The afternoon I rolled into the town where my father had been raised, my grandfather had been dead for three days, and when I checked in at the hospital I was appalled to discover that no one had yet claimed his body. It quickly became shockingly apparent that I was the only family member in town, and the people at the hospital were anxious for somebody to make funeral arrangements and take the body off their hands. I told the woman at the hospital’s morgue that I wasn’t even in a position to identify the deceased, let alone make funeral arrangements, and promised her that I would check back the next day.
I left the hospital and checked into a motel in town, The Riverview, which was one of those park-at-your-door places. I left another message for my father, and gave the secretary a phone number for my room as well as a number at the hospital. I had no real idea how to proceed, and was confused by the long mimeographed checklist of procedures and responsibilities they’d given me at the hospital.
That night –it was two days before Christmas—I was sitting up in bed watching Marlon Brando in “The Young Lions” when the phone rang. It was my father calling from Saudi Arabia. I hadn’t told his secretary that my grandfather had died, but he had apparently surmised as much from the fact that I’d left a message in the first place, and also given him a phone number bearing the area code of his old hometown in Iowa.
“What happened to him?” he asked, and I realized for the first time that I really didn’t know. I admitted as much to my father.
“But he’s dead?” he said. I told him that, yes, he was, in fact, dead, and explained my dilemma. My father told me –or asked me, I guess—to have my grandfather cremated, and to take his ashes home to Chicago. He promised to wire me money as soon as he got off the phone. He also asked me to hang around town as long as necessary to “clean up the old man’s affairs.” I pointed out that the next day was Christmas Eve, and there was a pause at the other end of the line. He asked me if I had plans for the holiday, and I had to admit that I had none. My father said he would wire me enough money so that I could go back to Chicago, or wherever I wanted to go, and return to tend to my grandfather’s affairs after Christmas, if that was an option I’d prefer. I promised I’d take care of it one way or another, wished my father a merry Christmas, and hung up the phone.
By the time I got to the basement morgue at the small county hospital the next morning the place had that unmistakable feel of impending shutdown. It was Christmas Eve, and the woman on duty seemed clearly disappointed, even pissed, to see me. There was a good deal of paperwork to be filled out and signed –releases, that sort of thing—before my grandfather’s body could be handed off to one of the local funeral homes. And there was also still the matter of officially identifying and claiming the body, something I was still reluctant to do, for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I had nothing to work from other than the vaguest recollection of a couple old snapshots that were lying around the house when I was growing up, photos that each revealed my father as a boy, standing at some remove from a tall, skinny man in a white tee-shirt and jeans; the photos were virtually identical except for the background and the fact that my father was clearly younger in one of the shots. My grandfather, however, looked virtually identical in both photos; in each he was either scowling or squinting into the sun; in both his head was completely shaved and his hands were in the pockets of his jeans, and a pack of cigarettes was rolled up in the sleeve of his tee-shirt. Look at that, I remember my mother saying, looking at those photos. That man thinks he’s something; he really thinks he’s something.
And then all of a sudden there he was –that man who once upon a time had apparently thought he was something—in a basement drawer of a little county hospital in Iowa. If you’ve never been in a place like that you can probably nonetheless imagine what it was like, a weird combination of grimy and antiseptic. It was clearly an old basement; the upstairs had seen some renovations and expansions over the years, but the basement morgue still had a sort of 1950s Eastern European feel, a lot of old, scarred concrete and stainless steel surfaces with black scabs of corrosion; very bad fluorescent lights, as you might imagine, and entirely windowless. It smelled vaguely –well, not even vaguely—toxic, a combination of all sorts of bad smells. I can’t imagine they did a lot of business in that place, and the woman had made it clear to me the day before that this was hardly a morgue proper; “We’re really just an in-and-out facility,” she’d said, in pressing me to take my grandfather off her hands. “The families usually have them out of here the same day they pass. We don’t have a proper set-up for long term storage, and we’re not even in the ballpark of current code for refrigeration and such.”
I’m sure such an experience is shocking and surreal under any circumstances, though I’m supposing most keenly when you have an actual emotional connection to the deceased. As it was it was just surreal and profoundly creepy. I looked at the old man there and felt not even a spasm of recognition or grief, sensed nothing in the way of family resemblance. I didn’t know what to think or say. There were Christmas carols coming from the ceiling speakers, tinny, distant, that awful, desolate effect of music playing in a large, empty, and acoustically-bad building, through a crummy stereo system. I had no reason to believe the dead man on the table was anyone other than my grandfather, yet when I nodded to the woman and confirmed the identity of the deceased it felt somehow wrong, as if I was complicit in a terrible hoax.
When the woman asked me if I was sure, I could have –and perhaps should have—tossed the question right back at her; I was taking her word on it even more than she was taking mine. I just took it for granted that these people knew what they were doing and were working with solid information.
I signed off on the forms releasing the body to a local funeral home that could apparently handle the cremation arrangements. It being Christmas Eve, however, I was going to have to wait at least a couple days for that to happen; I was told that I wouldn’t even be able to talk to anyone at the funeral home until the day after Christmas.