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May 20, 2012 / hippiechickamblings

The Grieving Widow

The dead have their own stories to tell, and I heard many of them as a kid, sitting around the dinner table. My dad was a local mortician and funeral director, “undertaker,” if you prefer, and one of the most beloved men in our community. Forget the stereotypes of the pale, emaciated, somber-faced ghoul-man, lurking around graveyards at midnight. Dad was tall, well-built, and handsome, with a lop-sided grin and mischievous glint in his blue eyes. He was anything but somber.

Jolly and charismatic, he found joy and humor in work that would appall the average person. I think it was his genuine love of people, with all their marvelous quirks, fatal flaws, and infinite capacity for goofiness that made him the kind of man who could thrive in such a business. Even while in the extremity of sorrow, standing on the precipice of madness in their grief, people sensed in him, a confidante, counselor, and friend, someone who could be trusted to carry out with dignity and respect, those final farewells and last wishes of those nearest and dearest to their hearts. They sensed true compassion, not contrived sympathy, a desire to serve, not just another shyster with itchy palms. In short, he was perfect for his vocation. No other career choice would’ve put him closer to people in need, and that’s where he truly flourished.

I don’t mean to imply in any way that my family was the Waltons, Part II, because, believe me, it wasn’t, but we did share one element with that too-perfect family: the dinner table. It was the hub of our connection, our gathering place to share experiences and air grievances, and the stage for dad’s daily report. Though he always shielded us from the mechanical details of his job, that human side, full of bizarre irony, hilarity, and unexpected lessons, he shared nightly, dished up as easily as Mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

“Don’t ever believe that old tale about people not being themselves during the time of a death,” he told us. “That’s when people really show you who they are.”

“But, when people are grieving, how can they possibly be themselves?” I asked. “They’re hurting, in shock, not thinking straight, right?”

“You would think so,” he mused, “but not always.” Thus, the tale of The Grieving Widow was introduced:

He received a call from a man in Chicago, brother to a hometown native who’d moved north after college and become wealthy as a real estate broker. The man had passed away suddenly, and since his wishes had been to return “home” at his death, the family was prepared to make funeral arrangements. There was to be no sparing of expenses, the brother explained. The man’s widow was asking for the best of everything available to lay her husband to rest.

The man’s remains were dispatched to the funeral home without delay, and Dad took great pains to insure every detail was perfect. Shortly before the viewing was scheduled to take place, he got another call from the brother. “Everything’s changed,” the man said. “Cancel the viewing, the funeral, everything. There won’t be a funeral.”

“What do you mean, there won’t be a funeral? What’s going on?” Dad wanted to know.

“It’s Wanda,” the man said, “she can’t go through with it. You don’t understand. She’s so devastated she wants to die, too.  She said she would kill herself if she had to see him lying in a casket.” This was a common grief reaction, seen countless times before, so Dad assumed it would pass.

“Maybe she’ll feel differently once she has a little time to think it through. She’s had a hard blow, and that’s understandable.”

“No,” you don’t understand,” the man insisted. “You don’t know Wanda. She’s totally beside herself. She wants him cremated, and that’s what we’re going to go with.”

“Cremated?” You mean, after…”

“Look, I know he’s been embalmed, the casket, everything prepared,” the man snapped. “We don’t care about all the expense. She wants him cremated.”

“Then we’ll make sure she has it the way she wants,” Dad declared. “So, does she just want a memorial service? We can provide a nice, elegant urn if she would like.”  At this, the man seemed a bit confused.

“Urn? Oh yeah, you mean, for the ashes. No, she’ll probably buy one later. The only thing you need provide is the box, or whatever you guys use after cremation. And a memorial service is fine.”

“Do you think she’ll want to take the ashes to the gravesite for burial?” At this point, Dad was resigned to a total redo of everything he’d done thus far, but the widow’s wishes must reign supreme.

“Look,” Wanda can’t think about any of that. She’s under sedation, a complete wreck. Just burn him, and get a box!” Once again, grief reared its ugly head, and cruel words were to be expected. Dad was unruffled.

