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The Funeral Crasher

Rowe, Michael

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31823fbd8d
Medicine and the Arts

Ten years after his daughter's death Edward Morton began to attend the funerals of people he did not know and he cried at all of them. The dry obituarial facts—motherless children left behind, soldier killed overseas and wife pregnant with their first—the cold toasts to the dead who graduated from blank in blank or slaved forty years at the tool and die plant brought tears to his eyes Sunday mornings as he planned his funeral schedule for the week. He cried approaching the casket, kneeling at the cushion, praying or pretending to when prayer would not lift itself above the dense cloud of his sorrow, tiptoeing up to grieving widow and shell-shocked widower, fumbling before the children who squirmed in their stiff clothes.

Emma, two-year-old light of his twenty-five-year old eyes, ran back to touch the clown in the TV. Her mother called from the front door. Emma pulled at the doily he sat on. The clown fell on her head. His wife took to bed. Edward burned the toys, photos, drawings, clothes, gave away the cat Emma named Emma not to further expose his wife to Emma Emma Emma Emma Emma. He locked up the aspirin, the knives, doled out meds. “I killed our daughter! Please kill me!” she cried. “Nonsense! Take these. Lie down. Rest.”

On the second anniversary of Emma's death his wife went out and didn't come back. Edward threw himself into his work running the town's theater company. Actors, stagehands, artistic director flew before the whirlwind of his combustible energy until one morning, eight years after his wife's exit, glancing at the obituaries before leaving for a meeting he had called, he missed his cue.

Mrs. Rosemary Michaud, widow of Henri Michaud, native of Guyana, leaving behind three sons and four daughters, slept peacefully as Edward sobbed at her wake, sobbed at her funeral and followed her family to the cemetery in the tenth year of his funeral crashing. Walking to his car after the interment, Rosemary's eldest son poked a finger to his heart. He'd heard of him—the Funeral Perv, “And if I ever see you….”

Edward spent how many ten years building a house on Shatter Road, pine and birch and maple trees behind, river a quarter mile below. The house rose skeletal, taking on flesh and blood and organs, growing in a womb of air obedient to its own generative powers as Edward ushered it forth, heeding the call of its grander instincts. Its bluish gray slate roof bowed and curved flanking its arched frame covered in bluish gray shingles. Its grayish blue interior stucco walls colored the light that wandered like a lost wind. It stood there, a weather beaten blooming hump of earth sprung up like the banks of rhododendron, lavender, amaryllis, potentilla arranged as though in homage to it on the front lawn. In line at the supermarket a woman shrieked, “The gravestone! Have you seen it?! On Shatter Road!?”

Edward left house, town, job, and walked out of state, slept in woods and bathed in winter sleet. Weary of raw woodchuck he moved into town, tangled salt and pepper beard a foot long. “Bigfoot,” boys on the street called him. He washed dishes, scrubbed floors and cleaned shit off the backs of old people, never turning his nose, always matter of fact as though simply making their beds. One night his supervisor held out a clothespin. “Hey Grandpa Jesus. The dead guy in 13 is cawlllling for you.” Edward backed him up against the wall and was fired on the spot.

Sleeping on a damp mattress in an abandoned parking garage, Ron the outreach worker found him. Winter closed in cold. He, Edward, would die down here but he, Ron, would not be coming around anymore to watch it happen. Edward saw through this routine but it was Ron asking, and the man could act. That night, quiet, unmoving on his cot in the men's dormitory, Edward cried himself to sleep. The next morning he began to grieve.

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Edward Morton's story emerged, much as I understand and remember my writing process, not from a single event but from many experiences: my attendance at a funeral service for a colleague with whom I had been working on a play about people who are homeless; the tragic death of a young child as told to me by his father; a long-ago story of a father, known to my family, who banished all record and mention of his daughter's existence after her untimely death; my experience of the death of my son, Jesse, in 1995 from complications of a liver transplant; and a trigger event—my eye catching the photo for an obituary notice while leafing through the local paper over breakfast one morning.

On the face of it, my and Edward's grief and mourning trajectories could hardly be more different. I spoke of my son at every opportunity, especially during the first few years after his death, and put a black mark in my mental book against friends and colleagues who did not speak of him, or flinched when I did. I wrote a book and a number of articles about Jesse. I certainly was absorbed in this work, but I am pretty sure our two surviving children do not feel I neglected them and that I did not drive my wife to distraction. Edward, on the other hand, lives with repressed grief, which is grief nonetheless, and a harrowing form of it, for 40 years—2 years driving his wife away and denying both her grief and his, 8 years of driving away his colleagues at work, and 10 years each of funeral crashing, building a tomb to his thwarted grief and wasted life, and homelessness.

The first signal that Edward is nearing the end of his time in the wilderness is his turning to the care of others as persons in their own rights, not as stand-ins for him. This occurs in a nursing home where some residents have lost control, not necessarily of their minds and emotions, but of their bodies and bowels. Without having found in himself a capacity for empathy and without the opportunity to show it through his job as an orderly, it is unlikely Ron would have been able to coax Edward in from the cold or be the impetus for Edward's coming to his aloneness, his tears, and, finally, his grief.

The reader may have detected a commonality in Edward's and his author's ways of living with the death of a child—the passionate intensity with which we connected with our children after their deaths. On one hand, Edward runs as far away as he can from his daughter while being more under the sway of her loss than acknowledgment of it would have left him, and on the other, I spoke of and wrote about Jesse at every opportunity. I feel that I understand Edward, much more than I did the father on whom I based him. When I first encountered that father, as a new parent myself I turned up my nose at the thought of one who could do such a thing to his family and the memory of his child. But I had a story that, as a writer, I could tell. I do not know what that father lacked in his life that forced him to abandon his grief.

As for Edward, every bone in his body revolted against his child's death, the absurd nature of it, and no doubt the thought that crept into his mind that, if his wife had only gone and picked up their daughter instead of calling for her, she would not have had to touch the clown inside the television before leaving the house. Hard as it would have been for him to acknowledge his wife's feelings of responsibility and terrible as it would have been to confide in her the same thought that gnawed away at him, especially without the help of therapist, priest, or wise friend, what torture might he, or they, have sidestepped by confronting this part of their grief?

Edward finally is offered help from the nursing home residents and Ron at a moment when he is ready to accept it. A colleague said to me, about two years after Jesse's death, “You never get over something like that.” Those words were exhilarating, liberating for me: Someone outside my immediate family had finally acknowledged the truth. Years later, I shared this exchange with another acquaintance. He said, “Yes, you never get over something like that, but you can go on.” It seems to me that both of these gentlemen are right, and that each said words I was ready to hear at the time they were spoken. Such accidents of chance, the privilege of having contact with people who can offer such insights, or workings of grace are part of the story of going on while remaining forever changed. More deliberate efforts—asking the right questions of a patient in a primary care visit, for example—can be part of it, too. But a work like “The Funeral Crasher” should embody something of life, not be a clinical tract. As such, its teaching power is and should be limited, acknowledging its proper sphere and, if done right, showing more than it can tell.

Michael Rowe, PhD

Dr. Rowe is associate professor of psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut; e-mail:

“The Funeral Crasher,” copyright © Michael Rowe. Printed with permission from the author.

© 2012 Association of American Medical Colleges