Your Body Conquers Death, by Sophia-Maria Nicolopoulos

There you lie—with a thin tube attached to the side of your neck, an oxygen mask tightly clasped around your head, a shadow of the man you once were, but with the iron grip of a soldier. And, for a strange, uncanny reason, watching your yellowed body shrinking and dwindling has forced acceptance. Your life’s thread is loosely hanging from the twig of an ailing plane tree, but instead of insurmountable pain, contentment carves my insides.

You won’t be erased.

Hold my hand now, there you go. Give me some time to collect myself. I have to prepare you first for what will immediately come after you pass.

How hard it is to hear this, I cannot fully know, but in clarity comes understanding, and in understanding comes peace of mind.

The first day of your death, we’ll start by calling relatives. Grandma won’t rest, please know this, because you’ve been with her for sixty-three years and she’s been taking care of you every day of your life. After the calls, we’ll arrange the funeral service. We will decide what suit you’ll wear, what tie would go well, the shoes, the socks and the underwear. You must look your finest on your last day with us. You always have had smart taste in clothing.

I’ll go and purchase packets of Greek coffee and many flavors of biscuits; the neighborhood will visit first, then your relatives and friends, and we need to treat them well. They’ll be offering their condolences, thinking of you, wishing you well where you go—a veil of silence will fall upon us, the denial of not being able to see you anymore will settle in.

“My warmest condolences,” they’ll say.

“Live your life to remember him,” they’ll continue.

“Life to you,” they’ll finish.

Because we’ll decide to bury you in Athens, where your family is, we’ll need to secure a spot in one of the local cemeteries so that you’ll rest well for three years’ time—then, we will take whatever’s left of your bones, and we’ll transfer them to the village you grew up—the picturesque Dafni (meaning laurel) in Kalavryta, one of the most historical places in Greece. You’ll finally be buried next to your kin, your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters.

This is hard to listen to, Grandpa, but please know we’re doing our best to make your transition easier.

We’ll probably hear that you’ll need to be preserved in a mortuary fridge. Burying someone in Athens takes time, as there’s not a ready spot for you because of lack of space. Someone will be exhumed, and you’ll take their place.

It’s terrible that you won’t have your own bed, Grandpa. Your own clean and pristine piece of land to lie down. But this is just another triviality; the most challenging journey starts when you pass away. This is why your funeral service won’t be met with pessimistic gospels—no. We will encourage your soul to go forward, to defy any temptations. We will sing for it, and pay our respects to its host. Because death is not the ending, Grandpa. Neither body nor soul will get lost in time.

When your coffin arrives at home, we’ll walk behind it, a procession cloaked in black we’ll be, but in our hearts your memory will vibrate uncontrollably.

Red carpets and rich purple banners will decorate the inside of the church. We’ll offer you the whitest carnations and the freshest roses, wreaths in the shapes of a heart and a cross—we’ll hold bouquets to throw them in the pit before your lid closes, and when it’s time to kiss your cold forehead goodbye, we’ll stifle our tears and whisper endearments to your ears.

Easy now, remember: Nobody will be angry with you when you let go.

In viewing your body, you give me the tools to bargain with your death from a psychological standpoint—did you know? Which, in my humble opinion, is similar to the standard ritual of a Christian Orthodox funeral service, where we’ll mourn you with the casket open—your body fully dressed in its best costume and new shoes, because in it your soul dwelled, and with it you’ll rise on Judgement Day. We cannot but treat you with reverence.

We, Greeks, usually grow up in tight-knit families, where bodies huddle together in both weddings and funerals—in the first case, to dance in circles and wish the newlyweds a happy life. In the second case, to partake in the body’s last mystery on Earth.

Grandpa, I believe that the Christian Greek tradition of mourning with an open casket, when the physical form permits it, correlates with the importance of viewing the deceased’s body. You’ll be the tool with which we’ll accept mortality.

See, it is standard practice in Greece to position the departed in the middle of the church; the lid stays open if their condition allows it. The bodies face the clergy during their last ritual—not only because it revolves around them. Not only because these vessels need divine guidance and holy hymns to fight off demons on their way to ascension. We believe that our bodies are worthy of commemoration, because they will rise again on Judgement Day.

