From The Door Is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer, published by Anvil Press in 2001.
And then I remembered an important event. It happened at a funeral in St. Paul’s chapel for a twenty-four-year-old prostitute who had overdosed in her Gastown hotel room. The small chapel was half full, and very quiet. There were a couple of fresh flower arrangements in front of the cheap, closed coffin. Most of the congregation were other prostitutes dressed in their working clothes, and a few pimps. One woman apologized to Brother Tim for having nothing black to wear, except for lingerie and a leather miniskirt.
The funeral service seemed very long to me. But really it must have been rather short, since there were no expressions of grief from the congregation. Father Mel (the Pigeon Park pastor) described to us in his sermon a woman that was kind, patient, forbearing, Christian. In other words, fictional, since he had never actually met her, and none of her friends had much specific information to offer except that she might have been born in Montreal and she liked to get high. The real woman, whoever she had been, had suffered and now she was dead, and that was all that really mattered. That was all Father Mel should have said, I felt.
But everyone else seemed to enjoy the wordy sermon. When the service was over Brother Tim served some doughnuts and coffee, and many of the working girls told Father Mel that when their time came they hoped to receive such a lovely eulogy.
Then one of the mingling girls asked Brother Tim, “Why is the coffin closed? She OD’d, didn’t she? She wasn’t run over by a car or shot in the face or nothing, was she?”
“I never asked how she died,” Brother Tim explained. “That’s how the casket arrived. You can open it if you like.”
And when she asked to borrow someone’s knife to cut the plastic seal, three vicious looking weapons were immediately handed up to the altar.
“Why didn’t they put any makeup on her?” someone complained when the casket was opened.
“They didn’t even comb her hair,” someone else bitched.
I looked down at the small, frail body and saw what they meant. No effort had been made to prepare her for viewing. The woman in the coffin just looked cold and dead, with not even the slightest impression of what her power had been, or could have been.
But then something human happened. One by one, the roomful of working girls gathered around the coffin and emptied their small purses upon the corpse. They applied their own makeup to their dead friend’s face, and braided her hair with the ribbons from their own hair, and someone made an ingenious skirt of scarves. And slowly, as they worked and gossiped, the corpse was transformed before us—not because the cosmetics made her look much better, but because the loving attention of so many other women helped us to understand that the dead prostitute had really mattered, and her short life had been a significant thing.