My mother lies on the bed, her austere face a marble effigy of some medieval queen. She’s been dead for seven hours and I’m sitting shiva alone. It is midnight. The living room is dark and the guttering candles cast shadows along the bedside wall.
No longer constrained by my mother’s habit of keeping me at a distance, I lean across the blankets to stroke her cheek and forehead, weeping quietly. Suddenly her torso starts to rise. I jerk back, aghast, then realize that my elbow has pressed the ‘elevate-head-of-mattress’ switch on the bed’s remote control. Marble queen meets The Living Dead.
A week later, Mr. Crane from the McLeod Funeral Home telephones at the last moment to say that his crematorium has ‘regrettably ceased being operational’. He offers no details. I immediately envision someone’s dear departed emerging half-incinerated from the furnace in a purgatory of malfunction. Mr. Crane continues, ‘Please follow our hearse to the Elm Funeral Home on the north side of town.’ A pause: ‘They’re a competitor but will provide you with utmost care.’
As I angle my car into place at McLeod’s, I read the name ‘Valkyrie’ on the back of the customized Dodge Caravan assigned to carry my mother’s body to the Elm facilities. Her final road trip – and throughout her life, she took many – has become Ride of the Valkyrie. I erupt in laughter. My sister shoots me a glance and sighs.
We’re at the Elm Funeral Home, six of us huddled beside the already blazing furnace. A watchful attendant stands nearby, presumably in case one of us tries to leap, grief-stricken, into the flames. The facility manager indicates the red button that activates the rolling platform, and my sister steps forward. The flimsy particleboard casket shudders slightly before entering the inferno. The hatch clangs shut.
The fire, we’re told, must remain at 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit until the procedure is complete. My mother at death weighed barely ninety pounds. We wait in a parody of reverence, our eyes glued to the temperature gauge like strangers in an elevator staring at the floor level indicator. I wonder whether I’ve remembered to turn off the stove element under the soup back home.
As we exit the crematorium, the attendant whispers to my sweetheart, Victor, ‘The heavy ones with the most fat take the longest to burn.’
Victor wisely refrains from sharing this information at the time. We drive away. No one mentions the plume of black smoke snaking from the incinerator chimney.
My mother still visits me in dreams, but it’s happening less often now. It’s always the same scene: She’s lying down, relaxed and beautiful. Her Greta Garbo face softens at seeing me, she sits up in bed, her lapis lazuli eyes glisten, she smiles sweetly, she reaches out her arms to embrace, she speaks the words she could never admit while alive: ‘I do love you. I really do love you.’
Gwen Martin has jumped freight trains, played pub piano, prospected for gold, edited science reports and authored forgettable history books. Her creative work appears in Geist Magazine, The Antigonish Review and elsewhere. She lives in rural New Brunswick, Canada