Visiting the dead as a matter of duty

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History for the Curious with John G. McKay

At the corner of Fullerton Street the much-altered house there momentarily shed its modern trappings to reveal the old grey, clapboarded front and the entrance. Remembering going in many years ago brought the sweet odour of too many flowers and the faint, smoky smell of burning candles wafting up the years. It was at the time when the dead were usually laid out at home, when the door was always open and visiting was not the regulated, precisely scheduled public parlour ritual it is now.

We youngsters visited the dead in those years as a matter of duty, if not curiosity and, by virtue of a vaguely developed appreciation of life's fragility, were usually spared the genuine grief ordinarily reflected in an intimate familiarity with the deceased.

The dutiful aspect of our participation being satisfied by a more or less genuine demonstration of concern or prescribed responsibility, we nonetheless considered ourselves somehow immortal; that the dead we viewed were destined to die, having no bearing on the foreverness of our own continuance. Certainly we had never found time to dwell on the question of endings, which in real terms is the same childish delusion that permits us to ignore mortality, a pointless tendency that steadfastly clings to us long into adult years.

The procedure for visiting the dead—we had learned it at school, but only with regard to dead Catholics—was to enter the room, usually the parlour, quickly and sadly and kneel and say a prayer for the otherworldly repose of whatever lay outside the undertaker's purview. We attended to these affairs as often as the vagaries of life or death provided the opportunity within the bounds of the neighbourhood.

Visiting the dead was never a traumatic event, young as we were. Nonetheless, most vivid and affecting over these many years is a particular viewing that remains among the profoundly moving and memorable events of my young life; one that has continued as fresh and distinct and intensely sombre as anything I have viewed since.

We knew only that someone named Bobby was laid out there, in that corner house, and that we should attend. We approached the bier, gauged the available space on the kneeler, and knelt, offering up the prescribed prayers in as solemn and earnest an attitude as we could muster in our immature pseudo sincerity. Then, at the first fidgety movement of one, all terminated our offering and all three stood together to view the departed.

Nothing in the events and circumstances of life thus far have been sufficient to erase the memory of the sight that lay before us. Bobby's name was Roberta, and she was the most unimaginably beautiful child I have ever seen, alive or dead. Indeed, no more beautiful creature could exist cast in the mortal flesh and bone of humanity.

Probably four years old, she lay in a surrounding puff of white satin, dressed in a hand‑embroidered pink dress of fine silk, with every strand of her long golden hair perfectly placed and framing a face so radiant and immaculate that it seemed to possess a light of its own. This angel held on her breast a single pink rosebud grasped naturally in her folded fingers.

Dead now these seventy five years, that heart‑rending pitiable lovely innocence lay before us, a victim of the White Scourge and ultra‑efficient child killer of those years, Tuberculosis.

The short life of that once vital, trusting child must remain as meaningful now, and as powerful in the assessment of life's fragility as if she had lived and endured a full number of years.

In the reality of the human condition, sorrow directed toward the dead up through the years is only truly meaningful to those who grieve, and is shared only by those who suffer such a loss or are condemned to endure its recurring memory. Ironically, if we live, life will unfailingly provide us all with our due measure of this experience.


Excerpted from the book Irretrievable Years, written by Amherst historian John G. McKay. Copies of his books are available at the Amherst Farmer’s Market every Friday at the Amherst Lions Club.

Organizations: Amherst Lions Club

Geographic location: Fullerton Street

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