The Death Couch

In the 1970s, my grandparents bought a 1905 mansion that originally belonged to the family that owned the Payne Mortuary. Now the Ira L. Stoker law office, the mortuary sits on the southeast corner of the intersection of 20th and B St.

When the mortuary went out of business, my grandmother asked if she could buy some of the unwanted furniture. She brought home a pea-green velvet couch circa 1930s that's now located in the house's entryway. It used to be the receiving couch for the mortuary and when I use it, I imagine the grief-stricken people who had just lost a relative huddled together speaking in low voices or maybe not saying anything at all.

"The Death Couch"

I wonder what happened on that couch. Who sat there? What was said? What memories were made? Who was being remembered?

In college my friends and I used to play a game where we'd try to see how far back we could trace the furniture we had inherited. (Great party game, right?) My ex-boyfriend had a dirty navy blue couch covered in a terrible green, yellow, and red plaid pattern that had been donated to him by a Communist who said he had gotten it from someone who had gone to jail whose mother had given it to him when she wanted to update the furniture (or something like that). We drank beer and played this game until I'm sure that we started making up stories about the origins of our furniture. (Believe me--you'd be this bored during a Wyoming winter too).

My family, especially my grandparents who were both history students, has given me a deep sense of the individual's connection to places and people long gone. My grandmother always said that our families' stories were our stories. That it was our duty to carry their memories with us. Those memories leak into my perception of life as I experience it. The same ex-boyfriend I mentioned earlier in the post used to talk about "the democracy of the dead," referring to valuing the experiences of the dead in addition to the living.

That's something I adore about Hispanic culture: respect for and remembrance of passed relatives. Every year I make altars for my mother and grandmother to celebrate The Day of the Dead and I often find peace in the ritual (though my family still thinks it's a little bit strange...). Do you have any special traditions regarding the deaceased?

That connection to the dead, to imagining what their lives were like, inspires me to write: to remember and re-imagine. To sit on a couch and guess at who'd sat in that spot last, how we might have understood each other had we met, what we would have talked about. If I can't get my answers from history, at least I can make it up.


  1. Man, reading this made me feel sort of like my past has been sort of a vacuum. I have a serious lack of things, items, that have been "passed down" to me or that have a "history". Mostly because I usually associate my family as this blurred thing. As to the question regarding special traditions, I can't say I have any. I've been neglectful and haven't visited my father's grave in years. I sometimes find myself making up things regarding his past, linking things. I dunno.

    Every time I see a couch like that now I'm going to think "Death Couch".

    "Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth / Descend, ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?"

  2. @Vincent: I don't visit my mother's grave much either. For some reason, I don't really feel much of a connection there. It's almost like at the grave memories of her death overwhelm the memories of her life.

    I guess I didn't realize how into heirlooms my family is. I'm going to inherit a huge rolltop desk someday that was the only piece of furniture that survived the pioneer migration across the plains by my grandmother's family. But I don't know if I will ever "create" any of my own heirlooms. It seems like the past few generations don't seem to think of "stuff" the same way as the oldtimers did.

    I love that poem--who wrote it?!

  3. I probably could have posted the whole thing, but I read that section as the epigraph in C by Tom McCarthy. It's Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, XXIII:

    And we, that now make merry in the Room
    They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom
    Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
    Descend--ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?


  4. Thanks. That's sort of funny--I had to read that poem for a Victorian poetry class in college and I totally didn't recognize it... The McCarthy book sounds interesting. I'll have to pick it up sometime...