My First Death: The Indelible Scent of Chemicals and Baby Powder

Louise Hung talks to Vicky DeMercer about her first experience with death growing up in a small town on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where death was a part of life.

“My father died when I was two months old. He was in a car accident; obviously I don’t remember. But there are pictures of his funeral and believe he had a baby blue casket with white trim Which is very odd!”

Vicky DeMercer laughed as she shared this detail with me. Her laughter echoed against the white walls around her, and intermingled with the muffled sounds of ambient conversation. Now and then I heard the sound of a car or motorcycle roar and disappear in the distance; the front door fall shut with a soft rattle and thud.

Skyping me from the lobby of the studio in Honolulu, Hawai‘i where she teaches and takes dance classes, Vicky’s open, eager, but thoughtful tone made it feel like the perfect place to talk about death. No big thing, just two pals talking about funerals while Lycra-clad dancers sipped water and chatted about the next training or masterclass. Really, it’s the way life ought to be.

Of good ol’ midwestern American and Native Hawaiian descent, Vicky was raised on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, in a small town in North Kohala called Hawi (pronounced ha-vee).

“Growing up in a small plantation town on the Big Island, there’s a lot of kids and a lot of old people. So people are always being born and people are always dying, there’s not really a lot of people in-between.”

Death was never a stranger to Vicky. Even beyond her father’s early death, life in North Kohala didn’t shield her from the dead. But what was there to shield her from? As a young child, graves, cemeteries, funerals were not scary but mundane.

 

 

From graves still residing on family land to playing in the cemetery when church got too dull, Vicky’s very ordinary Big Island childhood was dotted with very ordinary dealings with death.

“In our town we have the 7th Day Adventist Church, the Jodo Mission, and the Catholic Church all right next to each other,” she explained. This made for a lot of different kinds of funerals in the community.

“So for me, growing up I had actually been to more funerals than weddings. The amount of funerals to birthday parties,” she said doing that “balancing the scales” motion with her hands, “was pretty equal.”

And though death didn’t phase or frighten her as child, she does have strong memories of the first time death impacted her life. When Vicky was about 3-years-old her godfather died.

“I would spend the weekends at my godmother’s house when I was maybe like three or four-years-old. She had these two twin beds that she would push together so my sister and I could sleep next to each other, and she would sleep on the outside. I remember waking up one morning and my godmother was like, ‘Stay in the room. You and your sister are not allowed to come out.’ Because overnight my godfather had passed away. He slept in a different room.

She made us stay in the room until his body was carried out by – I don’t know, the hospital? The morgue? There are no undertakers in my town. I don’t know who took the body out.”

Did you understand what happened to your godfather?

“I knew what death was since my father had died when I was a baby. But this was my first actual experience with death.”

So it was explained to you?

“I want to say that it was explained to me. And since it was explained to me, even though I don’t remember it being explained to me, by the time I was three or four I understood.”

Vicky paused as if running that explanation through her head to see if it made sense. As one of those unspoken lessons we absorb as wee, little children – like sugar tastes good and don’t drink (a lot of) the bath water – Vicky absorbed an understanding of death.

“I understood that death was when you have nothing left in your body – you cannot animate your body anymore. We were raised Catholic; God is taking your spirit, God is taking you home. [When you die] the only thing that’s left in your body is your organs and bones.

I always understood that at some point I’m going to die. And it wasn’t necessarily something I was scared of, I was just scared of how I was going to die.”

We momentarily shifted into a rapid-fire discussion of our shared fear of drowning under bizarre circumstances.

“I slipped and fell into the sink. And now I’m dead.”

“Oops. I fainted into this bowl of juice. Now I’m dead.”

And of course being pounded to death by the Hawaiian surf or drowning in an underwater cave. I had a similar conversation with Caitlin in a bar in Honolulu a few years ago.

Apparently death positive people who have lived in Hawai‘i are afraid of water?

After that brief (but terrifying) digression, we carried on.

What was your reaction to to your godfather’s death?

Vicky laughed. Despite her rather mature-for-a-three-year-old understanding of death, she still had a child’s reaction.

“When we found out he was dead through the whispers of what was going on that morning, I just thought, ‘OH. So-and-so’s rabbit just died and when they found the rabbit, the eyeballs were rolled-up in the back of the head!’

So I was asking my godmother, ‘WERE HIS EYEBALLS ROLLED-UP IN THE BACK OF HIS HEAD?’

 

 

My godmother, who was obviously doing her best to handle the situation, who had been married to my godfather for 50-plus years, is dealing with her husband’s death, and there’s this little girl asking, ‘Were his eyes rolled backwards Auntie? Is that how you knew he was dead?’”

Vicky describes a rather swift, matter-of-fact acceptance of her godfather’s death. No panic or anguish, rather an understanding of an end.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to get him coffee anymore. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to clean the hair out of his electric razor anymore.

