My first visit to a mortuary was when I was eleven years old. My best friend Re-Re and I detoured to Duggan Dolan Mortuary on our way home from school one afternoon. Our former classmate, Judy Z., had passed away, and we wanted to say goodbye.
Our parents hadn’t wanted us to go—had forbidden us, if my memory serves me correctly—so it was a clandestine mission as we turned left instead of continuing down Washington Street after leaving school. We were a stealthy pair in our Catholic school uniforms, swallowing our guilt when we passed our church en route to Duggan Dolan.
As we ascended the mortuary stairs, the door opened inward. Unable to see who had watched our arrival from behind the curtained glass, we exchanged glances. Our resolve was firm—we were not going to turn and run. We wanted to say goodbye. We entered the foyer, where a solemn, dark-suited man greeted us from behind the door. “You’re here to see Judy?” he asked.
We nodded, too afraid to speak.
“She’s straight ahead.”
We gingerly made our way through the foyer and to the front of the room. It was empty, except for Judy. Re-Re and I knelt on the adjoining kneeler and surveyed our friend. She looked peaceful and warm, cocooned in white satin. Wearing a pastel chiffon dress, a rosy blush on her cheeks and lips, she was beautiful. Gone were any signs of asthma—the disease that had ravaged her body, causing so many absences that Judy had become our sisters’ classmate as she repeated third grade. Re-Re and I offered silent prayers, then breathed our goodbyes.
We managed to retreat to the foyer, sign the guest book, pass the dark-suited man, and hurry out the door before bursting into tears. We detoured again, backtracking toward school and its neighboring convent. “None of the boys even came to say goodbye,” we cried to Sister Agnes Therese.
Her reply soothing, we left feeling somewhat consoled. A block later, though, we took refuge in the alley of the abandoned hospital across the street from my home. “We’ll probably never see her again,” I said, sobs choking my words.
Re-Re agreed. Through our tears, we speculated that our defiance and previous acts of wickedness might route us to hell, rather than to heaven where we were certain Judy resided.
I don’t remember my parents’ reaction when they learned that I had gone to see Judy, but I was reminded of my introduction to death during Missoula’s recent Festival of the Dead Parade. Old and young gathered, some costumed and painted, others not, to honor and remember those who have passed, and to celebrate life.
Thank you, Bev Glueckert and Mike DeMeng, for your vision twenty-one years ago. Thank you, Missoula, for continuing to celebrate life and death each November.