It was now the second day after Jon died and his funeral would be the next day. When you have your marriage counseling, they sure don’t cover this.
Neither my wife nor I had actually arranged a funeral so we didn’t have a clue as to what all the details were. One detail that we had questions on – and had received a “No” for an answer since the day Jon died, was, “Can we see him before he’s buried?” As I have previously written, the answer had been an adamant “No.”
On this day, however,we received a call from the funeral home early in the morning. Jon’s body had been returned from the forensic autopsy in Grand Rapids. We knew they had to do an autopsy and we know that Jon didn’t feel anything, but just the image of your son being laid on a table and gutted like a deer and then just sewing the body back together is just flat out disgusting. We have become somewhat numb to these images with the advent of shows like “CSI” and its ilk, but back in 2002, there weren’t bodies strewn all over autopsy tables on crime dramas on practically every channel while Ducky did his work in the most graphic detail.
The phone call was rather surprising; the funeral director said it may be possible for us to view Jon’s body, but we should do so with caution. It was agreed, after consulting with our family, that we would all go to the funeral home but that once there, our oldest son and I would go in first and make a determination as to whether the rest of the family would view his body. (Our eldest son at the time was working midnight security at our local hospital and had seen some gruesome images in the emergency room, which is why he was to accompany me)
Into town we went, 12 miles away. It was a long ride.
Upon arriving, the funeral director did his best to prepare us. In we went. It’s about 35-40 feet from the back door of the main room to where the casket sat, at the front. Never was 35-40 feet that long a distance as that day. We went up together to the “casket” (again, from yesterday, really nothing but a fancy cardboard box).
It was awful.
We knew, that no matter how much we had requested this and how much the funeral director prepared us, it was going to be worse than we could have ever imagined. That it was.
WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT. Please be aware of this as you proceed.
There was good reason why they had been telling us we wouldn’t be able to see him. Bad things happen to a human head when it has been run over by a 3/4 ton pickup truck (this was determined to be the cause of death, with more info in a future post).
They had pieced his head back together as best they could. Jon kept his head almost shaven, so there was no hair to hide the deformities caused by the trauma. All the trauma was on the right side of head with some across the bridge of his nose into his left forehead. The bridge of his nose, usually a narrow one, was very wide, like a boxer’s after too many broken noses. If you looked at him with one eye, covering the right side of his face (which I did), looking only at the left side, he looked as we remembered him. If you did the same with covering the left side, looking at only the right, he was unrecognizable.
The makeup, of course, made his skin look terrible. He was also rather bloated – I assume it was due to the embalming process.
I reached down to touch his face. I didn’t dare touch the right side because I thought it might fall apart. I touched the left side.
It was ice cold. This was the first dead body I had touched and it was our son. He was just so, so cold.
At some point our eldest son left the room. I found out later he went outside and stayed in the parking lot until we were ready to leave – he couldn’t even bear to be in the building. We did agree, however, that the entire family should come in to see Jon if they wished.
Now came the point which may have been worst of all. Walking back out to get my wife, to take her in to see her (our) son’s body.
How do you prepare for that? When your child is in the nursery in the hospital – if it is a healthy, “normal” birth you never dream of being at that child’s funeral. Nothing – nothing – nothing, even an absolute trust in the absolute, exhaustive sovereignty of God – can prepare you for the moment that was now at hand.
Again – the longest 35-40 feet ever. She spent some time with him, with me at her side. She looked at the same body our eldest and I had looked at moments before. But…..when we talked after she left, you know what she said? She said something that shows the power of God Almighty in protecting His people. When we – not just me, but the other children as well – talked about what we had seen, we were all in agreement, except for my wife. She said, “He looked perfect to me.” I was stunned. ”You didn’t see ___________ and _________ and __________?” ”No. He looked absolutely beautiful.” She saw nothing wrong with his head or his face. Call it what you may, but I call it divine intervention.
Our four other children came in, one by one. Two of them and their experiences ring loudly. Our middle daughter – Sarah, age 17 at the time – had a purity ring which I had given her at age 16. She wanted to put it on Jon’s finger and have it be buried with him. There was a problem. There were two issues. First, as I have previously stated, Jon worked at a sawmill bucking logs and therefore had the hands of a working man – thick hands, hands with callouses. Secondly, as I mentioned, the embalming process appeared to have bloated his hands as well.
