It was in early February of 1993 when my mother's brother was killed in a high-speed car accident, leaving behind his two young children and pregnant wife. The magnitude of the tragedy was terrible, and much of the family expressed a great deal of anger as well as distress. I was a child of eight at the time, and was pulled out of school to go to the funeral in North Carolina with my family. The somber circumstances of the trip were paralleled by the dreary weather, but the experience didn't affect me the way I had expected it to.
We arrived late to the wake, our footsteps and hushed whispers echoing through the crowded room and momentarily overpowering the voice of a man speaking at the podium, as we found our seats near the back. The thick smell of incense filled the room, and tendrils of smoke could still be seen meandering along the high ceiling,
searching for an exit.
A heavy black casket with gleaming silver handles lay on a platform on the far side of the room. Half of the lid was open, showing a white satin inner lining, its looming presence beckoning me from across the room.
When the man was finished speaking, I fell into an orderly line of relatives dotted with unfamiliar faces, each inching his or her way toward the casket to pay respects. When I stepped up to see my uncle for the last time, I was shocked and confused: the man lying before me didn't look like my uncle at all. His face was completely expressionless, and somehow surely yet unexplainably different, as if the shapes of his features had all been changed slightly. The hands folded at his waist were not those of my strong and healthy uncle. Rather, they...