Nothing really prepares you for the first time you handle a dead body. Even when the body in question takes a long time to get from “s” to “e” in life’s great game of Horse, the difference between 'nearly dead' and 'all dead' is pretty significant.
For me, the body belonged to my dear friend, Marian Ball. Marian was this remarkable butt-kicker of a woman who waited until she was in her 70’s and legally blind before deciding to change religions, sell her house, and move from Long Island, New York to Mercer Island, Washington. To have put more distance between those two homes, those two lives, would have required relocating to an offshore oil rig.
Marian died from cancer, which was just fine with her because it meant she could stop fussing over cholesterol. Marian loved desserts, and even in her last days she was an unrepentant sugar fiend. The hospice nurse would leave a bowl of broth with a couple of discouraged vegetables sulking on the bottom, with instructions both to Marian and the Relief Society sister who would be spending the night to see to it that every bit of that dinner went where it would do the most good.
And Marian and her co-conspirator of the day would do just that. The sound of the nurse’s crepe soles would not even have made it to the elevator before the soup was in the sink and the contraband brownies were retrieved from their hidey-hole in the toaster oven. Anyone who brought Marian brownies had a friend for life. Bring some ice cream as well, and you were guaranteed a mention in her will. She must have left the same set of stemware to a dozen different women, each one believing she had earned the prize with a half-gallon of cookies n' cream and a vow of secrecy.
So when Marian finally did pass away, it was with a little chocolate on her lip and a good twenty extra pounds of Marian everywhere else.
As Relief Society president and Marian’s biggest fan, it fell to me and two other women to dress Marian in her temple clothes preparatory to her…well, to her cremation, truth be told. She had made it crystal clear that she was not spending the intervening time between death and the resurrection stifling under six feet of dirt. Her husband had been cremated, and his ashes awaited hers in the family vault in New York.
One of the women helping dress Marian was Grace Smith, who was Marian’s best friend on Mercer Island. They were the same age, had both lost husbands, and were bar none the two most elegant women in the ward. Grace with her fair skin and white hair, beautifully set, and Marian with her clear face the color of mocha and always dressed to the nines, they were a perfect match.
Grace and I were joined by another friend of Marian’s, a quiet, amazing woman named Lynne Merrell. Lynne was the ward seminary teacher, and when Marian became too weak to attend church, Lynne would go to her apartment three days a week and teach her the lessons she had been giving the seminary kids. I’m pretty sure Lynne was the most deserving of the stemware; whenever I dropped by to see Marian, she alerted me to Lynne’s latest “gift”, carefully concealed in the freezer behind the ice packs.
The three of us drove to the crematorium, a despondent looking building in the industrial district north of the Space Needle. We were taken to a room in the basement where Marian’s body was waiting, escorted by a guard who couldn’t quite figure out why three women were so interested in what anyone would be wearing when they went into the oven. Not entirely sure ourselves, we retreated behind the assurance that our reasons were “of deep religious significance,” a tactic I have found keeps folks from asking a lot of questions, the answers to which are usually, “Beats me.”
“It’s a religious thing,” we told him, “We don’t expect you to understand.”
I admit I was surprised to find Marian in a small workroom, laid on a stainless steel gurney and covered by a thin sheet. She was naked except for the red nail polish Grace told us she had painted on Marian’s fingers earlier that week. The room was sparsely furnished; a counter with a sink and a box of tissues, cupboards most likely used to store odds and ends lacking a home anywhere else in the building, and a couple of metal chairs. It was cold and clinical, and so unlike anything Marian was or had been it almost broke your heart.
Grace opened the bag containing Marian’s temple clothing and removed the first items, handing one piece each to Lynne and me.
I was 33 years old, and I had never done anything like this in my life. I hadn’t even touched Marian back at the apartment on the morning she died. And here I was, expected dress her cold, dead and above all nude body as though I did this three times a day before breakfast.
Not one to sport much of a poker face, I looked pleadingly at Lynne and said, “Uh, so, where exactly do we, you know, start?” She suggested we start at the bottom, presumably because that end corresponded with the article of clothing I was holding. I soon learned this was a first for her, too, the big faker.
With both women watching and waiting, I removed the sheet and reached for Marian’s foot. I wasn’t expecting it to resist so completely, and I was, to say the least, a little startled. Without thinking, I muttered, “Come on, Marian, cooperate.”
This made the other two laugh, and seemed to break the tension enough that we could begin working together to get the different layers of clothing on the right bits of Marian and in the right order.