The dead were part of the visible world once; letting them experience it one last time reinforces that bodies, as frail and temporary as they are, are also heroic, and worthy of holy words to help the soul move forward.

Let me take this argument a step further.

I dare claim that in this shared viewing, where the body stands witness to the sorrow of its inner circle, and the family stands witness to its final moments, you will be immortalized; you’ll turn from a man to a timeless figure of defiance against death.

It is in accepting mortality that death holds no power over us. And we have the personification of courage—it is your body that turns into a quest for achieving immortality, it is the power it holds because of the Greek rituals and family values we’ve always lived by.

You’ll be larger than life itself, Grandpa. What power does death truly hold over us if we gain understanding over it? When your family and friends will remember you, when the litanies of your funeral service, your three-day, nine-day, and forty-day memorials guide your soul, will it really go?

Your body lies now, cloaked in brown and yellow stripes, and lolls its head to the side when I speak to you. But, it doesn’t let my hand fall and I don’t think of your decay. I can only thank you for giving me, and the rest of my family, time to say our goodbyes.

Even in your time of death, you look after us.

I won’t get too technical now, Grandpa, this is the last part. I hope I’m making sense; my eyes itch, and I’m speaking quicker than normal. No need to squeeze my hand so much, I won’t be going anywhere.

Your body is not just a symbol of defiance or family love; it’s a symbol of how people can bargain with death and, by extension, conquer it.

By now, you’ve seen how people’s attitudes differ when experiencing the death of a loved one—or their own death. Do you remember, for example, that when my paternal grandfather died, I was but fourteen years old? Even if I saw him shriveled like a raisin on his deathbed, even if I cried for him, his funeral feels like wet hair ends falling on my back; the imprint is there but, as with all natural things, it turns back to normal, after a while.

All I have is the memory of his dead, puffed cheeks—and this doesn’t cause me the same amount of pain your agonized breathing causes me now.

With you, it’s different. For I’ve always had two fathers, the second being you.

As we get older, we’re forced to entertain the fear of losing a loved one, right? Wrinkles and spots appear on our parents’ faces, white hairs and floppy skin adorn them; we notice small changes in even ourselves. Grief tugs in our minds harder because we’re constantly reminded our time is short. Imagine if you lost Grandma, for example—wouldn’t the pain burn your insides every day if you let it? Now, listen to this.

It was Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her most notable work On Death and Dying published in 1969, who introduced us to the five stages of grief, perhaps the most popular model when referencing near-death studies. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These are the emotions people seem to go through when grieving, not always in a linear fashion—some of them can be experienced in tandem, and some more than others.

See, Grandpa, why it’s important for me to stand by your side now? Why it’s important for me to look at you and embrace the pain?

Why your open casket expands your family’s grieving process?

We accept the unacceptable, and we reinvent the concept of mortality—being aware of death gives us the valor to conquer it.

Your soul is terribly afraid of what comes next, but take heed in my words when I say: You will be immortal.

The point of no return is where science and faith meet. At this point, I’ll always be waiting for you, Grandpa, with my physical, and later, my spiritual form—this is where we’ll reunite. You, neatly dressed, finely combed, and sprinkled with your favorite lemon-scented perfume, holding a piece of a sports newspaper; me with my head for words and languages and a university bag strapped on one shoulder, replying in a loud voice to all your questions.

Take care, Pappou. You’ve managed to conquer death. I can’t go anywhere.

Author’s Note: At the time of writing this, my Grandpa was still holding on even though he was terminally ill. This piece is dedicated to him. His name was Christos Rodopoulos, and he was one of the kindest and most giving souls I’ve ever met. He still is.

Sophia-Maria Nicolopoulos is a Publishing Operations Manager and Editor from Greece. She writes whimsical horrors, uncanny desires, and fever dreams inspired by Greek folklore and myths. Her short fiction can be found in The Serulian, Bewildering Stories, and Alternative Milk Magazine. Her poetry books Dried Daisies Sprouting from my Desk and How Long Your Roots Have Grown explore intergenerational trauma and mental health stigmas in dark fantasy settings. To follow her updates and read her manifesto about how felines surpass us all, stop by her Twitter profile @sophiam_weaves.

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