Michael Harding: The mysterious promise of a room with a corpse

There is always a hint of something invisible in a room where human remains lie in repose

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

I was at a funeral recently of an elderly woman who lived alone. Her sons were in the backyard drinking mugs of tea and smoking cigarettes. There was an air of good humour in their faces.

“I like your black suits,” I said, “but where are the ties?” Because they were all in open-necked shirts.

“Things are going smoothly,” one of them said as he watched men in high-vis jackets directing traffic on the road.

Road signs that read “Wake House” had been planted at the crossroads, and bollards were in place to stop people parking in the mouth of a field that had been recently cut for silage and was being used as a temporary car park. The big black bales had been rolled into a corner and the field was lined with flashy new cars.

The woman was in her 80s but “she was never a day sick in her life”, one of her sons remarked. “She took a turn last Tuesday. Fell down at the television. She loved Fair City,” he added.

I heard him tell this again and again to other neighbours who came around the gable into the yard. Over and over he recited the story of how she fell, and how they found her soon afterwards because she wasn’t answering the phone. When they got to the house, the television was still on.

The ritual recitation of her story was repeated over and over again, to clarify her death, and to ease the children’s sorrow in the simple act of remembering the details.

Mahogany sideboards

“She’s in the parlour,” one son said, to indicate that I should go inside, through the back door, and then through the kitchen to a front room; a hushed world of mahogany sideboards and silver ornaments and a smart television that someone had draped with a cream crochet tablecloth.

The curtains were drawn and the room was filled with a ghostly light, even though it was the middle of the day.

Her sons are all married and live in houses with big kitchens and what they call “front rooms” or “lounges”, but I suppose “parlour” was the word they must have used years ago for this particular room when they were children and their mother was sitting in the corner watching Dallas.

It was a room where she sat at the window every week for 25 years, since her husband died, waiting for a neighbour or one of the sons to take her to town for the messages.

The corpse was white. Her face had lost all expression. That’s what I find amazing about the dead. Their muscles let go, and the face loses all traces of anxiety that had shaped their sense of self for a lifetime. What remains is a washed-out shell, a beautiful object, like the indifferent mask of a Buddha, or the track of a splendid animal that has gone elsewhere.

I can’t resist the possibility of eternity when I see a corpse. No matter how substantial the world may be, or how enclosed we are in our own histories, there is always a hint of something invisible in a room where human remains lie in repose. They maintain an exquisite emptiness, like a sanctuary just after the Mass is ended that is difficult to leave.

I queued with neighbours, who lined up to view the coffin one by one, some touching the dead fingers, some blessing themselves, and some just standing there gawping. In the yard later, I was handed a mug of tea and offered cocktail sausages, as if I had done some task that needed reward.

Old men munched sandwiches as enthusiastically as if they had just finished cutting a bank of turf, although most of them were far too old to have done farm work for years.

Mug of tea

“Thanks for coming,” each son said in turn, when I had drained the mug of tea, to which I responded with the words “Sorry for your troubles”.

It completed the ritual of another country funeral. We had fabricated heaven out of kindly phrases: she’s happy now; she has gone to a better place; she has no more pain. A mythic heaven was woven in genteel formalities.

I imagined the old woman as a tiny bird recently flown away, and the coffin as an abandoned nest that still carried the shimmer of a living thing. As if the open-necked shirts were vestments and her sons were all pagan priests, there to witness her safe passage to that other world beyond their imagination’s reach.

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