Open Casket

I was walking down a city street one night, and I came across a sign on a pedestal in front of a small storefront funeral home. The sign explained that services for a woman were going to be held there that evening, and it gave her name and the dates of her birth and death, as well as a short paragraph about her life. From some of the details, I started to wonder if this was an old girlfriend of mine. I knew that she had gotten married and she’d had a few kids, and I knew that she had served in the army for a while overseas when she was younger, and all of this was mentioned on the sign. The first name was the same, but it was a common enough name. The last name was different, but I assumed that she had changed it when she had gotten married. I couldn’t remember what her husband’s last name was. I couldn’t be sure if it was really her, but I felt like I needed to know. I needed to know if this had been her life, if she had been happy, if it had all ended here, like this, when she was still fairly young.

There was a large bay window in the front of the funeral home that looked out onto the street. The window was close to the ground, and the curtains were drawn back, leaving the view open to anyone passing by. I crouched down and peered in, and I could see a small, cramped, candlelit room that was recessed into the ground a few feet below street level. The casket was against the far wall and there was a pulpit and three short rows of wooden chairs arranged in front of it. The chairs were all empty. The service hadn’t started yet. But there was a large man with a dark beard standing alone in the shadows in the corner of the room with his hands folded at his waist. I figured that this was the husband. I looked at the casket, where most of the soft glow of the room was concentrated. I could only make out the woman’s blonde curly hair where her head lay under the open lid.

I looked again over at the husband, and I thought about going in. I wasn’t sure what I’d say to him, or how I’d explain who I was. I considered again the possibility that I was wrong, that this was just a complete stranger. But I needed to know. I went down the stone steps to the door of the funeral home. A somber chime played as I opened the door, and inside it was warm and there was a smell of incense and flowers in the air. But when I went over to where I had seen the casket through the window, I found nothing but a table with candles on it. Among the candles there were cards displayed on small stands that had prayers of grief and condolences written on them. What I had taken for blonde hair through the window was apparently only the guttering and flickering flames of the candles. My eyes searched through all the points of lights scattered around the table. I looked over at the husband where he stood watching me from the corner. I shook my head, perplexed. I tried to think of what to ask him, how to ask him. But I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I just told him that I was sorry, very sorry, and then I shook his hand and hurried out of the room, back out into the street, back out into the night.

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