For the Living by Jim Plath

I wondered if all funeral homes looked like that one. On the outside, humble bricks and mortar, easy to miss, like a blemish on a face you’ve seen too much of to stop and look at it. On the inside, everything lacquer and polish, sterile, impermeable, as if any surface could be wiped clean with a paper towel. If you were the type that believed in spiritual energies, I supposed you’d want that. That kind of place holds so much grief, and rarely anything else, you’d want to build it out of things that washed easily. In the corner, a marble column reflected the pulsing glow of the fireplace beside an open door and a sign that bore a dead woman’s name.

I didn’t know the woman, though I’d met her twice. She’d thought our second meeting was our first, and I didn’t correct her. Some people relish an opportunity to play the wounded party. They collect apologies like firewood, but I’ve never been one of them. This woman and I were two strangers who once passed close enough to one another that not speaking would have been awkward. That was the extent of it.

My wife worked with her. They were in their company’s payroll department. Judging from what I’ve been told, that meant sharing a break room refrigerator, covering each other’s extensions on lunch breaks, and nodding in the elevator. There may have been more to it, but it didn’t matter. Her co-workers expected my wife to show up, and that’s why I was there, dressed like a chauffeur, nodding at strangers who roved the lobby like school children waiting on a bell.

The viewing room held more chairs than people. A small portrait hung on display before the open casket. Inside, the woman’s skin appeared to have lost as much color as her hair, and in her off-white dress, she looked like something carved from limestone.

From speakers above the entryway, violins played something soft and slow, a generic melody, but with the rising, labored pitch of something crying out before it broke. These types of sounds meant to convey an innate sadness, something that could be understood without being explained, the way that blood-red paint expressed urgency. The whimper of a violin could show sadness, or create it. This served to remind people like me--whose spouses or work obligations brought them--that they were among the bereaved.

My wife took my hand and squeezed it, stroked my index finger with her thumb and gave some fraction of a smile. She always knew how to do that; how to find space between subtle and coy, then make a home of it. “We won’t have to stay too long. Just let me go and find some people.”

I nodded and she wandered off.

The good thing about someone dragging you to a funeral is you don’t really have to hide it. Nobody’s supposed to be happy to be there. Nobody’s supposed to be happy at all, and in that, I found another type of person; the type who wore grief like a spotlight. These were the types of people who still went on about how their neighbor’s cousin’s barber’s college roommate knew someone who almost died in the towers on 9/11. They always knew someone battling cancer, or a family whose house burned down at Thanksgiving. For those people, every tragedy was an opportunity to grab some piece of local fame. That’s never been me either, and I’m glad for that. I’ve always thought it must be exhausting to live that way.

If anything, I knew my wife had the harder role to play. I got to be the disinterested stranger. If I needed to address anyone at all, I could offer some platitude wrapped in condolences, lower my head and move on. My wife had no such luxury. She worked in a small office. Everyone played politics. It didn’t matter if a co-worker worked only part time, or if no one in the office knew them well. Not showing up at their funeral would be perceived as a statement, but it wasn’t enough to just show up. She’d need to look unsettled without seeming to upstage close friends and family. I became convinced that some mathematical formula existed for navigating these types of social situations, and I never cared to learn it. In moments like that, I basked in an abiding gratitude for my tiny home-office, and the precarious life of the self-employed man.

Being in that room felt like the world’s longest elevator ride. You knew other people were there, but you didn’t want to engage. You never knew where you should be looking, so you tried not to let your eyes settle on any one location for too long. All you could hope for was that it’d be over soon, and you’d be gone before things got too cramped.

Wandering around the room, I wanted to find somewhere to pass the time. No place felt right to sit. If I sat too close to the casket, I felt like an imposter; too far away, and I felt like a voyeur. I took a seat halfway back in the aisle behind a man with thinning brown hair. He wore a black t-shirt, a week’s worth of stubble, and a stale musk, like an old dirt floor.

He turned partway around and looked me over. “Do I know you?”

I started to answer, but I felt my throat dry out. I paused, took a breath, and tried again. “I don’t think so. My wife worked with,” I bobbed my head toward the front of the room. I couldn’t recall the dead woman’s name, not from meeting her, or from the sign outside the viewing room.

The man chuckled. His breath stank of onions and stale beer. “Figured you were here for my dad.”

I wondered why he’d assume that, but didn’t want to ask any questions. “Sorry. I’m just here for my wife.”

He faced forward and muttered, “Enjoy the show.”

When I was maybe ten, and had to go to services for a great grandfather I’d never met, I complained. My mom scolded me, told me funerals weren’t really about the person who’d died, but the people they left behind. Mom said funerals were for the living.

I wanted to apply that reasoning again. Maybe if I felt I knew someone who grieved for the old woman, I’d feel like I had someone who really needed me there. Then I could feel better about loitering near a stranger’s corpse.

On first glance, my prospects were not encouraging. Across the aisle from me, a young blonde woman studied her face in the screen of her smartphone. She adjusted the underwire of her bra, and the neckline of her dress and snapped a picture. I didn’t think she needed consolation.

When my wife came back, she wore a strange expression, like her face froze before she could grimace. She leaned in and murmured, “We may have to hang around. They’re asking some of us to say a few words.”

“Doesn’t a priest or a family member usually do that?”

Her eyes widened. “I guess, but they’re the ones asking.”

I nodded, and she wandered off to work out what she and the other coworkers would say.

I thought more about my great-grandfather’s funeral. I remembered the wreath and bouquets that shrouded his casket, the crowded church, and a man giving a long eulogy in a voice that shook and cracked as though it could only escape his lips in sporadic bursts.

