My Grandmother's Corpse

I was only three years old when my grandmother died. We lived in the rural South during the days when it was customary to have the funeral director set up a bier in the home and return the body of the loved one to the house in an open casket. It would remain there until the funeral, which was usually conducted three to five days later at the church.

My grandmother had been sick for sometime. Some months before her demise, she went into a coma that lasted several weeks. The bonds of family were strong and someone needed to sit with her at the hospital every day and night. All the aunts and uncles took their turns and were beginning to feel the strain of working all day and sitting with their mother all night. Several of the older cousins volunteered to take a shift one Saturday night. They all smoked, unknown to their parents. They sat in Grandmother's hospital room enjoying young adult conversation and a pack of Camels. When Grandmother came out of the coma the first thing she did was relate to my cousins' parents the inappropriate conversations their children had in her hospital room while they were smoking, “Like a bunch of smokestacks." 

My grandmother was a very unpleasant lady, who had no patience at all with little children. I later realized that this was understandable; she bore 10 children and, including her two sets of twins, had five babies in diapers at one time, and no automatic washing machine. I never remember her smiling at me or having anything pleasant to say. To put it mildly, she couldn't tolerate me and I was less than fond of her. She was afflicted with arthritis and moved slowly. Sometimes when I saw her starting toward her favorite chair, I would run and quickly sit in it before she could. This habit did not serve to endear me to her. 

When she died, as was the custom, she was returned to our home to lie in state. It was my misfortune to have the bedroom directly across the hall from our living room, where, you guessed it, they laid out the corpse of my grandmother who looked very "Grand" indeed in her pale, pink, tulle shroud, resting in the white, satin lined casket. My parents, being the thoughtful and intelligent souls they were, wouldn't allow a child of my tender age to be exposed to the trauma of the funeral. They did, however, allow me to spend three nights of pure terror as Grandmother rested in peace across the hall and I failed to rest at all while making sure she didn't wake up, cross the hall and share my bed the way I had been sharing her chair for the past year. 

My favorite cousin, Thomas, who was six years old and a master storyteller of the macabre and frightening, decided that I wasn’t too young at all to get up close and personal with a corpse. While the adults were occupied in the kitchen enjoying a table loaded with edible tokens of consolation from ladies of the community, he placed one hand over my mouth and the other on my arm and dragged me into the living room for a visit with Granny. As usual I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing Granny, and she was especially indifferent to me. Thomas laughed with boyish glee as he placed my tiny, warm hand over the old lady’s wrinkled, cold, stiff one. 

“Look out,” he warned, in his most serious storyteller’s voice. “She’s going to grab your hand and sit up!”

I was just a three year old who knew very little about life and death, but I heard my mama say Granny was dead and I knew that when my cat was dead, he never sat up again. I thought it would be strange indeed, and creepy, if Granny did grab my hand or sit up. The most frightening thought was that finally she would be able to catch me and do all the things she had been threatening to do to me for so long. 

I held my breath and waited in silent dread for her eyes to open and the bony hand to seize mine. Just as the eyelids fluttered slightly, Aunt Lena called from the kitchen, 

“Thomas, where are you? Get in here right now and eat your dinner.” 

Thomas released me and ran to the kitchen. I scurried to my parent’s bedroom and crawled under the bed. By the time they found me, I must have been asleep. I woke up later that night in my own bed, with the same dreadful expectation of a visit from Granny. The wind was whistling through the pines announcing the approaching storm. I sat up and cast an anxious look across the hall to the living room. A small lamp was on and I could just make out the outline of the casket and the profile of my Grandmother as she continued to rest there. I slid off the bed and walked slowly across the wood-plank floor to the door of my room. Three-year-olds are small, but I felt microscopic standing in the tall doorway. Lightening flashed through the open windows, across the silent figure lying in the long casket. Since Granny didn’t seem to be moving out any time soon, I decided to try to make peace with her. I stood in the doorway and addressed her in a loud whisper. 

“Granny, I know I was mean to you when I sat in your chair and when I said you looked like a witch when you combed your hair and when I said you were mean and then ran away. I’m sorry, I won’t do it anymore, please don’t get me Granny.” 

Just as I thought she was going to answer me, a gust of wind blew through the windows and slammed the lid of the casket shut. I sprinted back into my room and slammed the door. 

The next morning some men in black suits came and carried the closed casket away. I never knew if Granny forgave me and I could only hope she was still in the casket as it was carried out the front door. The only positive thing that came out of this experience was a grateful appreciation I have enjoyed throughout life for thunderstorms!


Chesterfield, VA

Full time writer and student of life.

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