I spent many happy hours playing in a funeral home as a child.
Not the likeliest play place for a child, granted, but for me it was quite the haven.
We visited my mom’s hometown of Belmont, Mississippi frequently throughout my childhood. It was only a couple of hours away from where we lived, so we drove over there about once a month if someone (usually her mom or brother) paid for the gas to get us there.
This tiny town had one stoplight in the whole of its intersections, and I’m pretty sure I was somehow related to a good 80% of the population, so there must have been an enormous feeling of safety for Mom when we were there.
She felt known there. She felt cared for there.
I did, too.
In Belmont, Mom had her mom, a brother and two sisters, and an extensive extended family. Her father died when she was only five years old in a freak boating accident. He was a hero in that small town – a WWII vet and an entrepreneur – and he left behind a funeral home business that was just beginning to thrive.
Fast forward to my childhood, and my great-grandfather, great-uncle and uncle ran two funeral homes that served much of northeastern Mississippi.
It was the lifeblood of the family.
When death is essential to your livelihood, your experience with it and around it is very different than the norm.
My uncle, aunt and my cousins lived in the apartment above the funeral home, so when we were in Belmont I spent the night there with my cousin, Karissa.
I anticipated those sleepovers, but I look back now and think of the language the adults used around us with a tiny bit of horror.
“Where are Kaysie and Karissa sleeping tonight?”
“At the funeral home.”
“But Mike went to Corinth to pick up a body. Who’s going to be with them?”
“Well, Sandra will, I reckon.”
There were bodies getting picked up all the freaking time.
I mean, my kids would die.
But this was my second home.
My cousins and I played hide-and-seek in the casket room. Sometimes we extended that game beyond the boundaries we’d been given (I mean, this is me we’re talking about), and we’d stumble into one of the embalming rooms where a body was being prepared for the memorial service and burial. And, yes, I snuck around to those doors when my uncle was working to see what I could see.
I mean, of course I did.
Unfortunately (really, thankfully), he was mostly very good at keeping those doors shut tight.
The funeral home chapel served beautifully as a school, a store, a doctor’s office and a church where my cousins, my brother and I spent many happy hours pretending.
I learned to mow in the nearby cemetery. When I was ten, my uncle was the first to put me behind the wheel of a vehicle, and it was on the country road that led to the cemetery.
My mom is now buried in that same cemetery.
We had her memorial service in the same chapel where we played school and church as children. It was literally standing room only…packed with those who came to honor her life and show us their love and kindness.
Her body was lovingly prepared for burial by my first cousin, Jonathan, who spent all those years playing with us, then grew up and became a part of the family business.
His older sister, Karissa, coordinated the entire funeral service, plus the burial and all the flowers and the meal afterward and so many things I don’t even know about, because when your mother dies you can’t think straight, and you really just about lose your mind. Karissa also grew up and became a part of the family business. She was my first playmate as a child, and she was an angel for me during some of the darkest days of my life.
These people who took care of all the death things when mom died were also the people we ran to at least once a month growing up because my mom needed a safe haven from the death we lived in every day of our lives at home.
We experienced more life living in and around that funeral home as children than we ever did inside our own home.
After forty years of marriage to my father, Mom finally saw the death in her marriage, made the hard choice and ran home to stay. She was embraced by her family and friends there and allowed the space to begin to heal. She rekindled a romance with her high school sweetheart, Jack, and found true love.
Mom was given 11 years of love and at least some seasons of wholeness after the choice to walk away from death and into life.
My father, though, after forty years of keeping mom ensnared by telling her he would die if she ever left him, did just that. He died just ten months after she left. Alone, with nothing and no one.
Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy.
I don’t know why mom stayed with dad for as long as she did. I can guess at it and probably hit on the top five reasons pretty well.
- She didn’t think she could raise two children on her own. (She did anyway, by the way)
- Religious teaching at the time was consistent with the cultural norms in the South that said women were inferior to men and should stay in a submissive and committed role unless he commits adultery. She was literally being indoctrinated with this even though her husband was drinking away all of the provision for the family and at the very least abusing her emotionally, while also abusing his children.
- She really, really, REALLY wanted to hold on to the hope that he would fulfill his promise and someday change.
- She didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else.
- By the time we were older, she didn’t want to raise us in a small town.
It’s hard to look at this and wonder at why she stayed in this tomb of a marriage for so, so long. Painful, even.
But in the end, here’s what I really do for sure know… Mom tried really hard to choose life in the midst of death and Dad always chose death in the midst of life. This meant that my brother and I were given many lessons in life from our mother and many lessons in death from our father.
You can guess at who we preferred as a teacher.
Belmont, Mississippi is now a sleepy little town. It was a little sad to drive through and around so many places of significance to me as a child and see that they were gone or stagnant.
But when death came for mom and we gathered there for her memorial, life was teeming all around her.
I’m really glad she chose to live.