I discovered that a stiff body eventually loosens up, the more you bend and twist its parts, but the feature for which corpses are most famous – that of being utterly and totally lifeless – means that the body will make exactly zero effort to help you along.
As we lifted and tugged, Marian occasionally would slip down the steel table, her arms and head dropping off the blocks on which they had been situated. As the youngest and spryest of the lot, it was my job to pick her up under the armpits and hoist her back up the table, where Grace and Lynne would replace the blocks. Every time I did this, one of us would say something to Marian along the lines of, “You know, you didn’t have to eat ALL of those brownies,” or, “You have no one to blame but yourself, Marian. That ice cream went right to your keister, just like you knew it would.”
It made it easier, more comfortable, to talk to Marian as though she were in the room with us. Who knows, she probably was, shaking her head at the comedy of errors being perpetrated against her by these three well-meaning amateurs.
While I'm sure we used the four-way conversation to help ease the anxiety each of us was feeling but didn’t want to show, there was one time when this made Marian seem almost uncomfortably present.
It happened as Grace and I were trying to put on Marian’s dress. We had made it over her head, but were having a hard time getting her arms through the sleeves. This was one time when all three of us were quietly working, each concentrating on her own little project. None was paying much attention to what the others were up to.
Grace had Marian’s right arm most of the way through the sleeve, but couldn’t quite get the dress up over her shoulder. Meanwhile, I was trying to get her left arm through the other sleeve, a process complicated by the fact that her elbow was still stiff and uncooperative. Both of us were shifting little bits of fabric, struggling to move the dress back and forth across Marian’s chest and midsection.
Now, the wrestle involved in taking the dress over her head had caused her to once again slide a little ways down the gurney, enough that her head had slipped off its supporting block. Unable to do anything more until Grace and I had worked out our difficulties, Lynne stood at the head of the gurney and spoke quietly to Marian.
What happened next comes to me primarily in a series of auditory memories and one singularly vivid one. Just as I heard Lynne say, “Marian, let’s get your head back up on this block,” Grace triumphed, “There!” Her arm had made it completely through the sleeve, which in turn freed up the dress on my side of the body. Marian’s left elbow chose this moment to loosen up, and at the same time that Lynne lifted Marian’s head, that arm shot straight through the end of the sleeve and right up into my face. For all the world it looked like Marian was sitting up and making a grab for my throat.
I let out a shriek that, if the neighbors weren’t convinced already that the place was haunted, must certainly have removed any remaining doubt. This of course had the effect that screaming always has on other women, and both Grace and Lynne joined me in a blood curdling trio which reverberated off the concrete walls of the workroom and redefined harmonic resonance in a very real and ear wax-dissolving way.
As if that weren’t enough, we each took one giant leap backward, Grace knocking over the chairs and me attempting to scale the cupboard like an Amazonian tree frog – flat handed and straight up. Lynne’s concerns for Marian’s head were forgotten, and it dropped onto the table with a clang.
It took a couple of beats for us to gather our wits, look around and attempt to sort out what had happened. Grace untangled herself from the folding chairs, I climbed down off the counter, and all three of us searched one another’s faces for some sign that we hadn’t just done what it seemed like we’d done.
And then we started to laugh. Hard.
No refined giggles, these. This was post-hysteria, doubled over, “someone check her medication” whooping that had us clutching our sides and gasping for air. What a bunch of sissies we were! The three of us, acting all calm and collected, when in point of fact we were one unexplained movement away from wetting ourselves and crying for our mommies.
I don’t know how, but we managed to finish dressing Marian, down to her slippers and veil. Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes, each kissing her on the cheek and telling her how much we loved her and would miss her.
And then, we left her there, alone in that cold workroom. The cremation would take place later that afternoon, the personnel at the facility packaging and shipping Marian’s ashes to an elderly uncle who would take them to their resting place next to those of her husband.
It was such an odd way to say goodbye, such an odd close to one of the most unique and meaningful chapters in any of our lives. There would be a small memorial service, but no funeral, no interment, no public opportunity to celebrate the classy and quirky and vibrant woman who had come to our little island and brought us the much needed diversion of serving.
Something was missing, some unfinished business yet remaining. Not surprisingly, it was Lynne who thought of it first. As we exited the freeway near Grace’s home, Lynne suggested we continue on into town, swing by Albertson’s, and pick up some brownies and ice cream.
Forget the cholesterol. If Marian had taught us anything, it was that sometimes you just had to live a little.