Dressing a Sister for the Afterlife

Below is an excerpt from With and Without Her: A Memoir of Being and Losing a Twin. My identical twin sister, a psychologist, has died in Lowell, Massachusetts, from a head wound inflicted by a former patient. We have brought her home to Philadelphia, where my mother and I go to the funeral home to help prepare her body.

We go to the funeral home, a Victorian house converted for the dead. My mother and I meet with the cosmetologist who will prepare Deane for a family viewing. He works in something like the back of a flower shop, cool with glass cases and metal tables.

I have brought Deane’s rose dress and gold hoops with me. I look down on her face, and it is not Deane I see, but some wax version. Without life, no one’s face can be what it was. We are not our looks at all, but the energy that lights our features. So this is her body, not Deane. Already she seems far away. Ten days ago she was coming to visit, and I stood in my yard gathering apples. Now I deliberate the choices of a clothed afterlife.

My sister lies on the table like a patient, and I remember a D. H. Lawrence short story: neighbors carry a dead miner into an English cottage where his wife bathes his body and dresses him for burial, pushing away her fear, moving by rote, feeling how set apart death places them.

“Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living?” asks the miner’s wife.

I am here for my sister, but I also shut down my belief in normality, in the daily, in the ease of one breath after another. My mother is calm and distant; an outsider might say disinterested. But I know she is not even here. She talks with me about the details—makeup, hair—but she lets me make the decisions.

I realize how small my mother is, her thin, rounded shoulders, her fine bones. I see her and what has brought us here before this man who picks over my sister. And I know too that she and I will never again talk about this moment.

Dorothy Foltz-Gray

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Dorothy Foltz-Gray

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