“Wanda is the boss, here,” he replied calmly. We’ll do things her way.”

“Just make sure she gets the box with his ashes. That’s all she’s talked about.”

Dad worried about Wanda. He’d seen shock and grief manifest itself in unspeakable ways, and he fretted that Wanda would buckle under such a burden. He’d seen widowed spouses have heart attacks before leaving the grave-site of their mates. He’d witnessed panic attacks and emotional collapse at funerals all too often. It especially concerned him that Wanda wanted that box of ashes. With such an emotionally wrought woman, it seemed unhealthy for her to have it in her possession, living alone as she did.

Why keep it? Why not just plan to have the ashes buried, as most families did with cremation? Would she pour them in a tub and jump in? Would she get sackcloth, shave her head, and smear them over her body, weeping and wailing? Would she dash them over the bed, lie down on them, and take a bottle of sleeping pills? Would she put them over the fireplace and build a shrine to them? How could he help? Finally, after tossing and turning most of the night, he resolved that the best he could do for Wanda was to make sure the funeral home’s ambulance was on stand-by.

The service was perfectly executed, lovely, and comforting. Over two thousand people showed up to pay their respects. Wanda arrived, frail and wan, in a charcoal gray suit, as pale as the white roses that filled the chapel. She trembled and shook, but no wails or sobs escaped her. Her dignity and grace impressed Dad and reminded him of Jackie Kennedy when her husband was slain by an assassin’s bullet. Wanda even had on a pillbox hat like Jackie’s, though it was gray instead of black. She allowed no one to touch her, accepted no hugs or well-meaning embraces.

As time passed, she grew paler, the shaking more violent, like brittle leaves worried by a gust of November wind, and Dad’s anxiety increased. Finally, as the service ended and the crowd filed out, Wanda cracked under the strain, screeching out her grief, wailing, crying out her loss and pain. As Dad hurried to her, her knees buckled, and she sagged against him in a boneless heap. “The box,” she begged. “Give me the box.”

Once the box was in her hands, she seemed to regain enough strength to walk. “Let me help you to your car,” Dad said, seeing none of her family around. Wanda allowed him to lead her to the car, the box of ashes clutched in her gloved hands. Finally able to feel relief that the ordeal was over, Dad turned to her and said, “Wanda, why don’t you let us keep the box here tonight so you can get a good night’s sleep? Then you can decide what to do with it. You don’t HAVE to take it home today, you know.”

“Oh, I’m not taking it home,” she said, her tone weary.

Oh, Thank God, Dad thought. She’s probably going to scatter the ashes somewhere he liked. “Are you sure you’re up to driving? Is there anything we can get you?”

“Yes, I’d like directions to the dump.”

Dad blinked. “You need to go to the dump?” This woman’s sorrow was taking on a life of its own, an alien life.

“Yes, the dump. Will you give me direction, or not.”

“Of course I will, but would you mind if I ask why it’s so important you go to the dump now?”

Wanda squared her shoulders, her trembling stilled, her eyes bright, her pallor, gone. She hoisted the box in front of her with a smile. “I’m taking this lying, no-good, cheating bastard where he belongs!”

As Dad paused at the end of his story for a sip of coffee, I couldn’t help asking, “Well, what did you say to THAT?”

“I gave her directions to the dump. Wanda was boss.”

4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Wonnie / May 21 2012 6:03 am

    It’s a Monday morning here in farming country and with a busy day ahead I just coulcdn’t possible think of a better way to start my day than with one of your wonderful stories. A cup of coffee, a good story and maybe a sweet treat….Monday’s might just be somewhat tolerable after all!

    • hippiechickamblings / May 21 2012 6:58 am

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I’m so glad my weird little story has made your Monday more tolerable, and I hope you will visit me often. Your thoughtfulness is much appreciated!

  2. tdhenson / Jun 1 2012 1:23 am

    A great read. I can hear my uncle telling this story now. Brings back so many childhood memories.

    • hippiechickamblings / Jun 1 2012 1:28 am

      So glad you enjoyed it. There are many more where this came from, stored up in a heart that misses him daily.

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