Each year, my family gathered at my uncle’s brick Tudor for Christmas dinner. It was an elegant affair, my uncle and aunt, generous hosts. Surrounded by several generations’ worth of holiday décor, my aunt would lay their dining room table with rosy hams and a Rockwellian turkey, fruit pies that glistened, and all manner of chocolate treats. As a mother of three young children, I treasured the chance to sit, surrounded by those I loved best. We’d eat while reminiscing over the past, sharing our news from the present, and, occasionally, our hopes for the future.
One year, after loosening our belts, my uncle told us of the renovations he recently completed to his downstairs business. “Would you like to see?” he asked. There wasn’t a polite way to say no.
It was then my uncle showed us the refurbished rooms of his funeral parlor. In all the years we’d shared Christmas dinner, it never occurred to me that we celebrated the joy of the season one floor above the dead.
The rooms of the funeral home were gorgeous, though no sign of holiday cheer could be found in any of them. Still, it was a comforting place. All of the moldings were intricately carved and then polished to a high sheen; chairs were covered in somber, tasteful fabric; tissue boxes were positioned on every available surface. My uncle explained it was a difficult time for death: the earth was hard, darkness fell early, and, of course, it was Christmas. But, he said, it’s also a welcome time. In a season when we celebrate the birth of hope, what better time to venture into eternity? Though I wasn’t a person of faith myself, my uncle’s words were spoken with such confidence, such utter serenity; it was hard not to believe them.
When we finished the tour, I turned to my uncle and asked, “But where do you prepare the bodies?” While everyone else retreated back to the festivities, my uncle led me down a warren of halls to a lower level; finally, we came to an ancient door. He gave it a firm push and it opened to reveal his basement workspace. It was so unlike the rooms we’d just left. Here, concrete walls were stripped bare, and two stainless steel tables were angled, the feet tilted toward porcelain sinks. Shelves were stacked with jugs of formaldehyde and gels, others contained substances I didn’t recognize. The floor was dotted with drains for easy cleanup.
There was one bit of color against the nearest wall, a spot of comfort to help my uncle through some of his more trying cases, no doubt. It was a portrait of Jesus overlooking the most oft-used table. Pointing to it, my uncle said, “I put that there to remind me I’m never alone with the dead.” Without faith, I wondered if I could do such a job, if anyone could. In the weeks that followed, I couldn’t forget the image of my uncle, gazing toward that painting.
She came to me soon after, pervading my thoughts and dreams, more real to me than nearly any other person I encountered during the course of a day: a woman undertaker who didn’t believe in God. She told me her story in bits and pieces; from the beginning it was clear that hers was a life of trauma. It took months to complete the first few pages, and still I didn’t know her name.
One day my husband and I stopped at an antique shop, hoping to find a bargain. It was then I told him of this woman who haunted me. She’d only recently shared her name. “It’s Clara,” I said, “Clara Marsh.” I hoped it meant something; that I could move forward with her story. Inside the store, we went our separate ways, he in search of rugs, while I sought out something far more elusive, something I couldn’t name. It was then I saw it, propped on a pedestal table, against a candlestick. There before me was a yellowed envelope with a one-cent stamp pasted in the upper right-hand corner, the recipient’s name across the front in Palmer’s cursive: Clara Marsh.
It was a sign. Surely, it was a sign.
Amy MacKinnon lives outside of Boston with her husband, three children, two cats, and their English bulldog, Babe.