I was in the mortuary conference room with my siblings, my stepmother, her sister, and my stepsister. The O'Neill family has owned the mortuary since 1898. Mr. O'Neill running the meeting currently heads the family mortuary and is my age, probably. Our families went to church together, so I recognize the boy in him.
He goes on about his services, very thorough and thoughtful. I zone out for a few minutes, answering my phone when my own mother, who's babysitting Clara and Diego, calls to ask when I will be home because she wants to "go do something." Marco shoots me with his stare, "Turn that thing off!" he hisses. His own phone chimes constantly with text message notices, so I hiss back "it was MOM; I have CHILDREN." Death does not bring out the best in all of us.
Suddenly, I hear Mr. O'Neill say something about a "witness cremation."
"Wait. What are you talking about?" I ask.
"The witness cremation," he says. He explains the scenario. "The family can request to be there at the cremation. They are able to view the body and then watch as the body enters the furnace. They can remain in the cremation room as long as they like."
I imagine flames; I imagine a burst of flames enveloping my father's corpse: a pyre.
"Maybe I want to do that," I say. Everyone except Mr. O'Neill looks at me funny.
"I don't want to do that," says my sister.
"Me neither," says my brother.
"No way," says my stepmother. "You're on your own with that one."
"That's okay," I assure them, looking at Mr. O'Neill.
"It isn't like Hollywood," he says, not looking at me.
I'm embarrassed that he's read my mind. "Can I think about it?" I ask him.
"Of course!" he says. "Just let me know as soon as possible, so that I can make the arrangements. We won't do much, just try to make him look a little better. He will have been in the freezer for a few days. It takes a while for the State to create the death certificate, longer now that they have everything computerized."
The feeling in the room was one of generosity, so nothing sounded cold. Death sounded warm and inviting, in fact.
I decided to do the witness cremation. My uncle Pat met me at the mortuary on Wednesday morning. I'd dressed up a little, and I covered my hair -- because it was filthy -- with a scarf. As I left the house that morning, my mother laughed and told me I looked like aMuslim woman. When I arrived at the mortuary, my Uncle Pat laughed and said that when he saw me walk in, he thought I was a Muslim woman.
A different mortician led us into the back room. They brought my father out, his body covered with a white sheet, a terry cloth towel wrapped like turban around the hole in his head where thecraniectomy happened.
My uncle and I stood over him, quietly. Then my uncle said, "He looks like Santa Claus."
"He does," I said, and he did. His face was a little blue, like he'd been driving his sleigh through the north pole all night. A little red and frostbitten. I touched his stomach.
"I kissed my dad when I saw him dead," Uncle Pat said, "and he was so, so cold."
"I don't want to kiss him," I said. But I wanted to touch him one more time. I touched his forehead, whispered, "I love you, dad. Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever." Tears gushed from my eyes, gathered on the tip of my nose and fell on his body.
The attendants wearing dark suits looked at us with anticipation. We nodded to them. They took hold of the gurney and rolled it toward the furnace. One of them pushed a button and the door of the oven opened. The inside was a large metal
box, and I could see flames reflected in the metal's sheen. They pushed my father in, and the door closed. The attendant pushed another button, and the incinerator geared up and then ignited full force. We stood there for a few more moments, then we left the room. On the way out, I thought to myself, "His mustache looked perfect."