In my early teen years, I fantasized about running away from home. When my parents grounded me for skipping school or sneaking out after curfew, I imagined punishing them by spending a night in the woods or on a park bench. What if a car hit me as I walked across the freeway in the middle of the night? Would they get to the hospital before my organs gave out? Maybe they’d get there just in time to say they were sorry, or at least admit they were wrong. Or else, maybe I’d just have to watch them cry as a specter floating above my own body. I wondered if my funeral would be anything close to what my great-grandfather’s was, or if it took a full lifetime to earn that sort of sendoff. I think only a child could be so facetious as to wonder about these things.

More people trickled into the viewing room. A pair of young men whispered to one another as they stepped through the doorway. I couldn’t hear what they said, but they each stifled a laugh over it. After them, a middle-aged man took a pull from a flask and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. I abandoned the sort of egocentric fantasies about my own funeral once my pubescent hormones quieted, and I became distracted with learning to drive and unhook a bra, but in that moment, I couldn’t help but hope that whatever my funeral looked like, I would be better represented than this.

Empty chairs still outnumbered people, but the room felt full. I suppose it was sort of in the way a lone fly floating in your drink makes your cup seem full of bugs. I got up, shuffled past a man in plaid playing solitaire on his tablet, and headed outside for some fresh air.

Away from the door, a young woman in a black pantsuit leaned against a brick column and lit a cigarette. She nodded and asked, “Do you know if Martin’s here yet?”


She nodded. “Gloria’s husband.”

I remembered the sign then. That was the dead woman’s name. “Right, the—“

“Woman whose funeral this is?”

“Sorry,” I said through my teeth.

She shrugged. “Sorry for what? You’re showered and dressed. I figured you had to be here for Martin.”

“I never met him. I’m here with my wife. She used to work with Gloria.”

She took a drag off her cigarette. “You left her alone in there, did you?”

“They’re asking her and some of her coworkers to say a few words, I guess.”

She dipped her head forward and snickered. “Are you serious?”

I couldn’t tell if she was more surprised or amused. I didn’t answer her.

Her lips pulled again at the filter. When she exhaled, she pursed her lips, turned her head from side to side and watched the thin trail of smoke, spreading and closing like a veil around her face. She stared at the stem of rolled paper turning to ash between her fingers. “Whenever these things kill me, I really hope they don’t just get my coworkers to speak at my funeral.”

Though seconds earlier, I’d thought the same thing, I searched for something else to say, but I had nothing to add, or at least nothing that I really wanted to add. “So, how do you know the family?”

“Small town. Everybody knows everybody.”

“You’re close to her husband, though?”

She nodded. “Well, I guess so. He was my math teacher in high school. My senior year, I got rear-ended at a light, messed my back up. He came to the house himself to tutor me. I don’t think I’d have graduated on time without him.”

“Must have meant a lot to you.”

She pointed toward the door. “Not just me. Look around in there. All those people, or at least the ones who look like they bathe? They came for Martin.”

“I wonder why he’s not here yet.”

The woman dropped her cigarette and pressed it under her heel. “Someone’s probably bringing him. I think he’s in assisted living.”

“I think I ran into his son earlier. He was sitting in front of me.”

“Won’t be his son bringing him. That’d be too decent of him.”

She went back inside, but I lingered to enjoy the company of brick columns and a pair of ground squirrels running like streaks of rain across the funeral home’s manicured lawn. I’d come there that day telling myself I didn’t know the woman in the casket. Whatever part of me held fast to the idea of not speaking ill of the dead still wanted to believe I didn’t know her. My mom once told me you can tell a person’s character by the company they keep, but dead people have no say in who comes to bury them. Then I thought more about funerals being for the benefit of the living. The dead woman—Gloria—had a husband. Her husband was well-loved enough to draw a crowd, and he must have loved her.

Back in the viewing room, the music stopped. There were still plenty of open seats, but I chose to stand at the back of the room. Over by the casket, a young, red-haired woman asked for the crowd’s attention. Her features were dulled in the room’s soft light, and her voice waivered. From where I stood, I couldn’t hear whatever anecdote she told. I could only discern that she was, in fact, speaking.

Through the open door behind me, I heard staggered footsteps and soft voices approaching from the lobby. An old man stepped into the viewing room. He was bald, but for some long wisps of white hair in a horseshoe around his head. His skin looked like cracked papier-mâché with pools of dark purple along the backs of his hands. He wore a suit that looked as though it had been draped over him.

To the old man’s left, a man, pot-bellied with a dark-gray goatee lagged behind. He was younger, but still too old to have been his son. I assumed this was some friend of the old man, and that the old man himself was Martin. The younger man wore a dark suit which was clean and pressed. His hair-though thin-was combed and washed, and he moved with the care and rigidity of an honor guard.

From a seat across the aisle from me, a young man, early in his twenties rose. He waved his hand across his body. “Hi, Grandpa.”

The old man looked up, but began to lose his footing.

His escort rushed to his side. “It’s okay, just get to a seat. You can say hello later.”

Martin recovered, though his gaze fell on the front of the room, to the open casket that displayed his wife’s body. He stopped, though his legs wobbled under him. His escort placed a hand under his arm.

The red-haired lady stopped her eulogy to allow the newcomers to find their place. Martin and his son inched forward. They were within arm’s reach of me when they paused again. Martin’s lips curled into a frown, and his dark brown eyes combed the room. He leaned in toward the goateed man who reached out to support him at the elbows. In a breathy voice, Martin asked, “Who died?”

His escort’s gaze dropped, and he stroked Martin’s arm. “It’s Gloria.”

Martin’s brow flexed, and he bobbed his head. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He wiped the corners of his mouth. “I used to know a Gloria.”