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By Mari Dias
The Mortician’s Daughter
(Names and locations have been changed)
It’s complicated when you’re a girl; even more so when
you’re the only girl in an Italian family with three brothers. Rosa’s father
was a second-generation funeral director, and she maintained a tacit
understanding that she would be the third generation. As the oldest, she would
be the first to join the business.
As a precocious, erudite 4-year-old, she learned to
read by sounding out words from the obituaries in the local newspaper. Sitting
on her father’s lap during breakfast, Rosa would beg him to read them aloud as
she studied the pictures. Many times, she felt cheated because the information
was so brief. Rosa often asked, “Daddy, how could Claire Jones, age 94,
only have one paragraph to describe her entire life?” She was often
frustrated as well; they never disclosed the cause of death. So, Rosa and her
father changed venues and began reading the New York Times, where the
obituaries were lengthy and full. They did not disclose the cause of death either
but offered clues. “Sam Wiley, age 83, died peacefully at home, surrounded
by his loving wife and children. Donations in Sam’s name should be made to
“Abigail Hargraves, age 64, was found dead in her home. Donations
may be made to the Diabetes Association.” Diabetes – no guessing
there. Rosa began to fill in the blanks, recalling Einstein’s quote:
“Imagination is more important than
By age 7, she advanced from obituaries to corpses. Her
mom, the hairdresser for the funeral home, saved babysitting money by taking
all four children along when she had to “do a head”. Her brothers
were not quite as interested: Rosa was fascinated. She always stood on the
kneeler, so she could get the best vantage point. So, this is Jennie Brown, age
54, who died suddenly at home. Heart Attack or Aneurism.
When her middle school’s science curriculum required a
science fair project, Rosa embalmed cow hearts. Year after year she submitted an
embalmed cow’s heart to the fair. Sure, parents rolled their eyes, and everyone
complained about the smell, but she stood tall and proud. After all, she was
the mortician’s daughter.
Rosa’s father was magical to her. She remembers a
Christmas party where he left her alone and scared, but when she sat on Santa’s
lap, it was her father’s mischievous, blue eyes that winked at her. He had such
happy eyes. She also thought her father was famous; after all every family in
town chose her father to bury their loved ones.
As an adult traveling in Rome, she chose to have an
engraved gift for her father blessed by the Pope. When she gave the salesgirl
at the Vatican gift shop his name, her hands immediately flew over her mouth as
tears came to her eyes. “Ah, yes, he buried my sister. Please send him my
gratitude. I will never forget him.”
One of her most memorable moments occurred at age 12,
when she received permission to observe the embalming process. No more cows’
hearts for Rosa! She felt she had graduated to the big time. She sat on a
folding chair in the doorframe of the morgue (OSHA regulations prevented her
from entering). She imagined this was her father’s final exam; if she passed
this, she would be the first to work side by side with her dad.
That evening at the dinner table, Rosa expected her
father to congratulate her and admit it was a test. He didn’t say anything.
They shared the obituaries in silence until she couldn’t wait any longer.
“Dad, did you hear what I did today?” He responded: “yes, good
job,” in a very staccato voice. “Doesn’t it mean I am ready to be a
mortician now?” “No.” Her excitement was cut short. “No,
No!? What do you mean no?” she exclaimed. He put the paper down, took off
his reading glasses and calmly stated: “Because you are a girl,” as if she
should have been aware all along that her gender was a detriment. His logic
escaped and devastated her. She would never be allowed to follow in her father’s
footsteps. Freud’s concept of penis envy reared its ugly head. She was so
angry! She was misled by a Potemkin dream.
Still, she was driven to make her mark. Still aiming
to please her dad, she pursued an alternate dream. Rosa knew her father respected
knowledge and education above all. She went on to study English and Psychology.
When she began to pursue her doctorate, she finally got her father’s attention.
Finally, he was proud. On the phone with her dad in Florida, they discussed the
dissertation and her impending defense. He couldn’t wait until he could refer
to Rosa as “My daughter, the doctor”.
Rosa’s dissertation defense was scheduled for a
Monday. On the Wednesday prior, she received a phone call from her mom. Rosa’s father
had choked on a piece of calf’s liver while dining with a group of his friends
at a favorite Floridian restaurant. He suffered a heart attack due to a loss of
oxygen and was on life support. Despite his living will, she begged her mom to
keep him on life support until she arrived. February school vacation combined
with a driving New England snow made all flights impossible. It was three days
before she arrived. Her dad died while on life support, and was waiting for his
children, embalmed at a local funeral home.
For the second time in her life, she found herself in
a morgue; this time she was old enough to enter, and the man on the slab was
her father. He was so cold. They dressed him. Rosa slowly and carefully put his
socks and scapula on him. She combed his hair and kissed his cheek. They flew
home accompanied by her father in his casket, his funeral scheduled for the
following Monday at 10am. Her doctoral defense was scheduled for 1pm. She
attended the funeral mass, said prayers at the cemetery, and delivered his
eulogy. Immediately following the funeral, the limousine drove her to a
doctoral defense she doesn’t remember. When finished, her committee members
asked her to leave the room. When she returned, they each took a turn shaking
her hand, saying:
“Congratulations, Doctor”, and then offered their condolences. Rosa returned to the collation.
Anthony F, age 73, died suddenly in Florida. Donations may be made to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. A hundred other obituaries, victims of the Station Night Club fire, obscured her father’s obituary. As she stared at his mischievous eyes looking back at her from the page, Rosa felt sad, and a selfish disappointment that her father’s obituary did not stand alone, allowing her to concentrate on filling in the blanks.
Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow
in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief.
She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson
& Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in
North Kingstown, RI. For more information, go to: http://gracepointegrief.com/