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The Fake of Death


The Fake of Death

Andrea Burke

My great-aunt passed away last weekend. She lived a long, full life. 96 years of friendship, camping adventures, walking, gardens, story-telling, farm tales and more. We sat on the front row at her service, the casket open displaying the body of a woman I once knew.

This is death. The flickering candle from a jar of oil. The somewhat hidden electrical cord running along the baseboard behind the casket stand. It's tangled a bit, running up to the lamps with pink lightbulbs, shining on her body. They're probably supposed to give her a glow of life, blood still rushing under her sallow skin, heart still pumping. It seems no one wants to really look death in the face. We want to pretend she's still there, sleeping. 

"I always look to see if they're still breathing," my own mother says. 

"Me too," I whisper back and we giggle a little, watching her very still hands lay on top of a very still body. The music coming through the speakers is a piano version of The Little Mermaid's song, "Part of Your World." I find this incredibly comedic. Disney and Ariel and nothing at all what I imagine at a funeral. Except, perhaps in this moment, maybe it is perfect. We're the mermaids. We don't have our feet yet.

"If I go first, make sure my funeral is a lot of fun," my husband whispers. "Tell a lot of jokes." This makes me laugh and then cry for some reason. Maybe because I realize someday, funeral homes might be more common in my life than wedding bells.

"Are those happy or sad tears?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say and reach for the tissues. "Funerals make me feel all of the emotions."

"As opposed to the rest of the time..." he snickers and I elbow him in the side. 

Now "Wind Beneath My Wings" is the canned music. A keyboard and synth strings play the melody line. 

"I like the wallpaper," I say to my husband. "I wonder where they got it."

"I hate it," whispers my mother. I don't know if we're talking about the wallpaper anymore.

This is death. The creeping, spine-tingling silence of hushed voices and a room full of people who don't know each other that well. Someone laugh, I want to say. Someone talk louder. Aunt Margie would hate that we're all being so proper. 

The minister steps up to the casket to begin the service. 

"I didn't know Miss Margie personally," she says. Is this the worst thing you can say at the beginning of a funeral? I feel like yes. Don't announce that. Don't let on that you're memorializing a life which you never witnessed. But this is death — the immediacy, the end of things, the strangers milling around who don't know her middle name. Hey, even I didn't know her middle name until today. So I suppose that makes me no better.

I stand up to read Mary Oliver's poem "When Death Comes." I'm in a room of some family, mostly strangers, many closer to the end than the beginning (which really is an illusion anyway. None of us really know where we are in our timelines.) I read how death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades.

It doesn't feel like that so much today. Today it feels like death came like a warm blanket in the middle of winter. It feels like death came like the last candle blown out before we all say goodnight. Margaret has painted pink lips. She almost looks like she's smiling. I think they do that on purpose. 

"I hope I don't make it to 96," a woman says to my husband and I. She knew my great aunt for more than 40 years. She is in her early 80s, I gather, based on her telling me about her ailing husband at 84. "I really hope I die sooner than that. I don't think I'll make it to 96. Not based on how I'm feeling now. That would just be awful."

She looks toward the casket and we awkwardly stare at her. Do I say, "I hope that for you too!" No, no. I don't know how to respond so we nod. 

"Losing either all of your physical body or your mind," she tsks. "Just awful. No thank you!" 

I can't say I blame her. The thought of ending my life that way doesn't appeal much to my vanity either. 

But this is death — the stealing. Of time, of energy, of strength, of mind. Of memory, of opportunity, of people, of story. Of Eden. 

It was never meant to be real. It isn't anymore, not really. It isn't actually the end. Margaret knew this. She was waiting to go home. She was ready.

The photos cycle through on the slideshow. There she is. Young and in hula skirts, surrounded by family, girlfriends sitting on rock hillsides or front stoops. This is her life and I'm here analyzing the wallpaper and laughing that now the music piped through the speakers is something from " Ah, I don't know. It's definitely Andrew Lloyd Webber."

My husband nods and we sit in silence again. Someone gives us a box of molasses cookies. We make lunch plans.

This is death. The living in spite of it. The guessing, the company we never acknowledge, the painted lips and last breaths, the icebergs and the candles. The going home.