Jodie Briggs | Longreads | March 2018 | 16 minutes (3,925 words)
I have never been afraid of dead bodies. Their frequent appearance in my family’s funeral home quickly normalized the sight of motionless limbs in elegant steel caskets. We were the lone proprietors of death in my childhood home of Denton, North Carolina, and my familiarity with the end of life led me to assume a certain ease with mortality. Or so I thought.
Every day after school, I walked to the funeral home with my older brother. My grandmother, who was 79 when I was born, lived in the apartment above the business with her two sisters, and our octogenarian babysitters delighted in feeding us Little Debbie Zebra Cakes and teaching us to play card games. When my brother got too old to play, I began slipping downstairs to practice my dance routines in the empty layout rooms.
The funeral home meant everything to my dad, who had grown up poor in an even more rural town 15 miles from Denton. Raised in a house that lacked indoor plumbing and forced to use an outhouse until he was in high school, my dad vowed to make something of himself. He tore a ruthless path through his teen years, raising hogs for slaughter for family income, risking teen ridicule by driving the school bus for a small stipend, and eventually making it through college and working his way up in the funeral business from summer intern to owner.
Our life ran on death. The entire family was recruited into the business even at tender ages. I was 8 or 9 when my dad asked me to catch the phones while he stepped out. He assured me that we probably wouldn’t get a death call but that if we did I only needed to take down the name of the dead, the phone number, and the next of kin. So, naturally, that’s exactly what happened, except that I got nervous and told them to call back.
As teens, my brother and I worked in the funeral home answering the phone, moving flowers, sneakily reading books (me) and washing cars, picking up bodies from the morgue, and observing embalmings (my brother). Two decades into her school-teaching career, my mom also joined the business. But no one could outwork my dad, who prided himself on working up to 12 hours per day, seven days per week, well into his 70s.
While my brother joined my parents in the business after college, I was eager to leave our town of 1,100 and eventually settled in New York, where I reveled in the anonymity, the public transportation, and the seemingly endless array of bookstores. But I was close to my family and visited often. Each visit brought the same barrage of questions from my parents’ friends, funeral home employees, and, usually, whoever was sitting in the neighboring booth at lunch: Was I married? (No.) Did I really feel safe living in New York? (Yes.) And wasn’t I glad to be out of the city for a few days? (Um, no. That’s why I lived there.)
We were the lone proprietors of death in my childhood home of Denton, North Carolina, and my familiarity with the end of life led me to assume a certain ease with mortality.
The shape of my visits depended on how busy the funeral home was. Dinner plans were contingent upon whether or not local characters like Flossie McDowell, a frequent funeral home visitor, made it through the night. I’d often wait around the funeral home until my dad felt content to leave. “Who’s on call?” he’d shout to the entire office, although he likely knew the answer. The employees rotated being the designated remover of bodies that died in the night. My brother had sometimes gone with my dad on these calls of duty when we were kids but I never joined in.
“Your daddy’s getting mighty old to clock in all these hours, ain’t he?” someone would inevitably say with a wink toward me and a nod toward my dad. Dad might let a good-natured curse word slip as he jumped into the air and, even in his late 70s, click his heels together before landing with a laugh.