As many of you know, I grew up above a funeral home. When Halloween came around most my classmates were either having parties, preparing their houses for trick-or-treaters, or getting ready to go out trick-or-treating themselves. At my house there wasn’t the same anticipation. In all my years living at the funeral home I don’t think we ever had a single trick-or-treater come to our door. Looking back now I understand why. Knocking on the door of a funeral parlor during Halloween? You’d have to think twice.
All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, is said to be an offspring of a Celtic festival marking the cycle between fall and winter. It is said they would build large bonfires and dress in disguises to ward off evil spirits. Many religions and cultures set aside days for those gone before us—Día de los Muertos, All Saints Day, for example, and more celebrate those who have passed before us. Investigating the graves of our earliest archeological findings, we find that humans placed food, pottery and even flowers for the journey to the other side. Most cultures also believe that spirits from beyond can and do, in some ways, communicate with us.
I don’t know if it was Halloween night, but there is one night I distinctly remember a strange experience that I will never be able to explain.
I was running the funeral home at that time and I had a call at a veterans’ hospital, which in funeral parlance is called a “death call”. I climbed into a black Cadillac hearse and headed to my pick up.
The veterans’ hospital was on a large rural estate. The buildings were old and almost gothic in appearance. I pushed the button on the intercom and shortly a white-jacketed intern appeared. He led me down several institutionally green hallways to an extra wide door labeled “Morgue”.
I signed the paperwork, loaded the body bag and headed to the hearse. The cot clattered into the back of the hearse and I headed down the serpentine drive. This was before cell phones. My contact to the world around me was only a pager, which only sent text messages, the latest in technology at the time. The only reason I mention it is that sometimes, in the back of your mind, or in the middle of the night, you realize that it is just you and the dead person in the back of the vehicle, while the everyone else sleeps.
About ten miles from the facility, things got strange. I was driving listening to the radio, high beams on, to make sure I didn’t hit any deer, and suddenly the hearse went dark. The battery just died. The only light was the silver hue of the full moon. I had no engine, no lights and coasted to the edge of the road.
My mind raced through possibilities. I knew I had gas but that still didn’t answer why all the electrical would go out. I sat in silence trying to comprehend what happened. I knew I had to take action but what should that be? So like most men I decided I would look under the hood. (I knew this was an exercise in futility, but that is what men do.) I started to open the door and suddenly the radio blared back to life, the lights went on, and I quickly restarted the engine. I didn’t know what happened but I wanted to get home.
The hearse stopped and started four more times along the way. By the time I got to the funeral home, I was a bundle of nerves. It was well after midnight and I was exhausted. I got the body, a young man approximately my age and a veteran, on the embalming table. I set his features, raised his vessels for embalming, filled the embalming machine and flipped the switch on. Both fire and smoke billowed out from the machine. The engine mysteriously and suddenly fried.
At this point I wasn’t looking for answers, I just wanted the night to end. I could look for explanations later. I got my father’s old gravity-fed embalming device, so that I could complete the operation without electricity. It was a slow process, but finally the embalming was finished and I went to bed restless and exhausted.
The next morning, I met with the family. They told me the story of a young man tortured by war and plagued by physical and emotional problems. I dressed him, prepped the casket, and then carried him through a small office area into the funeral parlor. As I carried him though the office, the pride and joy of my office equipment, an IBM Selectric typewriter, spontaneously started smoking, and died, in the exact same way the embalming machine did the previous evening. It just seemed that anything electric reacted to the body’s proximity.
I got through the preparation for the service. There was a viewing, then the service, and then I told a staff member to bring up the hearse, flower car and the lead car. The minister was still talking when my staff came up to me and said, “Boss, all the batteries are dead on the cars.”
I argued with him for a moment explaining that you can’t have a simultaneous failure of three batteries and he just threw up his hands, helplessly. I barked out orders to get my mechanic up to the funeral home with three new batteries. The mechanic did indeed replace all three batteries and stated that the plates in each battery were toasted. He kept shaking his head, looking down and saying, “...ain’t never seen anything like it.”
We left the funeral home and went to the cemetery, miraculously without incident. I stayed behind after everyone else left, and made sure the vault lid was secured and the grave covered. Once covered, I went over and stood on the grave. I looked down at the dirt at my feet. I was a vet myself, so I empathized with the agony he must have suffered. I bent down, patted the dirt and said, “Rest in peace, my friend. I just want you to know that this was the most costly service I have ever done.”
Even now, sometimes driving back home in the middle of the night, I still think of it. A haunting? An energy exchange? To this day I still can’t explain what happened.
It’s a beautiful fall day. I have just finished an exercise in futility as I try to gather leaves. The wind rattles through the dry leaves, leaves fall in a cascade of yellows, reds and browns and all this color is under a canopy of a clear blue sky. There is now a bit more brown and grey to each day. Winter is coming.
People ask me how can I deal with death on a day-to-day basis. It really is a matter of perspective. I see death as a transition. I see each of us as a spirit using our carbon-based bodies as vehicles that enable our consciousness and perception of this material world. What a gift!
The first law of thermodynamics states that matter is never lost, only transformed. Of course, I also see death as loss, but mostly to those left behind. Separation is pain. Most of mankind throughout the ages has believed in an existence after death. That very fact is interesting; I think it’s because nature herself tells us the story of transition and cycles.
As I sit watching the leaves do their dance, nature tells me that nothing stays the same. It is now fall, a time of decline from vibrancy. Life slows and winter buries the brown decay of autumn under a deep white slumber. We endure the cold, make snow angles and listen to the hush of the forest.
Nature is merely reflecting our own journey through life. We all experience our falls and our winters. It is spring that allows me to process all the death I see. The renewing, the resurrection, the surge of energy of that which was decayed gives way to new life. We are the budding plant, we are the face looking up at the summer sun, we are the aging person walking the autumn path, and we are the sleep of winter, once again ready to rise like a Phoenix with wings spread wide-open; transformed but never lost.
Enjoy the fall and listen to nature as she embodies our transitions. Understanding these cycles gives more enlightenment to each moment.