Touching Death


I’ve never been a huge fan of dead bodies.


I don’t think most people are.


I’ve seen a handful in my life. Cats. Dogs. Humans.


My childhood was most greatly impacted by three deaths.

The first was Mrs. Edwards, our next-door neighbor. She was an older woman, and I would go over and play in her house. Me being the only girl in the neighborhood, Mrs. Edwards was my only girlfriend. She died from cancer when I was six or seven. Her adult children left me one of her wigs.

Next was my cat, Garfield. We had adopted him as an adult. He died when I was in third grade. He disappeared for a while and then we found him, very weak, on the other side of the fence behind our house. My dad picked him up and moved him to the dog house where he spent his last days. I got to pet him and love him and grieve him.

Last was my paternal great-grandfather, Carl, when I was twelve. He was the first family member I lost. His funeral was open casket, and he is the first human dead body I recall seeing. His funeral was also the first time I ever saw my father cry.

In a strange twist of life, my paternal great-grandmother, Carl’s wife, lived next door to the local funeral home in the small town of Bristow, Oklahoma. She was friends with the “young men” who ran the funeral home. They looked after her after my great-grandfather died. She was such a fan of them, she often let me know their relationship status and how great they would be to marry.


I’m not sure I could marry a mortician. These guys definitely had great senses of humor about their jobs and joked often with my great-grandma. But, it wasn’t the right fit for me.

Fast forward to 2010. My mother-in-law, Shirley, dated this guy, Wayne. The relationship didn’t work out, but they remained friends. Wayne’s health wasn’t great. He’d had heart damage and needed a pacemaker.


A few months after they broke up, Wayne’s health took a turn for the worse. He was hospitalized, and Shirley was able to spend his final days with him. She was with him when he passed.


She and I talked on the phone almost daily during Wayne’s decline. When he passed, she called to tell me and shared her experience of witnessing Wayne’s death.


I had never been present for someone’s passing before.

She shared how it was so clear when his spirit left his body. When he was “gone”, all that was left was his physical body.


His “earth suit” she called it.


That image struck me. It made sense to me.


In the years since Wayne’s death, I have thought a lot about the idea of an earth suit. I sometimes feel separate from my own body. The arthritis in my knees. The pain in my back. I joke that I want to upgrade to a newer model. Trade this body in for one that works.


About a year-and-a-half after Wayne died, my dad died suddenly. He had chest pain, was taken to the emergency room, and six hours later, he was gone.


I was in New York. He was in Oklahoma.


It all ended at 2 am, east coast time, on February 15, 2012.


My dad wanted to be cremated, but the funeral home was willing to hold his body until I could get home.

My husband, Judah, and I got to Oklahoma as quickly as we could.


The idea of the earth suit was front and center in my mind. It provided me with a lot of comfort. I imagined seeing my dad’s earth suit and having a deep knowledge that my dad was no longer “in there”. He was no longer “here”.


If I hadn’t had the idea of the earth suit, I don’t know that I would have wanted to see his body. But, I had a strong sense of needing to see his earth suit to help me know he was gone.


Two days after he died, my mother, my paternal grandmother (yes, my grandmother had to live through losing her son), Judah, and I went to the funeral home to see my dad’s earth suit.


My mom told me ahead of time that his skin wouldn’t look or feel like him. It would have lost elasticity and feel cold to the touch.


I had no desire to touch the earth suit.


We walked into the room holding my dad’s earth suit, and I was instantly hit with everything I wasn’t expecting.


This was no earth suit. This was my dad. He was just asleep. Asleep on the couch. A typical Sunday, watching football.


A primal cry rose up in my chest.

Get up!


My brain raced to make sense of what I was seeing.


I wanted out. I no longer wanted to be in this room.

I felt trapped.


My grandmother was standing at my dad’s side. Touching his hand. Talking to him.


No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I shifted my position in the room so my grandmother’s body was blocking my father’s face from view. If I couldn’t see it, maybe I would be protected from the chaos I was feeling inside.


I frantically glanced around the room, desperate to find something else to focus on. The counters were full of the makeup they use to make the body look living.

They’d done a good job.


Too good of a job.


My heart was racing.

My heart was breaking.


My grandmother moved to the foot of the table holding my dad’s earth suit/body.


And I saw it.


The claw.


My dad’s right hand was hanging off the table, poking out from under the white sheet that covered his body.


That is not my dad’s hand.


Rigor mortis had set in, and his right hand bent sharply at the wrist, his fingers pressed together like a hand puppet.


The first sign of anything even close to an earth suit.


It was disturbing and helpful at the same time.

Over the next several months, the claw haunted me. I would be on the verge of falling asleep, and I’d see the claw in my mind. It would jar me awake and remind me that my dad was gone.


About a year-and-a-half after my dad died, my maternal grandfather died, followed by my maternal grandmother a little over two-and-a-half years later.


I was present when each of them passed.


I saw the earth suits.


I finally saw what Shirley had been talking about. I saw the transition from the person, or spirit, being “in” the body to them being gone.


I think witnessing the transition made the difference for me.


While I consider it a beautiful gift to have been present as my grandparents passed, once the spirit has left the body, and all that remains is the earth suit, I still have no desire to touch it.

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