They say you can tell how successful you were in life by how many people came to your funeral. If that were true, Richard thought, his grandfather had been a miserable failure.
Sure, some family members were vacationing in sunny Florida when the old man died quietly in his sleep. The odd aunt or uncle begged off with other paltry excuses, and some were so distant to not have been told at all. Richard’s dad, after all, wanted to save money on something so gaudy as an obituary in the paper, or all those long-distance phone calls.
Evidently that cheapness extended even here, to the funeral home. Richard cringed at the ramshackle sight of the main building. The sign out front exclaimed “Seltzer Funeral Parlor” with a small swinging placard underneath that read “Pet Forever Crematorium”. His father had found the least expensive place to put grandpa to rest. The door creaked as he went inside.
“Hello, may I help you?” A bespectacled young man stood erect behind a white-latticed podium. His dark hair parted precisely to the left, the soft spotlights above giving it an unnatural sheen. Something lurked in the stiff smile. Humor? Pity? It was hard to tell. A tidy gold nametag on one lapel read Bryce.
Richard cleared his throat, glancing nervously around the foyer. “I’m here for the viewing.” Even as he said it, his nerves jangled more acutely. The viewing.
“Follow me,” Bryce intoned then glided across the carpet toward one of the many hallways. Richard crept after him, keeping three strides behind.
The whole concept of the viewing could be summed up in one word: creepy. Creepy, with all the E’s stretching out for as long as breath would hold. The event was meant to encourage reassurance and closure, but seeing a loved one ensconced in a plush box—unmoving, unbreathing, uneverything—well, that gave Richard little of either. It did, however, lead to nightmares.
His first viewing occurred just after his seventh birthday. His mother’s mother’s mother, great grandmamma, had lost her battle with Leukemia. The funeral took place on a Wednesday, so Richard was excited to skip school. That excitement turned to ash when his parents proceeded to dress him in too-tight clothes and drive him in their Chevy on a long car trip halfway across the state. And then, the crying and the wailing masses, all gathered in black throngs, packed into the sterile white corridors of this building that smelled of empty sardine tins. Richard clutched his mother’s hand, shrinking from the sad embraces all around him, his fear palpitating in his breast so hard he thought he might die.
Even as he clasped his mother’s sweaty fingers, that same hand began pulling him down the line between the chairs toward that long, shiny wooden box at the end of the room. He could just make out a nose rising out of the open lid. It looked like great grandmamma’s nose. The one he kissed when he went to visit, and she gave him ice cream. He began to cry. His father picked him up as they continued to march toward the body, and that was infinitely worse.
There she was, great grandmamma, painted with a shade of pink lipstick that, even though he was only seven, he knew she’d never worn in her life. The pale, pale skin creased with blue veins had been patted down with white powder so it became paler still.
“It’s time to say goodbye to your great grandmamma, Richard,” his mother declared through a sodden handkerchief. “Give her a kiss.”
His father lowered Richard closer to the casket, oblivious to his son’s hammering heart and terror-struck sobs.
Richard bent his lips to kiss the tip of great grandmamma’s cold nose. It was like kissing a piece of porcelain china, and tasted like baby powder.
In his dreams, his great grandmamma reached up from the coffin to hug her great grandson back, returning the love with freezing kisses and dry gurgles of affection from a hollow throat. He often awoke, bathed in sweat, to find he’d pissed himself. The dreams haunted him until his early teens.
Since then, he’d studiously avoided viewings altogether. When a friend or relative passed away, he found some excuse. Aunt Maggie: out-of-town meetings. Bill Clark, his childhood friend: jury duty. Robin Markus, half-cousin twice removed on his mother’s side: outbreak of psoriasis. And so forth. For the last thirteen years, he’d managed to keep both feet out of funeral homes.
Bryce, as if reading his mind, turned to look at Richard over his shoulder. His chilly blue eyes regarded the latecomer with that same unreadable detachment as his smile.
