Some time ago, a Reuters/ShopSmart survey said the average woman (the average middle-class woman in a first-world country, I’m guessing) owns nineteen pairs of shoes and buys four new pairs per year. A few years back, a sports industry analyst calculated that Nike was selling twenty-five pairs of shoes per second. Fashion business network Common Objective said if the footwear sector were a country, its economy would slightly eclipse Hong Kong’s. My father owned two pairs of shoes: run-down brown plaid fleece-lined slippers and sturdy black leather World Tour Classic Rockports. When he died, the $100 Rockports were nearly brand-new, a miscalculation on my father’s part, because he was a pro at calibrating his belongings down to their last vestige of usefulness.
Most people aren’t buried with their shoes on. In a natural or green burial, there’s no embalming, and the clothing, shroud, or casket used must be biodegradable, nontoxic, and of sustainable material. So—no shoes, because they won’t break down and they can leak contaminants into the soil. Usually the no-shoes burial happens because the bottom half of the casket is closed for viewing, but sometimes the feet change shape after death and it’s hard for the funeral home folks to wrestle on a classic pump or a traditional wing tip. In the mid-twentieth century, the Columbus, Ohio-based Practical Burial Footwear Company made slippers for the deceased that looked like shoes from the front, but laced up the back for more flexibility. Some of them even stretched like a silicone cover for a mixing bowl so they could fit an unwieldy foot.
I’ve seen morticians joke online about tying the shoelaces of the dead together, “just in case.” (In case of a zombie apocalypse, or to make re-emergence even harder on a person buried alive?) As my father got older and unable to bend and tie his shoes himself, I’d kneel to do it for him, talking rapidly with each shoelace loop so that he didn’t feel awkward having his adult daughter tending to him like a child. At some point he realized he could leave his shoes tied and use a long shoehorn to push into them or take them off. He was pleased to reclaim that tiny morsel of independence, but I missed the intimacy of those shoe-tying moments.
In the Middle Ages, shoes were so costly it was wasteful to bury them with their owner, and they were passed on to others. I’m sure my father didn’t know this, but that’s what he decided to do, too. He managed his death from the moment he told my three sisters and me he was going to stop dialysis, and we knew he’d die within weeks. He asked us to check around and get the best price on cremation. He wrote instructions on a yellow legal pad about who to call, how to stop his Social Security payments, what to do with his car and his body after he passed, and when to pay the taxes on the house if it wasn’t sold by June. He insisted on getting fully dressed every morning until he was no longer conscious, even when the toxins started to build up and he was shaky and disoriented. As he lay in bed looking down at his feet, he said, “Don’t let them take me out of here with these shoes, because they’re practically brand new, and someone else can use them.”
There’s a memorial in Budapest called “The Shoes on the Danube Promenade” that sits beside a stretch of the Danube River. In the winter of 1944-45, the Arrow Cross Party militiamen murdered sixty Hungarian Jewish men, women, and children near that river. But first they made them take off their shoes. The installation is a heartbreaking row of 1940s-era footwear, sculpted from iron, that look as if their owners just stepped out of them: kicked off after school before making a snack; absentmindedly removed by a woman leaning one hand on her kitchen wall as she stood on one leg, then another before putting her groceries away; unlaced by a weary day laborer and left on the front porch so he wouldn’t bring any dirt into the house. The memorial is shocking in its simplicity, in the disturbing absence of the wearers. Shoes always remind me of the person who wore them. My father’s shoes were sensible. Straightforward. They were built to last. Except he didn’t.
It was common practice for early Egyptians to be put to rest with food, water, and wine for their journey to the afterlife. Some families also placed their deceased’s most valuable possessions in the coffin; things like jewelry and weapons, and a beloved cat or two. If they were royal or wealthy enough, thrones and chariots were included. Pharaoh Khufu was buried with a 144-foot boat that now is on display at the Giza pyramid complex in Cairo. My father was cremated in khakis, a navy Chaps shirt, compression socks, and the Marines baseball cap that never left his head. I keep some of his ashes in a miniature peacock-blue urn on my desk. It’s so small it fits in the palm of my hand, and on a hard day, I wrap my fingers around it like a hug.
I’ve held onto his Rockports for two years. They’re in my closet on a shelf between my leopard-print flats and my grey Ann Klein kitten heels. When I see them, waiting for me to complete his request, I recall my sisters and me as little girls, singing the Marines’ hymn about his shoe size. He wore a 9EEE then, and we’d sing “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of TRIPLE E,” hitting hard on the last words and pointing at my father’s feet. I need to find a place to take them, maybe a place that will help another former Marine with small wide feet and lively little daughters who will love him every second of his life, and well into the afterlife.
Anita Brienza is a Maryland-based communications consultant and creative writer. Her previous work has appeared in Mobility, Tiny House magazine, Washington Family Magazine, and Red Fez. She is a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee for fiction.