She tried putting it on his ring finger. No chance. She tried the other ring finger. No chance. She’s weeping now. Me, too. I said, “Try it on the tip of his little finger.” She did. It went on the very tip and that’s as far as it went. She was OK with that.
I went to get our youngest daughter, Hannah. In that 35-40 feet she had to sit down twice. I had never seen a person hyperventilate until then. She just could not breathe. That was just awful, seeing your daughter going through that with her brother’s body mere feet away.
Finally, all five surviving children had entered, viewed and departed. It was just me and Jon’s body (yes, just the body. Per James 2:26, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead,” Jon’s spirit had departed. Paul calls our earthly bodies a tent (2 Cor. 5:1), a temporary dwelling place, to be replaced one day by a permanent one). The reality of the fact that Jon’s departed did not change another reality – that body in the casket was the one we had held in the hospital. It was the one we had watched grow into a muscular young man. It was the one that had gotten bruised and bloodied as happens to active little boys. It was the one you held when he cried and the one you hugged when he succeeded.
So what do you do now? This would be the last time I would see Jon’s earthly tent. I didn’t plan on what happened.
I started crying. The crying became weeping. The weeping became sobbing. I couldn’t stop it and I couldn’t stand up and I couldn’t catch my breath. This went on for what I imagine to be several minutes.
Finally, a breath came. Then another. Then, enough to stand.
We revert back to this question: what do you say? Anything? Nothing? Did I say anything? Yes, I did. What? ”See you later, Jonny boy.” Why that? That and its implications will be covered in a future post and may not be what one expects.
We returned home and spent the rest of the day inside, making preparations for the funeral. I can still remember Ian, our youngest, with tears in his eyes, asking what he should wear to Jon’s funeral. That’s a question I’d rather not hear again from one of our kids concerning another one of our kids.
This was a sunny day but we remained inside dealing, again, with all the business and busyness of death, with a zillion phone calls and the like. In the early evening we heard an engine start, as if it were in our driveway. We opened the door. What did we see?
Remember yesterday’s post? The discussion with the prison ministry volunteer who asked how he could help and my response concerning Jon’s car, torn in a million pieces in our driveway, needing a transmission replaced?
There’s a pickup truck backing out of our driveway. We yell and flag him down. Then we look down (we live in a raised ranch-style home, fifteen steps above ground level).
Jon’s car? In a million pieces? NO. The front end is totally reassembled. My friend had made a phone call and contacted this guy who was a mechanic, who came over, parked his truck in the road, snuck in our driveway and spent a few hours putting the front end back together and tried to sneak away, only to be “caught” as he was turning around in our driveway in order to leave. He wouldn’t even tell us his name. We were dumbfounded. God had provided an unexpected blessing for us that reminds me of, in a sense, what happened with Peter in the book of Acts when he was delivered from prison and he knocks on the door of a house and Rhoda runs to tell the people who are praying that it’s Peter and they tell her she’s crazy. They weren’t ready, evidently, to have their prayers answered so swiftly. In our case, it’s not that we weren’t ready (well, maybe we weren’t ready, eh?) , but that God moved so quickly. God does, after all, not count on us to determine when He moves in time and space.
Final thoughts on the visitation:
Was it the absolute worst, most horrible, horrific, gruesome, traumatic experience for me (and most likely, our family) ever? Yes. Would we do it again? Yes. Without a doubt. I cannot pretend to speak for others in this situation. Many have had to go through much worse and far more gruesome visuals of bodies than we did. On television, we see portrayals of people just wanting to see their loved one – no matter how bad things are – one more time before they are buried/cremated. People try to protect families and we understand that. They don’t want the last image of the loved one to be that of what is seen in the casket. (which was my image. As bad as it was, however, for my own personal reasons, that image needed to be on my mind along with one sitting next to me at work, of Jon at the prom within a year of his death.) How should each situation be handled? I have no idea. We can only speak for ourselves and express gratitude for the opportunity we had to see what we saw in the casket – even given the horror of it all.
Tomorrow: the funeral.