“You’re the last. I was just getting ready to close up shop.”
Richard shrugged. “Sorry, I live an hour to the north. Traffic slowed me down. Construction up and down the highway.”
The smile hardened. It said, I’m tasting bullshit and I get paid to like it. Bryce turned back and kept walking. Soon they stopped before a pair of double doors.
“In here. Take your time. Would you like some coffee?”
Richard couldn’t take his eyes off the shiny brass doorknobs. He nodded, swallowing dryly.
The funeral director bowed slightly, then strode back down the hallway, leaving Richard to contemplate the closed doors alone.
Richard’s hands, almost of their own accord, reached forward and opened the portal. Immediately, that old familiar scent wafted over him. Empty sardine tin, masked by pungent lilies. Inside, the rows of rickety fold-up chairs marched toward the casket. Powder blue? His father had undoubtedly picked whichever coffin was on sale. One small bouquet of flowers in a cheap glass vase had been set on a pedestal to the left.
From out of the open lid peeked a familiar nose.
Just what am I supposed to do here, he wondered. Sit for fifteen minutes? Pray to a God I don’t believe in? Pretend that the body up there is anything more than a sack of flesh, as if Grandpa’s soul were somehow floating around in this room? The whole thing seemed stupid.
Yet, he’d respected his grandfather immensely. The rest of his family might be dysfunctional to the extreme, but Grandpa had joked, played games, and generally did grandfatherly things with Richard. When the Alzheimer’s took hold a year ago, it had been hard. Painful to watch Grandpa dwindle from a man who could shuffle cards with one hand to a decrepit haunt barely able to remember his own name. In fact, the decline of his grandfather had kept Richard away for the last few months. That’s how his father had guilted Richard into coming today.
There is truly no escape from family, he thought then began walking up the aisle.
The first thing he noticed, they’d left his grandfather’s glasses off. That seemed unnatural. The old man had never worn contacts, even after laser eye surgery. Many a night, Richard would see those thick-framed glasses slowly slide down the weathered, leathery face to the tip of the nose while an open Louis L’Amour paperback hung miraculously by two fingers. Now, that liver-spotted face looked naked—almost alien—without the glasses.
At least the suit fit properly. Richard remembered his father mentioning the suit selection, how everything would probably be too big for Grandpa’s withered frame. Maybe the funeral parlor simply stitched back the folds under the body. Or did bodies bloat slightly, even after the embalming? Either way, the suit looked good.
Richard glanced around at the empty room. No candles. Weren’t there supposed to be candles at a viewing? Or was that just wakes? He sat down in the front row, wincing as the chair creaked beneath him. The echo resounded mournfully, reminding him of the solemnity of this occasion.
Seated, he could just see the old man’s nose.
This vantage point brought back some of those childhood memories. His gut rolled once, flopping like a fish caught on land, baking on the hot rocks under the glaring sun. He thought of those dogs whose intestines get wound in a knot. Did shit like that happen to humans? He shifted uncomfortably in the chair, crossing his legs.
Empty seconds drifted by. He stopped breathing for a nearly half a minute to make sure the only respirations he heard were his.
Yes, he’d been late. No traffic, no road construction. Just nerves. He’d taken way too long picking out his clothes for this little sojourn...purposely. And just as purposeful, he’d driven five miles below the speed limit. Why rush, he thought. It wasn’t as if Grandpa would get any deader. If he arrived at the funeral parlor close to the end of the scheduled viewing, he knew he’d avoid any encounter with his wailing relatives. With any luck, the staff wouldn’t even let him in.
No such luck.
Where was the coffee Bryce had offered anyway? Richard glanced back to the closed doors, expecting to hear the tread of black shoes down the white hallway beyond. He strained his hearing, hopeful. Nothing. He turned around again.
The nose was gone.
For a moment, Richard found he couldn’t breathe. A clamoring idea rushed through his brain, full of images from countless movies about the walking undead. Nonsense. Slowly he stood.
