There’s a Spanish-style funeral home on the edge of a small California town.
It lies precisely where the neighborhoods disappear and the sprawling farmland begins. Across the street is a grassy cemetery, framed by a huge sky, almond orchards, barley fields, and the blue, coastal mountains in the distance.
The sunlight is different at this funeral home. It moves like liquid. It’s more permeable, more liminal, lying as it does between the realms of seen and unseen, known and unknown. It sparkles through the leaves, as the breeze blows the flowers and trees around like weeping dancers, smiling through their tears.
As a child, I spent many hours here. I played in the back while my dad embalmed. Or I imagined the life story of the waxy, well-groomed body lying in a box at the front of the chapel. Or I wandered through the casket room with my brother, as we updated each other on which casket we wanted the most. Sometimes I hid in the conference room while grieving families made arrangements.
And this place is still a part of me today—wherever I go in the world, it’s the landscape of my psyche.
There were many challenging things about my childhood, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude when I think of being raised around death. It’s taught me so much about how to live.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
“Stuff” isn’t really important. It never failed to surprise me and my brother that when we lost or broke something expensive, and we confessed it to our dad, he always shrugged it off. “You lost the diamond earrings your grandma got you? You wrecked my car? Who cares! They’re just diamonds. It’s just a car.”
The part he left unspoken, but that we heard loud and clear was, “I prepare bodies for burial. I see people grieving their loved ones every day. That’s all just stuff. As long as you’re still here, I’m happy. You should be too.”
Everyday moments are the most precious things. Quite often, I find myself looking at my life in reverse—imagining myself on my deathbed, remembering the decisions I made and experiences I had.
From that perspective, I never treasure the moments when I’ve met a famous person, or earned some career success, or bought an expensive, new thing. It’s always the things like reading a book to my nephew, or laughing at an inside joke with my partner, or petting my cat that stand out.
Crying deeply means you’re doing something right. At the funeral home, all the beauty and tragedy of life comes to the surface and just hangs there in the air. You see plainly that to love is to grieve and to grieve is to love.
In fact, this life experience is so incredibly intense that crying—happy crying, sad crying, laughing so hard you cry—is really the most appropriate response. When I cry for any reason, I’m glad—because I know I am really awake, I am really tuned in, and I am really living.
Everyone is dearer than they seem. That sparkling, liquid light I mentioned at the beginning of this article? That’s what everyone merges with when they’re no longer inhabiting their physical body. And at that moment you realize—or you sense, at least—that’s all they ever really were.
The buoyant light behind their eyes, in their smile, in their laugh—that was them. Even when it was obscured by seemingly challenging character flaws. None of the flaws were who they are—only the light was, only the love. And that’s how it was all along. That’s why to hear someone eulogized, you would think they were the best person who ever lived—because they were! Just like everyone else is.
I really can’t think of a better place to grow up.
Author: Tess Whitehurst
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
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