.
Congratulations Stand By Me. This is your week.
And the Oscar goes to…
Best Actress: Cathy Moriarty. Not only is she a great actress but I love her story. Her parents were Irish immigrants living in NYC when she was born. As a kid she acted a lot in dinner theaters and was only 17 when she auditioned for the role of Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull. And despite her youth she kicked that role in the teeth and got an Oscar nomination. She’s been in other movies, but not enough memorable ones in my opinion.
Best Actor: Well, how do you not give it to Robert DiNiro? He’s got one of the highest representations of lead roles on the IMDb top 250 and his performance in Raging Bull is argued by some to be the greatest of all time. Props though to Kurt Russell, Cory Feldman, and that kid who played Gordie LaChance (Wil Wheaton).
Best Quote: The sole quote suggested this week is awesome and it comes from both the movie and the book: “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve” – Narrator in Stand By Me.
If you’ve never seen this week’s movie, it’s probably because you’re either too old or too young to be considered “generation X.” And if you do fit in the genX category and haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you? The rest of have seen it! Get busy! But seriously, I promise you that this movie is timeless and it will win you over. It’s the perfect portrait of the deep waters that lie deep within every boy and every man.
And if any of you are attending a funeral and need a steady rock, please feel free to invite me to tag along.