Death is all around us. We have almost daily accounts of school shootings; soldiers are blown up by friendly fire, by I.U.D s, by the enemy; large numbers of civilians senselessly lose their lives in war-torn zones bombed in their homes or in their cars or just eating in a restaurant. Violence surrounds us constantly, and the press makes its living by reporting these dire events. We read of them daily in the newspapers and see them splashed in vivid, colorful images on our screens.
Yet, at the same time, we keep our dead hidden carefully from view. When death occurs in a hospital, screens are swiftly brought in to hide the offending body, which is then hurriedly carried off to be put in the basements or areas where no one can see it. Great efforts are made to keep dead bodies out of sight. In funeral services they are mostly in closed coffins before they are silently lowered into the earth or into the flames of fire. The dead are concealed as though they were indecent, shameful, not to be mentioned in polite conversation.
When my father died, I was 7 years old. In an effort to spare me and my sister, I presume, we were never taken to his funeral. We never saw his dead body or were able to say good-bye. Indeed, nothing much was said about his death. My mother announced the event tersely and then left the room. When my sister inadvertently walked into the bedroom where my father still lay, the nurse hurriedly pushed her out. It was a topic that was avoided almost entirely.
Yet when my only sister was killed in South Africa, the first thing I did on arriving at the airport in Johannesburg was drive to the morgue to see her. Her husband had driven their car into a telephone pole on a dry night after a history of battering her poor body. He, who was wearing a seat belt, survived, but she did not.
To tell you the truth, I am not sure why I wanted to see her. Was it because I could not believe that at 39 years old with six children she could possibly be dead? Or did I want to be close to her in some visceral way for the last time? All I can say is that it is a moment that has stayed with me and will stay with me until my own death. In her life, which had no real closure — her husband was never prosecuted for what was in my opinion a murder — I had at least the satisfaction of standing beside her before she was hidden forever from view.
When I arrived at the morgue the man in charge was reluctant to show her to me. “Are you certain you want to do this?” he asked me.
Eventually I was taken into a room filled with sunshine. It was October, what the Afrikaans call “die mooiste maand,” the prettiest month out there, our spring, our April, the cruelest month, breeding lilac from the dead. I could hear the birds singing in the early morning air.
I put my hands against the glass as they wheeled her body into the empty room. They had wrapped her up in a white winding sheet but her face, my own face, was visible tilted up towards me as though she wished to show me what I had come to see, that she was really dead.
Then I saw us together in the garden of our childhood, climbing the mulberry tree and spreading the dark fruit over our cheeks, painting our faces to resemble the warriors life would not teach her to be.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.