Have you ever seen a dead body? 


Can you share the first time you saw a dead body?

I must have been three or four when I saw my first corpse.

The mother of the neighbor that used to babysit me died.

I didn’t understand what it meant to be dead, so when I was shoved into the car by my mother to “visit her” at the local chapel, I had no idea the woman I used to see everyday would not be there to greet me in her arms. 

The chapel was dark as I walked down aisle carpeted in red shag.

In the center of the chapel, bathed in a pink pool of light from above, was a shining, silver, casket.  A few strangers were milling around her.

I was too small to see into the open casket, so a footstool was provided for the stepping.

As I stood on the stool, I sensed every eye trained on me — as if they were seeking the visceral thrill of watching the reaction of a child’s first corpse viewing.

As I locked eyes with each eye eyeing me, I vowed my reaction would be:  No reaction.

I turned my head down to see her there below me — surrounded by white satin and lace — her twisted, arthritic, fingers, awkwardly clutching a rosary placed on her chest.

My gaze turned up to her face — totally unrecognizable and waxen like a five-and-ten baby doll — her lips were glued together in an uncharacteristic, bright red, pursing.  Her hair was an unwound salt-and-pepper tangle of what used to be a single, hallmark, braid.

I didn’t know this stranger before me.  I didn’t understand why I was there.  I was dead inside.

“Go ahead and kiss her, Davey,” someone said.  “Give her a kiss good-bye.” 

I froze for a second realizing there was no way I was going to kiss a life-size body of wax.

I jumped off the stool and started walking alone back up the aisle into the darkness as every eye still followed me — still lurking there, unblinking with expectation and wet with secret delight — still there in the pink light of the night searching for, hoping for, a single tear, or a momentary outcry, that was to never be forgiven or overcome.

18 Comments

  1. I am pretty sure that the only time I have seen a dead body was when it was laying on a stretcher, being put into an ambulance to be taken to the hospital. I quickly turned and walked away as I didn’t want to even think about it.

  2. Amazing, Gordon! These sorts of experiences are pretty horrible to deal with if proper preparation isn’t done first. A surprise death is an event that few of us are prepared for and none of us can forget.
    How does your religion handle dead bodies? Are they ever on display in any way? Or is the corpse handled away from the mourners?

  3. There is something called the Chevra Kadisha which takes the body, cleans it thoroughly, and ensures that it is buried within 24 hours of the death if possible. Bodies are never put on display if the family are going by the law, as it were. We believe that the body is merely a vessel and the true essence of the person has already left, and there is no more reason to look at the body than the vast collection of scarves the person may have worn. 🙂

  4. Hi David,
    The first corpse I saw was when my grandmother died. She was in her sixties then. I remember her as a frail person who always had a smile for everybody.

  5. David,
    She converted to Christianity late in her life so she was buried according to her wishes. We followed her to the cemetery. Every religion does it according to their customs. Although in urban areas nowadays the electric crematorium is also an option.

  6. David,
    Yes, open-air cremations are still done. I’m not sure why she chose to convert. We weren’t here for a long time so neither I nor my sister got to know her very well.

  7. Traditionally, David, it falls on the eldest son, if a parent has died, to actually light the pyre. In most other cases it’s the duty of the eldest or closest male relative.
    There are things like the Death Certificate that need to be made but it isn’t necessary to have a doctor or a government agency to be present or to inspect the body.

  8. I don’t remember seeing a dead-body till I was 14/15; I was consiously kept out of such situation till I had a general understanding of it.
    The first corpse I saw was my grandma’s. She looked like she was sleeping peacefully in relief because she suffered a during her last few days as she was a severe asthma patient.
    I followed all my family members to the crematorium but I was not allowed to go inside; so I waited outside and came back home with all of them.
    Afetr this incident, one of my friends lost her mother, it was an absolute shock as it was unexpected. She broke down completely, so did her father. I was there with her for the whole crematorium ritual as she was the only child. I felt absolutely numb inside but my presence provided strength to her which I could feel.
    I tried to be present at the funerals when I felt my presence was needed, but I think I could do it because I was spared to be there when I was a kid.