The house was located on Cemetery Road. It’s gone now, but I will never forget the night we visited the house for the funeral of a close relative. Forty years later I can still remember that night.
I was born and raised in the city, but I have the good fortune to come from a long line of people that were born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina. They were good, hard-working country folk that knew how to fend for themselves. And they knew how to raise their own food. When they had chicken for dinner, chances are that chicken had been walking around in their barnyard the day before.
In the mountains of North Carolina when a loved one dies they are brought home to their house. And the family then sits up with the corpse all night long chewing the fat about how the person lived and how they died. Mountain people know how to take care of their dead.
My great-grandmother often told horror stories about sitting up all night with a dead body in the “front room” of a house. Sometimes she would talk about seeing the body twitch and move in the open coffin due to the decomposition gases building up inside the corpse, which may or may not have been embalmed. If something like that happened nowadays people would clear the room like the house was on fire. But back when my great-grandmother was a little girl it was a normal thing to see.
When I was about eight years old a cousin of mine drove his car off the road and into a tree. He was only sixteen years old at the time. The crash was pretty bad but they managed to get him out of the twisted wreckage and into a coffin all in one piece. I remember my grandmother announcing that we were driving up to Ronda, which is a tiny hamlet outside of North Wilkesboro, to attend his funeral. She didn’t need to say that we weren’t going to a funeral home. We all knew we were going to Aunt Mary’s house to see the body. When she told us how my cousin had died I can remember hoping that the coffin would be closed when we got there.
Aunt Mary’s house was old and had a large barn and barnyard next to it. And to make matters worse, it really was located on Cemetery Road. As if things couldn’t get any creepier.
We arrived late that evening. It was already dark, which didn’t help the mood in the house. Aunt Mary had made a large pot of homemade vegetable soup, my favorite, and the smell of that soup had filled the house. All I wanted to do was have a big bowl of that soup and then go home. But I knew there was business to take care of before we could all sit down and eat. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the open coffin in the front room. A small lamp had been placed nearby to provide illumination. It was the only light in the room.
My grandmother led me into the front room where the family had gathered. She was a tough old bird that had beheaded her fair share of chickens for Sunday dinner. She didn’t seem to care that I was only eight years old and probably not ready to see a corpse with a face sewn together with mortuary thread. I remember her saying, “Josh, dyin’ is just part of livin’,” as we walked towards the coffin. She loved to call me Josh for some reason.
Like I said, I was only about eight years old at the time so I was just tall enough to see over the edge of the open coffin. I took a deep breath and then peeked over the edge and looked at my cousin.
The small lamp gave his corpse a ghoulish appearance. The stiff material of my Sears Toughskin jeans was probably the only thing that kept my knees from buckling when I peeked over the edge of the coffin. I took one look at my cousin and then quickly closed my eyes. But it was too late. The image of his sewn-together face had been burned into my permanent memory forever.
By the time we sat down to have some of Aunt Mary’s soup, I had all but lost my appetite. After that night I didn’t sleep for a week. The image of my cousin’s face danced in my nightmares. In one of my nightmares his eyes opened when I was looking at him in the coffin. In another his hand suddenly reached up and grabbed me by my wrist. And one night he even walked down the hallway and knocked on the door of my bedroom. I can still hear the sound of his knuckles on the door.
There were more funerals after that night. Someone was always dying it seemed. But none of them ever came close to that dark, frightful night on Cemetery Road.