Casket for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
From the Archives

From the Archives: The Funeral Home

It was 12 hours after Shawn died. And there were already a half-dozen places I had to visit.

The first place I had to go was the worst: the funeral home. I piled in a minivan with my dad and a half-dozen of my friends and they drove me just a few blocks up the street. For years I had gone on runs past this funeral home and never noticed it. It wasn’t small, and it was on the main road. But what use did I have for funeral homes?  

The funeral home looked just like I’d expected it to look—heavy drapes, ornate wallpaper, ugly carpet and tacky wall hangings. It was so warm inside that a bead of sweat formed on my temple, and the air even seemed to smell of death, which I guess made sense. My dad stood next to me, saying nothing. He didn’t glance at his phone. He didn’t look around. He just stood there patiently. When I walked up the stairs, he grabbed my arm to steady me as though I were an old woman. I think he was afraid that I might faint.

I sat down with the funeral home director. My dad sat by my side and my friends fanned out across the table, all facing this man who looked a bit like a caricature of a funeral home director. He was a large man, and his clothes puckered a bit at the sides, but his navy suit was perfectly pressed and he carried a white hankie in his pocket. He was sweating, too, and he used the hankie to dab at his face.

“We are very sorry for your loss,” he said to me. I looked at the table. I wasn’t even sad, really. I just couldn’t believe that I was there.

The funeral director ran me through the logistics, and I signed paper after paper that would get Shawn’s body from the hospital to the funeral home and then to the church and graveyard. Each page had a tally of exactly how much that step would cost and my throat seized up when I signed the page with the charge for embalming.

After it was all done and the funeral director had gone to make copies, I looked at my dad and rolled my eyes. He pursed his lips, but said nothing. Why was this taking so long? Wasn’t it bad enough that I’d had to watch my husband die the day before? Couldn’t they at least have wallpaper that didn’t make me dizzy, or something other than hard candies in front of me?

The man from the funeral home came back and informed us that we had to pick out a casket. For some reason, I had thought they would just pick something out for Shawn’s body. I have no idea why I’d assumed this, but it was shocking to have to walk into an expansive room with dozens of caskets surrounding me.

They were all awful. Seemingly every casket was composed of deep stained mahogany wood with ornate etchings and over-tufted linings. I couldn’t put Shawn’s body in something like that. Plus, the caskets were thousands of dollars. The funeral home actually had price tags displayed on all of them, which made it feel as though I was walking through the aisles of a big box store. I almost expected to see that one of the caskets had been marked down or had some sort of other special offer. 

“I hate all of these,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. I had no room for niceties.  “Shawn would hate them too. I need something simpler.”

The funeral director seemed confused. We’d chosen an upscale funeral home and I doubt many of the other people who visited there wanted anything but the best. “Eisenhower laid in state here,” they had told me at the entrance to the funeral home that day. There was expensive soap in the bathroom and even the paper they used felt heavy. I was clearly paying for top service, and I think to the funeral home director, getting the cheap casket was like getting a cake from the supermarket for a wedding.

But he showed me an adjacent room where there were simple pine caskets. They were cheaper looking, to be sure, but they were much better. “I like this,” I said to my dad as I put my hand on the rough wood.

I had brought clothes to bury Shawn’s body in—jeans, Converse shoes, a red flannel and a “fuck cancer” t-shirt—and they certainly didn’t go with the caskets in the other room. Plus, I knew that he would not approve of spending ten grand on a damn casket. “I’ll take this one,” I said to the funeral director as I put my hand on the pine box. He nodded tersely as I signed off on the paperwork. From the glances he gave us throughout our time there, it seemed as though he thought my father should have made the decisions for me, but my dad never said a word to him. I rolled my eyes again at my dad.

“You did good,” my dad said as we left.