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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Every now and then I will receive a request for a funeral in the tradition of the old ways. In rural, agricultural Florida there is an older generation whose families have passed down stories and practices of funerary traditions in which the body is laid out in the dining room upon an unhinged door for viewing. What is not so well known is that various beliefs have arisen around this practice. What started out as a practice necessitated by the lack of resources for handling the deceased, has, in some family circles and regional subcultures, become a religious rite, even a godly demand.

I came to live and practice in Belle Glade or “Muck City” just south of Lake Okeechobee when I graduated from mortuary school. I had not planned on this profession but it had became necessary during a depression as a result of the pandemic. My adopted town was named “Muck City” because of the “muck” in which sugar cane grows. When the agriculture changed from farming vegetables to growing cane, many lost their livelihood and the area became depressed, crime ridden. But every city needs someone to handle their dead, dead from the pandemic, dead from murder, dead from complications of drugs and malnutrition.

The area considered the Florida Heartland is more like the deep south than other parts of Florida. And it is here where, among some pockets of Bible Belt believers, superstitions abound and religious beliefs intermingle with old time practices. It had become common among certain people to believe that a too early enclosure of the body in a solid box would not allow the spirit to grieve its own passing, would risk that the spirit would re-animate the body and would cause the corpse made alive again to live the horror of being buried alive. Therefore the old and seemingly defunct practice of laying a body out on a door for viewing was of great importance to such populations. In addition, the act of the dead lying on a door had become a sort of practiced fulfillment of the words of Jesus: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved.” In addition, cremation was beyond the question. Again, Biblical verses were employed to explain the rationale: “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever.” What happens when Christ comes again if there is no body, if it is burned?

I began to observe closely the faces of the deceased and try to discern their aspects to see if I could determine “rest” or “unrest,” to try to compare post death funerary rituals. In most cases, I was able to convince these fundamentalist families to allow their beloved dead to be laid out on a door in our refrigerated storage facility as opposed to the old school – and frankly, unsanitary way of letting it sit in their dining room or parlour – and so this gave me opportunity to make my observations. I had lost my wife in the pandemic a couple of years ago and so had no one else to answer to. We had no children. I lived in the craftsman home converted and dedicated to my business “Peaceful Rest.” Legally, it was not allowed for me to live where I plied my trade, but I secretly managed with a cot and a small electric stove, as well as a separate address, a post office box, where I retrieved my mail.

Two clients, a couple, had a fight over how they were to bury the husband’s mother. It was early in my practice and I was incredibly nervous over how to handle these kinds of situations. My job was to soothe the anxious, grieving spirits of the living, to be a reassuring presence, to provide some sort of authoritative mediation of differences. Apparently, the woman had become quite close to her husband’s mother and of course the husband was feeling his own loss deeply. The wife’s family had practiced the old ways of Appalachia and she insisted her mother-in-law had spoken about the beauty of these old beliefs and practices. The deceased was born and raised in Georgia and grew up in many of the old customs, still practiced by some.

The husband was a successful businessman, one of the city’s few, and saw such practices as primitive, arcane, and certainly only for those who are uneducated. He had in mind to cremate her and had been looking through options for urns while his wife tearfully implored him not to be rid of her body. I was able to find a middle way: A more traditional yet relatively modern casket viewing, ceremony, and burial. The wife still seemed unsettled by this, but was not quite as frantic, and the husband acquiesced to this seemingly more conciliatory way of interring his mother.

On the day of the viewing, several hours before, the body of the old woman having been prepared, dressed, and placed in the casket, the lid closed until the hour for visitors, I awoke to a dark silhouette against the window of my office where I slept. There was no noise, only a shifting figure of something dark lingering in the room in the earliest break of day. “Louisa?” I said, thinking somehow that it may be my deceased wife. But there was no response. I felt as if my heart might pierce my chest. I watched with a sense of foreboding but must have drifted to sleep at some point for when I woke, my office was flooded with light and there was no dark shadow. I had no sense of dread. I made my coffee and prepared for the day.

In the quiet time before the body was set out in the viewing room, I would go over everything and make sure of the makeup, the proper placement of the jewelry and hair, the collar, cuffs of the blouse.

But when I entered the refrigerated storage room, I saw that the lid of the casket of the deceased woman had been tossed aside and the corpse’s wig lay on the floor like a discarded mop head. Looking back, what should have occurred to me first is that there had been a robbery or some act of vandalism and desecration. What actually occurred to me was that an undead corpse, suffocating in a box, had made its escape, and was out in Muck City, seeking shelter, food, and family.