To me, it was just like, ‘Oh. So he dead.’”

The next thing she remembers is her godfather’s funeral.

“Our Catholic church was called Sacred Heart, like a billion other Catholic churches. Our Sacred Heart church in Hawi has this beautiful altar with brass [pieces]. The big brass baptismal bowl, the wooden altar made from eucalyptus – my godfather made all of those. And to me, seeing his coffin up against his beautiful pieces of handiwork, it was almost garish to me.

Not that I could comprehend that as a three-year-old! But looking back on it.”

Of course, what imprinted on Vicky at her godfather’s funeral, and what has lingered with her to this day, is a detail that a lot of “polite” adults are taught to ignore.

“When I saw him just laid out [at the church], the smell is what really resonated with me. I just remember the smell of his body.”

How did he smell?

Vicky paused, choosing her words, turning over the intangible in her memory.

“I don’t know how else to say it except that it’s a very western, dead body smell. Like it was this odd chemical-baby powder kind of smell. To this day, whenever I go to a funeral and I see an open casket, and it’s a western-style funeral, the first thing that always hits me is the smell. The weird chemical-baby powder smell.

And I remember looking at him, and I was like, ‘Can I touch him?’ And I touched him, and he was cold.”

But Vicky’s experience at her godfather’s funeral was not devoid of emotion.

“I saw lots of people crying. I was like, ‘Why are they crying? He’s just dead.’

And then I was mad because I couldn’t sit next to my godmother. I always sat next to her during church. Why couldn’t I sit next to her?

Her daughter and her grandkids were up there [sitting] with her, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘But I play with [the grandkids] all the time! I see her more than they do! I was in the house when he died!

All of these little things at my first funeral — I was irritated, bored, and upset. It was very upsetting to me for very selfish reasons!”

Ah, the candor of a little girl. Honestly, not much of that candor is lost in 30-something Vicky. Only now, it’s candor with a deepening of feeling.

Vicky continued, regarding her demeanor at the funeral.

“Of course, that was the mind of a three or four-year-old who’d only known someone consciously for a few years. [My godfather] was a staple of the community. He was one of the older Filipino men in the community. He was a church goer, he was a church supporter, and he was a remnant of those bygone plantation era days when people really took care of each other.

No tears were present because I didn’t have anything to feel sorry about. I think that I had a better idea of loss than I did of love. The concept of love was not lost on me, but it was much easier for me to understand the concept of death, the concept of non-being. His body was there, his being was not.”

As Vicky and I wrapped up and our conversation devolved into catching up about work and family, we somehow wound our way back to cemetery talk and the time Vicky found herself digging into the graves of her father and grandmother.

With an exasperated roll of the eyes that most people reserve for when their partner forgets to take out the trash, she regaled me with the story of how her uncle ended up haphazardly buried on top of her father. “Buried” being a relative term.

On top. And I don’t mean they had digging tools. I mean the cardboard box [with the remains in it] still addressed to Uncle Carl*, with Uncle Ned’s ashes in it. They removed a piece of grass, made a hole, and put the grass right back on top.”

Instant grave.

The rest of her story involved her distraught mother, shovels and picks, three half-gallon buckets of dirt from her family’s backyard, the discovery of more rogue ashes buried on top of her grandmother’s grave, and Vicky digging up and reburying cremated remains in a cemetery in North Kohala at dusk.

“My husband, who was not there, thought it was a matter of calling the church that maintains the cemetery and getting everything moved – very clean cut. But I was like, ‘It’s Kohala. It’s not like that at all.’”

And it was that straightforward, no-nonsense regard to death and the dead that punctuated Vicky’s telling of her godfather’s funeral and her uncle’s (re)burial. A ‘final resting place’ was never a mystery to me,” she said.

As Vicky puts it, her understanding of death “evolved” from “irritated to heartbroken” when she was able to comprehend loss, but death never filled her wth dread.

Just because a person was dead, their “being” gone, didn’t make them any less a part of the community. From an outside perspective, it’s not flippant, it’s not casual, it’s merely how people move forward – you’re still my neighbor, you’re just dead.

 

 

 

*Names of Vicky’s family have been changed to protect their privacy.

 

Louise Hung is an American writer living in Japan. You may remember her from xoJane’s Creepy Corner, Global Comment, or from one of her many articles on death, folklore, or cats floating around the Internet. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Jane Beckman

    Funny, that smell is also one that has stayed with me, from the funeral of my mother’s uncle. Under the scent of flowers, chemical baby powder. That captures it perfectly. I smelled it faintly in the rotunda of the Capitol building, when I visited a few years ago, and realized there must have been many bodies laid out there over the years, for it to have permiated the environment. It was unmistakable.