I didn’t want to see the body. They called it a “viewing” and it made my stomach queasy. I had viewed Grandma too, but that was many years ago. I didn’t understand it as well back then. I didn’t want to view Grandpa, I wanted to remember him as he was when we left back in November, waving to us from the café table as Mom and I headed to the car and back to New York. I didn’t want to remember him dead. But these were his wishes, and I respected him, so I respected them.
I saw the casket in the corner and it made my heart race. I distracted myself with the little table of old photographs, and looking at flowers sent from friends and family. I could see him lying there, stiff, out of the corner of my eye. Mom and Uncle Paul were right up close, while I lagged nervously behind. I finally approached him, my eyes flooding. Nothing confirms death like a body.
But it also calmed me. He looked peaceful and composed, perhaps several years younger. He didn’t have that pained look that I saw when we visited, the look he had when he struggled with his walker or had to gargle saliva as he spoke. No, he looked dignified, suited with his army cap and medals. A flag folded meticulously over the casket. He was a man of honor.
In the casket lid was a large photo of his prized possession, a green Oliver tractor. When guests came later, my mom often joked to the old farmers not to steal it. It was good to see her laugh. People I didn’t know hugged me, and somehow, it still felt good. I think because they knew him, and that was enough. His life-long friend, a beautician, cut his hair before the viewing, as it had grown a bit long. I thought that was beautiful.
None of it got to me quite like the Color Guard, though. The next morning at the funeral, the uniformed old veterans stood in formation at the front of the room. One by one, they solemnly marched to the casket to offer a parting salute. I was sitting close enough to see a number of them fighting back tears, as mine streamed down my face and neck. He was their old friend and comrade. He had been so much more than just my grandfather. I had known this, but it was entirely different to see it.
The one that broke my heart the most was old Hugh. I met him at the viewing, where he shyly approached my mom and me, apologizing for our loss and asking if mom would like his 1940 Annual. He used a walker to get around, and gingerly pulled the old book from a pouch he had fastened to the front of it. He had graduated in 1942, but he happened to have grandpa’s year. “I have nobody else to give it to,” he explained, and thought someone in our family would like to have it.
After the service, we saw Hugh again as we followed the hearse to the cemetery. He was outside on the street, standing propped against a car so he could give one final salute.