Rahway. Of all the places to escape to, I chose a funeral home in Rahway, the city that housed the state prison.
Most days and most nights, in the beginning, I would think to myself, “This place is not only a literal dead-end; it’s a prison,” and then I would laugh to myself about the ridiculousness of my situation. Technically, the prison was a bike ride away, and technically, I was sleeping three floors above an embalming room and a sterile meeting place in which friends and family members said their last goodbyes to dearly departed loved ones. But none of that seemed to matter. I was out on my own as the cold of winter approached, trying desperately to put bad memories to rest. And for that, I was thankful, despite the shortcomings of my location and the location’s location.
The new environment required some adjustment on my part, but I was ready and willing to make provisions based on cheap rent in a nice house. Our private entrance was unreachable during renovations, so we had to use the back door of the main home as an entrance and exit. It’s still that way actually. Normally, during off-hours, this was not a concern. Viewings and funerals were a different story though. Imagine wanting to leave your house, and having to descend a staircase into a room full of grieving relatives, all wondering “Who the fuck is this person?” My first time scared me. The funeral was for a 15-year old boy, shot in a gang-related crime. The cries of “Why did he leave me!” echoed through the three floors of our house. I was still home, but I had plans to meet friends that required me departing my house during the time that the viewing was still commencing. I descended the stairs, kept my head down and walked as fast as possible through the front door of the house, into the neutral safety of the parking lot. It didn’t help that I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sweatshirt. Nor did it help that I was the only white person on the first floor of our house. In the future, I made a pact to myself. If I had to leave the house during a viewing, I would put on nice pants and a button up shirt, then walk through the house as if I were an employee of the home. This seemed to work, for the most part.
The other adjustment to make was seeing an inordinate amount of dead bodies, prepared for viewing and laying in caskets. Coming home at night, prior to a viewing, there was no avoiding the sight of a peaceful dead body laying in the corner of the home. At first, it shook me. At second, it alarmed me. A few months in, I might as well have been a coroner.
Then the questions started. “Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?” “Isn’t that place haunted?” etc, etc. I perceived it as such: If I die, and my energy or soul is an actual part of reality that allows me to wander the universe and unlock the hidden secrets of life, would I waste my time in a house in Rahway, New Jersey? Hell no (pun intended), I’d be living the afterlife up, visiting my dog and asking God why.
Communication helps too.
A few arrangements were made. The simple solution for us to avoid the workings of the first floor was a dry erase board, which hung at the top of the stairs. When a viewing and funeral was supposed to happen, the director ascended the stairs, wrote the schedule for the proceedings, and asked us to be quiet during the viewings. This was good. I knew when to get out and how long to stay gone for, so that I didn’t have to come home all sweated up after jogging and then walk into a house full of mourning family members.
And then there was another provision; something I took to calling ‘the Pungent Meat Rule.’ Cooking bacon, frying steak and whatever could possibly turn the entire house into a smell that resembled the Outback Steakhouse needed to be curtailed, at least for the time during viewings. All things considered, when a family is saying their final goodbyes to a grandparent, the last thing they need is the pungent smell of bacon wafting through the room (unless that smell reminded them of their dearly departed loved one.)
And so it begun: No cooking of pungent meats during the funeral viewing process. As a vegetarian, the rule didn’t affect me, but I lumped frying onions in with this rule as well. Fish also came to be included later on. Someone added roast chicken too, though the jury is still out on its pungent-ness and its latent ability to waft.
And life for myself began above the funeral home, albeit a few courteous rules. No cooking odors, avoid coming and going during funerals, be respectful.
I argued against the procession bagpipers, but lost. And therein, a few times a week, I would awake to ‘Amazing Grace,’ belted from the lungs of a Scottish American on my front lawn.
I had to laugh. This place, this city, it was far more than a literal dead end or a prison. It was now home.