They Care When You Cease
To, After Your Last Breath
In matters of death, we’re pretty much inexperienced. That’s good; we want to keep it that way. And when it strikes, it’s always breaking news, at least to those close by. We all get there and being distracted is no excuse. While some ponder, others keep on walking.
The business of death, though, demands timing and compassion. Just ask Peter Stefan, who’s been burying the undesired for ages. Or the Thompson sisters, whose funeral home doubles as a black history vault. And Isaiah Owen, cosmetologist for the deceased.
What they do takes precedence over your latest tweet and holds more meaning than your life-coaching lessons. So, bid your time before your autopsy but pay respects to those who move in when others avert their eyes. For they do so with the dignity death rarely grants anyone.
Who plans to expire amid a crime scene? Or dictates their own obituary? But we’re always a few degrees away from each other’s last breath. Even as we won’t care one way or another, our loved ones have the right to first pick over our final picture. May they choose wisely.
To many, it’s an unsavory topic, unworthy talking about. Too morbid, or pointless, they say. But to those left standing, making sure those laying on their backs still got their good looks may be a debt paid forward. And that’s when Peter, Lynda and Vicki, and Isaiah work their magic.
THE UNDERTAKER OF THE REJECTED
Peter Stefan went to work, eight years ago this April, as always: ready for anything. For over four decades, he hosts mourners at his Worcester funeral home and prepares bodies to be buried. On that particular day, the corpse had a name: Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It was the eldest of the brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon, the one who died in a rain of police bullets. A tragic and hated young man, perpetrator of a despicable act, his body was torn into pieces. And yet, Stefan made sure he was well put back together before interment.
Why? Because that’s what he does. Because everyone is equal at birth and death. Because he’d do the same for much worse and much better people, with the same dedication. Not for being a musician, which he is, but to serve an undervalued human sentiment: compassion.
BROOKLYN’S SISTERS OF MERCY
Lynda Thompson-Lindsay and Vicki Thompson-Simmons‘ funeral parlor (why this term sounds like an oxymoron?) does everything that most are supposed to, including the combo embalming-the-deceased-and-producing-their family-wake. But it also does something that few can: serve as vault to black history.
For the almost century old home has borne witness to a heartbreaking chapter of American memory which would be, well, forgotten, hadn’t been for its carefully kept records of burials. Many (more)
* Before Afterlife
* Kicking Ash
* Wake Up
a saga of the black experience in the U.S. is recorded in its archives.
To be one of the few female-owned, and mostly black women-staffed, business of its kind, is a distinction the sisters must be proud of, along with servicing a neglected community. On top of that, they’re also keepers of every fleeting memory left behind by those they’ve ushered on their personal journey to forever.
MICHELANGELO WILL SEE YOU NOW
Isaiah Owens could approach what he does, corpse cosmetology, as an artist. After all, he’s been applying make up to beautify the dead for over 50 years now. Instead, he’s closer to a pastor conjuring a “resurrection” of the departed’s best looks at his Harlem funeral house.
Many may see such extreme care to appearance – face, clothing, the nails even – in that context as not just futile, but vain, delusional, slightly creepy. But then they never saw the body of a loved one after it went through the ravages of a terminal disease, a fall, a car crash.
We all know the curve, from birth to ashes. It’s what’s in between these brackets that we may claim as our temporary territory. Life’s final irony is that we’re oblivious to the most important moments of our lives; we go through them as if they’re happening to somebody else. So let others enjoy to the best way they see it fit what could never be ours to begin with: our entry to and exit from this world.
(*) Originally published on Sept. 28, 2016.