The envelope

I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB
Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

Things Marmeee loved: Me

Author: Belladonna Took

Well into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, perpetually at risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic.

32 thoughts on “The envelope”

  1. This is beautiful. And it is completely astonishing how “not there” our loved one is when they are dead. The spirit is that which enlivens them and makes us all a vibrant person. I know your Marmee and my Mama are soaring in their new sphere and enjoying being “home” with loved ones who preceded them. Thinking of you always with love.


    1. It is an extraordinary thing, isn’t it? I was struck by how completely gone she was – but in a good, freeing way. I’m sad, of course. I miss her. But all the death thoughts? Gone – completely irrelevant to her.


    1. I’m so glad you feel that way. It was difficult to write, because it was such a complex inner journey – and, to be honest, I did wonder if I was being a little too open about my earlier feelings. But the sense of release and peace was so profound, when I finally understood what the death of her body meant … I really wanted to share that, and I appreciate your encouragement.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? It was just so not my Marmeee to destroy it … and yet, you know, it would have been awful to think of her looking less than her best. So strange, how we deal with death. Thanks for stopping by!


  2. This is beautiful, mom. I’m so glad you went to see her. And she really did love so many things, didn’t she? Especially life. And I think she would be very happy if someone were wearing her shawl 🙂


    1. Thank you, sweetie. I’m glad you and Kat both liked this … I was afraid of upsetting people by talking about how I felt – but how I felt afterwards was so dramatically different from how I felt before that I really wanted to put it down in words. And where better than right here??? This is my space for putting the words out there!


      1. You’re absolutely right. This is your space, for your feelings, and while I agree that one needs to be sensitive to other’s feelings, especially when you’re dealing with the death of someone a lot of people loved, it’s still important to get yours out there. I think you’ve done it so well here. This really moved me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a loving, moving tribute. What a strange, unnameable experience death is. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    I shall dream of your mother’s shawl, and the adventure it is surely now on…


    1. Thank you, Alice. I brought a few of her other shawls and scarfs home with me … My mother never wore scent, but they’re all imbued with her fragrance. I bury my nose in them sometimes and there she is. They’re magical, for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My grandmother loved colorful silk scarves; after she passed away, we found dozens and dozens of them among her things. We didn’t hold a traditional funeral for her, but a few months later, we held a memorial gathering for her family and friends — and put out her scarves so that anyone who wanted, could take one or two home. I love to think of all the places her bright frippery has traveled to, and all the memories they bring back for people!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A lot of what you’ve written here was my own experience. You’re much braver than I am, though, in writing about it. I wrote a lot, privately, when my mother passed but found I couldn’t – and often still can’t – bear to share her openly even though for me it’s been nearly three decades.


    1. I was particularly blessed in that my Mom and I had such an incredible relationship. When she died, there really was no unfinished business AT ALL. So it was sad, of course, and I miss her often – had a bad moment today, in fact – but … in a way I can’t quite explain, it’s okay. Sharing these memories gives me pleasure, and I love that some of the people who read them knew and loved her too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like the others have mentioned, I too know exactly what you mean by “not there”. In an instant it happens. I do hope your mom’s shawl was repurposed as well!


    1. I hit send before finishing my response to your earlier post … I’m so sorry to hear about your Dad. And thanks for taking time to come by and read here. It feels good to share these memories, even though making them hurt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I really enjoyed reading your posts BT as they help me to process my loss too. And you’re right, that WHAM feeling comes out of the blue like a punch to the gut. It comes less and less over time but still feels sucky.

        Hang in there, we’ll get through this tough period just fine I’m sure but it’s still not easy.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I found this a very honest account of a subject that people sometimes find it difficult to talk about openly. Like several of your other commenters, I’ve had similar feelings on seeing the body of family members who have passed on. What’s left is just the empty shell and everything that was important is no longer there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bun. It was strange to me … Intellectually I knew the “person” my mother was, was gone. I even used the words “Just a body”. But actually confronting the reality of it … that was surprisingly freeing, once I’d got past my even more surprising fear.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. OK, reading some of your posts has accomplished something very difficult to achieve—it made me cry. Well, not sobbing-crying, but tears-welling crying. I love that. Great blog! I am following so that when you do that series about your missionary work I won’t miss it. 🙂


    1. Thank you so much! I love it when I manage to touch someone’s heart … or their funny bone. I’m hoping my Sekhukhune posts – which I’m planning to start within the next few weeks – will do both. Meanwhile, welcome! I look forward to getting to know you better.


      1. thanks! I need to get into some of my “some day” post projects myself…I did some reality travel with a human rights group a decade or so ago…some good photos and stories. I like to think of my blog as “eclectic…” 🙂


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