Author’s Note: This essay was first originally written in 2013. It is being revised to send to the West Virginia Writer’s Annual Writing Contest. I plan to submit it in the non-fiction section.
During my revisions last night, I added more description to the scenes, hoping to highlight the difficulty of that situation. I would appreciate any feedback.
“The red button is the one that turns up the heat.” his voice was hovering above my ear. “Press it when you are ready.”
His voice is flat and professional. I smell a slight hint of mint from his breath. Somewhere beneath the layers of my grief, my curiosity piques and I vaguely wonder if clean breath is in the mortician’s manual on handling grief-stricken family members. I turn to look at him. He was wearing a black, formal suit, and black striped tie. His face is impassive. I think he was the crematory operator as his eyes look above my head to caress the machine. Feeling discombobulated by his attempt to help me, I turn back to the crematorium.
In front of me is the button. It is flat, red, and circular. Red for flames, I think, aware that the crematorium has been turned on for some time, and the flames are hissing and lapping against the metal. I close my eyes for a moment and all I can hear are the flames, threatening to swallow me whole as the metal breathes, expanding and contracting. For one moment, it seems as though the crematorium is alive, and I begin to shake with fear.
Eyes wide open, I pause at the button, trying to focus on the task at hand. I am starting to sweat through my clothes. It is summer in West Virginia, so I am wearing grey flannel Capri pants with a matching jacket and a white shirt. I threw the outfit into my backpack the day before, knowing that I was going to my father’s funeral the next day. In Hindu culture, it is traditional to wear white to a funeral. Shamefully, this is the closest to a white funeral that I own, and at the last minute, it will have to do.
Behind me, I can hear the sounds of my mother and sister crying. I try not to look at them as I need to find a way to preserve my strength and carry out this last task to honor my father. I look at my brother, who is smiling at me, lost in the world of autism and for a moment, I envy him. In my father’s culture, it is the responsibility of the son to light his father’s funeral pyre. As my brother is incapable of doing so, the responsibility has fallen to me, the eldest child, and in this moment, I feel myself wavering.
The chanting of Hindi songs is making me dizzy, and in front of me, my father’s body lies in wait. It is strange to see him lying prone. Any moment I expect him to wake up, sit up, and tell everyone that his fellow doctors were wrong, and misdiagnosed him as dead. After all, my father was Superman, the Super Indian immigrant. No one knew more, worked harder, or achieved more than he did. Superman, I thought, is not supposed to die, but my father’s Krytonite was an unseen enemy—gastric cancer, and in the end, he lost his battle, and I was left with the feeling that I failed him. Now, at his funeral, I was failing him again.
Standing over my father’s body, the young funeral director stares at me with something approaching sympathy, and I realize that I must act and push the button. After all, I have a Ed.D. How hard can it be to push a button? All it would take is one motion, and the final act of the cremation would be completed.
With that realization, I put my focus on the red button. The button that turns up the heat in the crematorium and the heat is needed to complete the burning of the body. I know that I am the only one that can do that. Yet, I am frozen in my fear, in my complacency, and in my pain. Behind me, I can feel the sorrow of my family, and my father’s closest friends, waiting for me to act.
Without warning, the funeral director pushes the body into the crematorium. Without thinking, I press the button. I can hear the flames going up as the heat and fire begin their work of consuming the body. “Goodbye, Daddy.” I whisper and turn away. Tears blind my eyes as I walk through the crowd. I try to take pride in completing the job of burning my father’s body, but nothing lessens my sorrow. I walk through the crowd of sympathetic faces and hug the nearest person I can find. Then I made my way to the lobby where I thank and greet my father’s friends, before driving two hours home.