I must first apologize for any other kings and queens who may have died without my taking note. I was born in the British Commonwealth, and Elizabeth was part of the background of my life, even after I became a citizen of the USA.
I wanted to present a meditation on death, generally. I'm not preoccupied with death, but to an atheist, death is more real than to those who believe that there might be life after death. This excerpt is from Helen and Sharon. Note that Helen's father's name is John.
The large heated tent contained a sea of familiar faces: Little Elly, Tommy (Tomasina), old Elly (sometimes called Grelly), looking frail and tired, Cindy, Olive Gibson, Jeffrey, and Barb and her mother Carol, Becky from Philadelphia, and little Evie from Illinois. Then there were the Johnsons (Helen’s mother’s folk, whom she had kept away from her husband, for some odd reason, some eight of them.
Annie led Helen to old Elly who was seated near the radiator, and on her way, Helen touched everyone who turned a sympathetic face to her. Elly looked withered, and she couldn’t suppress a look of reproach at Helen for just a second, after which she put her arms round Helen’s neck and wept not with sorrow but with joy.
“You’re finally here!” she cried, “I’m so happy! How did you hear about it?” Helen explained that Lorna had managed to get through. Elly babbled on about how they had tried to find her, and Helen listened with half an ear as she studied the lined face that she loved so much. It was ironic that, in spite of how little time they spent together, Elly was close to being a mother to Helen, and Helen, not her own child, was a greater favorite of the old lady than any of her own children, including Janet and Tomasina. Grelly made Helen sit near her and said she’d let Helen go after a while.
Helen asked about the funeral arrangements, and Grelly obliged. At night, so Grelly told Helen, they all sat and told stories, some about John, some about other family members who had died before. Most everyone slept in the tent, and only Grelly, Little John and Annie and Tommy slept in the house. Little Elly (Old Elly's grandchild) had shuddered and refused, and Grelly had asked Janet to sleep in the tent, to see that things were ok.
Why was the body here?
“When Kate got here—Kate is John’s youngest sister,” Grelly explained, “—I asked her how things were done in their family, and this is how it’s done.”
“But you’re in charge. You call the shots!”
Grelly smiled indulgently. “No, darling; your father has been kept away from his family too long.” She stroked Helen’s hand like a lover. “I’ve known him—how long? Twenty years; as long as Annie. And Sylvia took him away from them; the least I can do is let them do this.”
“But … it’s disgusting!” Helen whispered to her. “Right in the middle of the house!”
Grelly stopped her stroking, and turned to study Helen’s face, her eyes full of sadness.
“What is it with you and Annie?” Helen dropped her eyes. The words weren’t severe, just sad and reproachful. “If you love someone, nothing is disgusting, darling. It’s just a poor piece of flesh that once was your sweetheart … how can it be disgusting? Soon, yes; but it’s only been a day or two! It’s there for you, you know.”
“For me!” Helen was shocked and repulsed. She could only shake her head. “It’s sordid,” she exclaimed.
“No one offered to show you the body?”
“Elly! Why are you forcing me?” Helen was trying not to panic.
“Once he’s buried,” said the old lady quietly and lovingly, “you will never see him again. “Then it’s crying over a gravestone. Have you visited your mother’s gave?”
They sat in silence for a while. Tommy and Elly appeared and hugged Helen and chatted for a while. Then people began to line up to talk to Helen and give her their sympathy. Old Elly Krebs watched her adopted daughter—that’s how she thought of Helen—greet everyone with the incredible grace that was her gift. It was beautiful because Helen’s warmth was not put on; she loved every one of these people. Little Erin sat close to Helen, and Helen comforted the youngster as if she were her own, while she greeted the guests. It was fascinating to watch her meet her cousins, most of whom she had never seen before. They approached her with awe, but went away feeling that they had made her their own. She charmed even the cantankerous Kate Erickson, who pulled up a chair and related an interminable saga of the family’s history, to which Helen listened attentively. But it was soon over; the townsfolk had visited on Friday, and probably would come round for the burial.
Finally, Elly had her namesake all to herself. (Helen's name was actually Eleanor, the same as Elly.)
“I haven’t looked at the body either,” she lied, hanging her head. Lies came easily when you were seventy.
“I’ll come with you,” said Helen quietly. Elly knew that Helen had more fortitude than the other young ones. None of them had dared go near the casket. There were no tears; it was as if John Nordstrom was away traveling, and there had been some crisis, perhaps a fire. Only Elly and Annie and the Nordstrom family wept. “Erin, darling … will you stay with Tommy?”
“I want to come with you,” said she.
“We’re going to look at Grandpa John!” warned Helen.
“I want to see too,” said Erin, shuddering.
It was time. The ritual viewing of the body had been postponed until Helen arrived. At Elly’s request, there had been no embalming. Using a procedure relatively unusual for those parts, the body had been cleaned only with water, both inside and out, and was preserved only by refrigeration.
