are the only time I go back to the town I was born in. Why do I always
climb into the old blue suit and get on an airplane whenever one of
them kicks the bucket? Itís not as if I go to see them while they are
alive. Maybe some of us are just easier to deal with dead. There are
so many of them the suit is getting pretty well worn, but I figure it
would be a waste of money to buy a new one this late in the game. Sooner
or later it will be my turn, but I want to be cremated in it and have
my ashes dumped into the compost heap without ceremony.
Each funeral in our family is like all
the others, like a play in four acts weíve all seen many times. Act
I - Viewing the Body; Act II - The Funeral; Act III - The Grave-Side
Service; Act IV - The Funeral Dinner. Each act has a different set but
the same cast. We often play different roles at different funerals.
A leading mourner at one might be the corpse at another, or a pall bearer
at one might be a member of the chorus at another. Otherwise, nothing
changes much. We all have the script and we all follow it. I guess thatís
why I climb into the old blue suit and get on an airplane when the call
comes. Thatís what the script requires, although my role varies. Sometimes
Iím a son, sometimes a grandson, sometimes a brother, sometimes an uncle.
My role varies but my lines are always the same.
First, the viewing of the body. For Christís
sake why do half the fools in the county have to troop down to the funeral
home to stare at the morticianís handiwork and comment on it as if they
were experts? Well, maybe they are by now. This goes on for about three
days. I always refuse to go look at the body. When I tell them Iím not
going, somebody says, with a smile that tells me I am a freak, He
prefers to think of her as she was.
No, I say to myself, I prefer not to
think of her at all.
But she looks so beautiful and peaceful
Thatís a change. Itís the first time
sheís closed her mouth in twenty years.
I think she looks better than she ever
did, doesnít she? (General agreement here.) Of course she never
wore her hair that way, but the undertaker didnít know, and all-in-all
he did a great job.
Maybe he fixed her hair that way to cover
up the hole in her head where her husband shot her.
Such a tragic accident. When are people
going to learn to be more careful with their guns?
Seems to me like he was pretty careful.
Right through the temple, clean as a whistle.
I hate to stare at dead people in a box.
Usually they look like hypocrites. I guess itís a way for the family
to try to fix the dead person up so they can pretend he was what they
wanted him to be. Or her. A few years back they laid my uncle out with
his hands clasped over his chest on a Bible. A Bible! Iím not making
this up. Before that I had never seen the old fart, about the age I
am now, without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and
neither had anybody else. Iím surprised he didnít rear up out of the
coffin and throw the damned Bible at all of us.
After the first act, which drags badly,
the rest of the show moves on at a better pace, starting with the funeral
proper. My family, except for the Mormon splinter group that slipped
in through a marriage in my generation and a couple of born-again nieces,
isnít much for going to church, so we donít have any solid church connections.
Consequently, the funeral is in the mortuary, in the most god-damned-depressing
room Iíve ever seen. Itís all the color somebody imagined champagne
to be, but itís also the color of piss.
Each time, before the funeral, we go
through the same battle, and each time I lose because there are so many
more of them than there are of me. I want the coffin closed. They want
it open. And they insist that everybody has to get in line, like a conga
line, and go by and stare meaningfully at the Dear Departed with misty
eyes. At my fatherís funeral, after his body, wasted by cancer, had
already been on display down the hall for what seemed like a week and
the funeral was imminent, the altercation became a shouting match. ďClosed!Ē
I shouted, while my mother, brother, sister, and several uncles and
in-laws shouted, ďOpen!Ē
ďO.K.,Ē I said, ďletís compromise. Why
donít we leave it open just a crack and put flashlight on top. That way,
those who want to can peek in and make sure somebody is in there. Or better
still, let each person at the funeral decide. Leave the lid closed but
not screwed shut and put a sign beside it saying:
IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE DEARLY DEPARTED
RAISE THE LID AND LOOK
BUT BE CONSIDERATE OF OTHERS
LOWER THE LID WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED
AND BE CAREFUL NOT TO SMASH YOUR FINGERS
I know my father would have loved this solution, since he had the best
sense of humor in the family and hated the false solemnity of funerals,
but nobody accepted my compromise. In fact, they seemed to resent it.
The funeral part of the show is usually
pretty standard. The same two women become hysterical and try to see which
can outdo the other in loud weeping and snorting into a Kleenex. This
routine has been worked out over the years. Each of the women has a mother,
daughter, or friend beside her to keep her supplied with Kleenex, something
like a page-turner at a piano recital. The assistant figure comes supplied
with either one or two boxes of Kleenex, so everyone can tell in advance
how bad the weather is going to be and what we are in for.
