Would you like to see Walter?

“Would you like to see Walter?” asked the funeral director to the 19 year-old college student who’d just arrived at the funeral home.

“Walter who?”

“Walter Fraser,” said Mr. Gibson, who only an hour before had recruited the 19 year-old to ask whether he owned a dark suit, and could he serve in a pinch as the greeter for the visitation the night before funeral. The staff person who normally welcomed people at the front door had called in sick at the last moment. Because the Gibsons, Stewarts, and Frasers were friends and members of the same church, Mr. Gibson turned in desperation to the inexperienced 19 year-old as the greeter’s substitute.

So far as I had known before arriving at the funeral home, Walter wasn’t dead. Mr. Fraser was a highly respected member of the community, and the father of my friend ‘Fuzzy’ Fraser, the star offensive guard on the Marple-Newtown High School football team. Last I knew, Mr. Fraser was as healthy as my father and Mr. Gibson. Mr. Fraser wasn’t supposed to die.

Suddenly “Mr. Fraser” – a man of great dignity and stature – was “Walter”.

“Would you like to see Walter?”

Stunned by Mr. Fraser’s death, I said, “No thanks,” before realizing my refusal was a kind of insult to Mr. Gibson’s work and skill. After the Masons had finished their private ritual of white gloves and strange prayers pretending that Walter was not really dead, Mr. Gibson led me into the viewing room where the guests would see Walter in his open casket.

My family wasn’t into open caskets. When you die you’re dead; you’re gone. A painted corpse, though it may console some of the survivors — “Doesn’t he look good!” they say, or “He looks so peaceful” or “Didn’t they do a nice job” — serves, as Jessica Mitford and other critics of American funeral practices have said, as a denial of death.

Seeing the previously presumed-to-be-alive Mr. Fraser laid out in a casket as ‘Walter’ came as a shock to the senses that underlined the responsibility to offer a friendly greeting at the door, all dressed up, like Walter, in a dark blue suit.

“Would you like to see Walter?”

“Walter who?” remained the question after I left the Gibson Funeral Home. Who was Walter? Was he Mr. Fraser? Or just Walter, all dressed up, like the rest of us, with no place to go, as naked as the day he was born? I’d like to see him again to ask what he can tell me that I don’t yet know.

— Gordon C. Stewart, GeorgetownLake, MT, July 8, 2015

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