Looking at the Dead

I just don’t like looking at bodies. I think I was around eighteen when my father died. I vaguely remember the coffin in the front of the room at the funeral parlor. It was open. I sat in the back of the room so I wouldn’t have to look in the coffin. The service was at Nelson Brothers. The building is still there; a really cool art deco structure at the corner of Douglas Parade and Stevedore Streets Williamstown.

I think the next time I sort of looked at a body was on a Varanasi ghat on the banks of the river Ganges. I couldn’t see the body because it was wrapped in white sheets, like an Egyptian mummy, and just visible through clouds of wafting sandalwood scented smoke. I remember my eyes stinging from the smoke and the smell of incense and barbecue. I didn’t go to Varanasi to look at bodies. It was a magical mystery tour with our friend Colin Stevens because we thought that George Harrison had studied and learned to play the sitar when sitting at the feet of Ravi Shankar in a small room in Varanasi. We thought it would be really cool to see the room. There was a lot of misunderstanding in the late seventies.

Hindus believe that casting the ashes of the deceased into the Ganges leads to salvation and the guarantee of a good after life. If the mourners and deceased are lucky the skull of the burning body will explode and release the soul to heaven. If this doesn’t happen then the chief mourner must crack it open. After the cremation any remaining bones are thrown with the ashes into the river

We gave a small number of Rupee’s to a boatman to be taken onto the river in a small boat for a from the river view of the cremation ghats. Black vultures were perched on these floating things pecking at them furiously; others were diving straight at them as if they were heat seeking missiles and after piecing the object with their beak soaring heavenward. We were told that many of India’s poor can’t afford to buy enough wood for a complete cremation so many half-burnt bodies are thrown into the river.

At the foot of the steps people were bathing in the sacred waters: submerging themselves and splashing their bodies; their sins washed away. Cows were wallowing and enjoying themselves in the same holy Ganges waters.

We visited the hospital room on an early 2015 spring afternoon. My brother in law was in a two week prolonged coma. Doctors had diagnosed that he would not wake and estimated that his departure would be in twelve to twenty four hours. I allowed myself a furtive glance. He looked peaceful and restful as if in a deep sleep. There was a wadded bandage taped across part of his temple. Doctors had drilled through his skull to drain blood that had formed on his brain. Twelve hours later he succumbed. It was April 4th.

The family viewing was two days later. I had a surreptitious searching glance at the body in the coffin: and the glance became a goggle. And I goggled and goggled. There was no wadded bandage on the temple and there was no sign of a hole drilled through the skull. The embalmer had created magic; and I thought of the chief mourner at a cremation ghat on the banks of the Ganges.

Some time ago I had decided that I wanted to be cremated: half my ashes left in Nebraska and the other half scattered from the Strand into and onto Port Philip Bay, Australia.

One of my granddads had his ashes scattered over Port Phillip Bay. Grandad Bob rented a room at the Customs House Hotel in Nelson Place. Through the window of the public bar of the hotel you could see the pilot boats tied at the Gem Pier: a short walk across Commonwealth reserve. He died as a result of hitting his head on a steel bulkhead or a door on one of the pilot boats. He was an engineer on the small boats that took the marine pilots onto the bay to meet the cargo ships. They exchanged pilots; swapping the pilot who successfully guided the ship through the rip, a dangerous stretch of water in Victoria connecting Port Phillip and Bass Strait, with a skilled wheel man to guide the ship up the Yarra River.

I spent many Saturday afternoons at the Gem Pier with Andrew Lambrianew. We would jettison our bikes on the pier and somehow balance on the edge to swing under the Gem to climb and balance and walk along the stringers and braces to discover nooks where we could sit for hours to talk and watch. We would also walk the pier asking if we could board the pilot boats as they were leaving to meet the waiting cargo ships.

The Gellibrand and Breakwater Piers were further along Nelson Place.

The request in my will is simple: a sprinkling around the sea gulls and black swans. I have no wish for sandalwood or ghee or being wrapped in gold or silver. But maybe I should consider a sarcophagus: I could then be discovered by an eminent archaeologist and made available for viewing.

Dead Poets Society

Day of the Dead

The Day the Music Died

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