And the preacher. Now thatís probably the
saddest part of all. Since none of us go to church (except the two born-again
sisters and everyone resents their ďbutting inĒ because they are ďso weirdĒ)
we always find some kind of pick-up preacher, somebody who didnít know
the Dear Departed and doesnít know anybody else in the family very well.
Itís not an important role anyway because nobody listens. But we have
to have one. Some of us wanted to make it just a walk-on part, but we
havenít figured out how to do that, given the nature of the ceremony.
So itís usually a matter of who charges the least among the preachers
available. Last time we paid the guy $50, about a dollar a platitude.
Weíve found out that if we pay them more, they talk too long, and we sure
as hell donít want that.
The one I remember best was very young,
still wearing Clearasil. He was about as green as they come and shaking
with stage fright. He preached a little sermon about the Ethiopian Eunuch
being converted to Christianity, but he didnít know what a eunuch was.
At the end he said, ďThe thing that happened to the Eunuch is what I want
to happen to me.Ē Maybe it had already. You couldnít tell.
After the last of the three required prayers,
everybody cues up for the parade past the coffin, kind of jockeying to
get in the line early because of what is going to happen nextĖthe cavalcade
to the graveyard known as the funeral procession. The earlier you get
in the parade that files past the coffin, the sooner you can get out to
your car and get it in line for the procession to the cemetery, but if
the two sob-sisters, or even one of them, get in line ahead of you and
break down in front of the coffin, there can be a long delay.
The procession is probably the most significant
part of the whole show, since the importance of the Dear Departed is determined
by the number of vehicles in the procession, and everybody is counting.
Each vehicle is given equal weight whether it is a limousine or the cab
of a semi, although I remember a funeral in the late Ď60's when one faction
of the family refused to count a wildly painted Hippie van in a close
contest between two sisters-in-law who had died less than a year apart.
They said they refused to count it because it had an obscene slogan painted
on it, something about nobody getting to ride free.
The position of oneís vehicle in the procession
is the essential thing because the closer oneís vehicle is to the head
of the procession, the more important one was in the life of the Dear
Departed, of D.D. as most of the younger members of the family say. While
everyone is getting in position for the procession, thereís always some
fancy maneuvering going on in the parking lot, a certain amount of squealing
of brakes and subdued road rage. It is not considered good form to scream
ďyou fucking idiotĒ at your cousin in the red Corvette who is cutting
you off in line, but flipping him the bird is acceptable.
In each of the cars during the procession,
the conversation is much the same. Thereís another one turning the
corner, is that 16 or 17? Iíll have to start over. Donít you try to count.
You just drive. I think weíre up to at least 19 by now. Thatís two more
than we had for Uncle Gordon, but of course Grandma set the record. There
were 72 cars in that line. It stretched all the way from the cemetery
to Main Street. Nobody will ever do better than that.
The funeral procession, moving slowly along
toward its inevitable destination, is a kind of entre acte between
the two heaviest parts of the drama. It permits people to withdraw to
the privacy of their cars for a few minutes, get the perspective of more
distance and make some acerbic comments on the whole show. It also serves
to ready the participants for the much-dreaded third act, The grave-side
service, that often requires all the endurance and control we can manage.
Itís the third act that gets to me every time.
After the funeral procession has pulled
into the cemetery, everybody parks as close as they can get to the grave
site. There are no curbs in the cemetery, and sometimes we get off the
road so far we are almost on some old grave, but everybody looks the other
way except Aunt Milly who announces in her high, nasal voice that ďFred
just drove over some poor foolís grave, and I hope whoever it was doesnít
come back to haunt us.Ē
We all get out and walk to where the funeral-home
people, who run this part of the show with an especially tight rein and
for good reason, have set up a little canopy and some folding chairs.
The dirt removed from the hole has been all covered over with fake grass,
and there is a kind of roller affair over the hole for the pallbearers
to set the coffin on as soon as the head mourners are seated and the pallbearers
can get themselves organized.
Pallbearers vary from funeral to funeral.
Often I have to be one, and I hate it. But I guess itís better for some
of us older ones to do it. At my motherís funeral they thought it would
be cute to have all great-grandsons. The kids were between 16 and 20.
Iíll never forget that grave-side service. One of them was drunk and two
of them were stoned. I thought they were going to fall into the grave
before it was over. I hadnít expected my dignified motherís funeral to
turn into slapstick comedy.
I guess what I hate most about the grave
side thing is that all my relatives seem to die in the winter, and I come
from the hottest state in the union and have no cold-weather clothes,
no overcoat or long Johns or anything like that, just this old blue suit
thatís getting thin in spots. So there I am with five other guys carrying
a heavy coffin while the icy wind is blowing up my pantís legs or itís
snowing like crazy. Then the family peculiarity happens, and Iíve never
known it to fail.
