The forbidden viewing

A single blue bulb on the covered front porch lights the empty funeral home parking lot dimly, while the moon casts pale illumination despite the clear winter sky.  Occasionally, headlights and engine dash by, quickly leaving silence.  The mass of the Victorian manor, black shutters against white clapboard, stares down, as it has for 125 years.

Steve cries silently as he waits.  For too short a time they shared life, always together.  Now, only one, he thinks of the cold body inside.

A car pulls into the lot and parks askew the back door; black, small, probably a Civic.  Steve pulls his coat high around his neck in a wasted attempt to arrest the chill and climbs out, forcing weak legs to take him, as the thin figure opens the unlit servant’s entrance, the back step barely a porch at all.  An embracing handshake, squeeze on the elbow and the mortician leads Steve inside.

The things that make the ancient building safe in the day; fireplace, caged bird song, music, soft lighting, people, are absent, leaving an invasive gloom which follows as they move from room to room; floorboards creak, and heavy curtains hang still. The greeting book is open on its ornate stand, waiting for morning visitors. The director turns on a few lights and leads Steve into the viewing room.

They had a life of joy and wonder.  Years of friends, success, failure, struggle, travel, learning, service and love.  Those perfect times end in this last secret meeting in the dark.  Memories shared with no one at midnight.

Rows of chairs attend, seven on each side and seven deep. Empty wire frames guard, ready for flowers, which have not yet arrived. The casket has heavy brass oyster shell handles and is sky blue, while crude wisps of painted clouds play across its smooth surface. Three crosses anoint one side.

The director opens the casket, and gently removes the soft white cloth placed to keep features and makeup intact.  Steve stares into the dead face, nestled on a bed of navy velvet, a caricature of the man who was his world, his sole mate, and his lover.  John is at peace now, no more suffering from the rotting disease. Steve wants to be grateful for that peace, that deliverance, but they still had so much to do, so much to share, so many hopes and dreams.  Gone now for eternity.

“What time is the funeral?” Asks Steve.

“10:00 at St Paul’s,” answers the director.  “You know they have forbidden you to go.”

“Yes, I know.  I thought maybe I would watch from across the cemetery or I’ll go to Sacred Heart and pray.”

“Better you stay away from the service.”

“You’re probably right.”

“How long were you together?”

“32 years.”

“Did you see his family over the years?”

“No.  They never wanted us to be together. They only appeared recently at the hospital, when he was dying.”

“Were you with him when he died?”

“No… they wouldn’t let me see him.  I only knew he was gone when a nurse from the hospital called.”

“I am very sorry.”

Steve stands in the shadows; the only sound the blowing of the furnace, not enough to heat the dampness.  Steve’s hand rests on John’s hard shoulder, the old suit too large.  Memory and pain in his chest, feelings that fill every forlorn corner.

1:00am. The mortician gently puts the white cloth across John’s face and closes the burial box. He guides Steve back through silent rooms, turning out the few lights as they go. Out the back, down the few steps, softly locks the door.

An embracing handshake.  Squeeze on the elbow.  A cold wind now blows. The moon hides in a cloud and the lot has a faint azure glow. Heavy steps to the heatless car.  The forbidden mourner.


  • Timely reminder of everyone's humanity during the SCOTUS hearings.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thanks. In the end we all climb the same mountain, even if we take different paths. jcs
  • Aletia
    Beautiful piece, Jim. Maybe we as a society will some day grow up. This week is giving us hope.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thanks. I do not understand the need of man to make the difficult journey of life even harder. jcs
  • Thank you for this moving piece. Having been together for 31 years and forbidden to marry by my state, my partner and I are fortunate to not have to consider this scenario; our families love and support us now (finally) or those who could not reach that point are no longer here. But you have described my worst nightmare. Thank you again.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      I am very happy to hear that you have built of life of support. Until our society codifies justice for all, everyone needs to prepare (and document as much as possible) for difficult times so that in crisis rights and needs are not ignored. jcs
  • Debbie
    A very sad and eye opening post Jim. You are so right about about preparing and documenting as much as possible, for everyone. We don't realize how important that is until the crisis has come and gone. It is sadly then too late.
  • Thanks for the reminder that even the act of viewing your deceased partner is not accepted or allowed by some in our society. How interesting that we as a society can so easily forgive sports "heroes" for serial adultery yet can not allow gay people all the rights and privileges of marriage. Money often trumps humanity - but not always.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      I suspect that the need to feel good about ourselves and who we are results sometimes in the destructive tendancy to defend "heros" who have fallen and to suppress and therefore dominate other people. Frail creature, man. jcs
  • Cyndi Lee
    I am so happy to know another loving couple will never have to go through this experience.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      I never thought I would say this but, "amen" to the United States Supreme Court. jcs

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