Helen, Erin and Grelly walked slowly out of the tent and into the house, followed by everyone else, and the lid of the casket opened and taken away. There was a cloud of frosty vapor circulating round the grey face of what had once been John Nordstrom. Dressed in his Sunday best, he looked handsome but very, very old. He seemed to have a slight pot belly. His face was relaxed, but faintly worried. Helen’s eyes drifted away, to observe the others near her: Erin, staring with fascination, Grelly, calm but still grieving, Annie, also calm, but clearly more devastated than she ought to have been, Tommy, Little John, and Kate.
Helen turned back to her father’s body. Cautiously she reached out a hand to touch the cold flesh. It felt odd, more moist than she had expected. But the lifelessness of it filled her, and she understood. Each death she had experienced seemed to have prepared her for this one. Her father was gone, without a word to her, leaving her to the mercy of these others. How could they ever take his place? He was not watching from out there. He was gone, and she was without a father.
She began to cry like a little girl, sobbing pitifully. They let her cry, though they loved her, because crying was normal. She was only the first to cry; everyone cried. And Erin cried because Helen was crying. She put her little arms round Helen and comforted her as best as she could.
After a while, Helen and that first circle of bereaved moved away, and the other children came round, taking courage from Helen’s example, filling their eyes with the sight of the remains of their beloved grandpa. It was a hard lesson in mortality, one that might have been saved them in other circumstances, but it was not the way with the Nordstrom clan. Death was not an ugly surprise that was sprung on adults, but an ever present neighbor throughout one’s life. If you knew of the frailty of your existence, they thought, you’d live more carefully.
As had been planned, Helen was asked to help carry the coffin. For the first time that day, Helen felt strong, and wiping her tears, she took her place with Little John and Bo and Tommy. It was no weight at all, she found; her fatigue was a weakness of the soul rather than the body. Steady as a rock, standing proud and tall, she carried that coffin out to the grave site, and the business of burial began.
The graveside ceremony was moving, and Helen found her tears flowing. Finally the moment came for Helen to throw in a clod of earth, she felt such a wave of absolute misery that she cried out aloud, “Oh Dad!”
Lorna was standing closest, holding Erin’s hand, Gena and Annie were holding each other, and together holding Helen, who had begun to fall apart right after she had laid the casket down. The look on Lorna’s face as that cry smote her ears was something that Gena would never forget. Once again she was reminded about how fiercely the dancer loved Helen. Amy, Janet, Annie, Elly, all paused in their grief to show concern for Helen.
Helen turned and collapsed into Lorna’s arms, and in seconds Tommy and Elly and Gena had joined her, as the earth piled into the grave from scores of sorrowful hands. Helen alone cursed and sobbed, abandoning all restraint.
Presently Helen became quieter as she became aware of the strangers around her, beyond the immediate family circle. It didn’t reduce the misery in her voice, just the volume of it. And the softer she got, the more bitter she got too, and Gena felt the strain of battling her own emotions which automatically responded to her mother’s outcry. Tommy was trying to calm her down too, to little avail. Once the grave was mostly filled in, the thirty or so attendees withdrew to a respectful distance. Gena regarded them, now tired, her mother’s grief still assailing her ears and her heart, not certain what was expected of her. Why didn’t they go home, and give the family some privacy?
“Helen,” said Lorna quietly, gripping her arm tightly, to get her attention, and Gena was surprised when Helen quieted herself, a rag of a drenched handkerchief clamped to her nose and mouth, the sobs still wracking her breast, but silent now. Helen slowly raised her eyes to Lorna. But Lorna bent and picked up a clod of earth and handed it to Helen.
“It’s time to say good bye, Helen,” she said softly, so only the four of them could hear. “We know it’s hard, darling!”
“You don’t understand!” Helen whimpered to her, and Lorna’s face flushed red. There was no anger, but there was a frustration there, that Helen’s grief had come between them.
Lorna only waited. Her turn would come someday, but it wasn’t any use to say it. The only reason Helen needed to pull herself together was because of the onlookers and the children. Helen had always been the strong one, even when her emotions were high. It was hard to watch her like this.
Finally Helen took the clod of earth—rather more roughly than necessary—and flung it awkwardly at the grave, and they all held their breath. Helen took several deep breaths, and stooped to pick up another clod, and toss it on the grave, this time with much more control, as if she wanted to get it right. Her face crumpled once more as she tried to whisper the word ‘goodbye,’ with only partial success. Suddenly she turned away to face the small band of close friends who wanted to console her and express their sympathies once more. Lorna hated these moments, to see Helen do everything wrong. In her heart she had imagined that Helen would do her proud, that she would conduct herself with dignity and grace. It was a bitter disappointment. It had been an embarrassing scene.