There. Nothing sinister, nothing akin to voodoo. The head had simply rolled to one side. His grandfather now faced the back of the casket. Wasn’t there supposed to be one of those neck pillows to keep the head from jostling?
Richard stepped closer. Should he reach in and set things straight? It was only his grandfather in there, after all. He forced himself to stand at the edge of the coffin, peering nervously into the open lid. That face...he’d kissed and hugged and listened to its stories. Suddenly, regret swallowed him like quicksand. Through bleary eyes, he reached in to arrange his grandfather’s body properly.
His hands stopped, hovering just inches from the dead man’s cheek. Richard blinked back tears and squinted. Was that a crack in the flesh? He bent closer.
Yes, there...just below the ear. A strange spider web of creases. Almost hypnotized, he poked at it with one finger. The web made a soft snapping sound and the edges curled away from the jawline, like the peel separating from the fruit of an orange. Richard shrank from this unveiling, expecting to see bone or grey meat below the curling skin.
Instead, he saw plastic.
He tapped it with a fingernail. Hollow echoes sounded from beneath. Fascinated now, he examined the edges of his grandfather’s face where it had come away from the plastic shell. A sticky residue suggested some sort of epoxy. Carefully, he ran his hand beneath the skin. It pulled easily away from where it had been glued. He continued until the whole face had come away.
The head in the casket belonged to a mannequin.
Just to be sure, Richard peeked into the suit. More plastic. The whole corpse had come from a department store window. He held the loose, flapping face in his hands and examined it. Eyelids, mouth, and even the nasal passages had all been glued closed before the mask had been carefully arranged onto the dummy. He brought the face close to his own. Breathed deep. He could detect the faint scent of Old Spice, his grandfather’s favorite cologne. You couldn’t get that stuff out of your skin after years of daily use.
The doors opened.
Richard turned swiftly, still clutching his grandfather’s sleeping face, to see Bryce standing in the entry holding a steaming cup of coffee.
They looked into each other’s eyes and achieved total understanding of the situation in one instant.
“It’s cheaper this way,” Bryce explained, even as Richard dropped the mask and trod firmly in his direction. “The craft store was out of the usual glue. I had to make do.”
The first punch sent sharp shards of shattered coffee cup into the funeral director’s chin and neck.
When the front door opened sometime later, Richard adjusted the nametag on his lapel that read Bryce and smiled from behind the podium. Two men in blue jean overalls came into the entry.
“Where’s the regular guy?” one of them asked around a mouthful of chewing tobacco.
Richard gazed steadily into his murky eyes. “I’m the regular guy now.”
The man nodded then shrugged.
“Where’s the pickup?”
Without a word, Richard walked down the hallway. He heard them follow. The doors to the viewing room were open and the casket at the end of the room was now closed. He stood to one side, motioning the burly men forward.
They stopped suddenly, comically frozen in place. One of them bent toward Richard.
“What about that one?” he whispered, pointing toward an old man sitting perfectly straight in one of the chairs, well-dressed in a fine suit, eyes shut serenely as if in contemplation.
“Don’t worry,” Richard whispered back. “He’s been that way for quite some time. We’ll let him sleep a while longer, I think.”
The new funeral director gave the gravediggers his coldest smile and that seemed to satisfy them. They collected the long wooden box very quietly—not even once mentioning they remembered this to be an open casket viewing—and just as quietly, loaded it into the hearse for burial at sundown.
# # #
I hate funerals. Is it obvious? Nothing quite like gathering all the relatives together for an uncomfortable day of uneasy smiles filled with rose-colored remembrances of the deceased. This story contains many autobiographical experiences (though with some obvious fictional flourishes) and encapsulates my thoughts on viewings, wakes, and funereal proceedings. There is a bit of Lovecraft here, primarily "In The Vault", and I leaned into the less paranormal aspects as a kind of exercise into misdirection. Hopefully, the reader expects a zombie where there is none and Richard's transformation might also be seen as a healthy one.