The hearse is parked way out on the road.
We get the coffin out of the hearse and are staggering with it toward
the little roller thing that seems to get farther away the harder we struggle.
Then, always just at that point, some woman in the family faints. Once,
two of them fainted. Itís never the same woman twice, but it always happens.
Everybody rushes over to revive her. Everybody except me and the five
other pallbearers. Weíve got our hands full and our load isnít getting
any lighter. When the woman falls, she knocks over most of the flowers,
so everything is a mess and has to be put back together after she is revived
and led away to a car where she will sit the rest of it out. Sometimes
I think itís just a cheap trick to get in out of the cold. Standing there
all this time holding that icy metal handle on the coffin and wondering
if your older brother on the front-left-hand corner is going to give out
and whole thing is going to tip in that direction is not a picnic, I can
tell you. Those big metal coffins weigh about as much as a car.
After every thing gets put back together
and we finally get the coffin in place, the show is pretty short. Itís
colder than a well-diggerís ass. Two short prayers are required and a
few words from the preacher, who is bundled up in an overcoat Iíd gladly
steal at that moment. Then everybody kind of circles the coffin, not knowing
exactly what to do, but wanting to cut and run, and we all hug one another—sometimes
I donít know who Iím hugging—and hightail it for the cars. The men
are particularly eager to get out of there and get a drink. Weíre all
So the last act, the funeral dinner, starts
right away, with the host and hostess racing home to get there ahead of
the rest of us and make sure all the food arrived. A group of women from
the born-again church have brought food, and so have some neighbors and
friends of various family members. Nobody seemed to know what anybody
else was bringing, so most of them brought Jell-o salads. Thereís orange
Jell-o with shredded carrots and little baby marshmallows. Thereís lime
Jell-o with green grapes and little marshmallows and thereís some kind
of red Jell-o, maybe strawberry, with what looks like canned pears and
marshmallows, and several other kinds. Some are in rings, quivering slightly,
and others are just flat. The green grapes seem to be trapped in Jell-o,
staring up at everybody for help. I try to stay as far from the buffet
table as possible. When I was a kid in grade school, a boy who had just
been eating strawberry Jell-o threw up all over me in the lunch room.
I never got over it.
People are eating Jell-o from paper plates
that keep bending down so the Jell-o slides off onto the carpet or into
their laps. Several children are running through the house, screaming.
I donít know whose they are. There is a TV with a huge screen in the living
room and a football game is on. Several of the men are in front of it,
sometimes jumping up, pounding one another on the arms or shoulders, shouting
and running around the room in response to a scoring play. The rest of
the men have gravitated to the kitchen, where they stand around drinking
whiskey out of coffee mugs.
Funeral dinners in our family are always
nonalcoholic affairs. Anything else would not be considered fitting and
would not show the proper respect for the Dearly Departed. But since most
of the men in the family are in one stage or another of alcoholism, depending
on how old they are, accommodations have to be made. These are always
made in the kitchen, usually in the kitchen cabinet above the refrigerator,
or under the sink where the cleaning supplies are kept. There we find
the whiskey bottle, usually rye or Bourbon (real men donít drink Scotch),
and the host directs his male relatives to it surreptitiously and hands
each of us a coffee mug.
After the cold ordeal of the previous act,
I welcome straight whiskey as an alternative to Jell-o salad. I could
thin it with water but my male relatives would think less of me. They
already know Iím strange because I went to college. We stand around dropping
our cigarette ashes into the kitchen sink and telling off-color stories,
careful not to laugh loud enough to attract the attention of the women,
most of whom have camped near the buffet table, trapped between the football
game they care nothing about in the living room and the drinking they
arenít supposed to know anything about in the kitchen.
After awhile somebody decides that we need
something to eat besides Jell-o, and goes out for fried chicken. By then
itís too late for some of the men, and the required drunken fight breaks
out in the back yard. Often itís brothers-in-law or the husbands of nieces
on different sides of the family, but sometimes itís cousins. Most of
the uncles who are left are too old for that sort of thing, although I
remember some of their earlier battles and it seems to me they put on
a better show than the young bucks in recent years. The fight is often
about money. Somebody loaned somebody money a long time ago, or somebody
did some work for somebody and didnít get paid.
Sometimes it gets really nasty.
I knew your wife before you married
her, Buddy, and she came on to me like Gangbusters.
They throw no more than one or two good
punches, and all the other men step in and separate them. Their tearful
wives, with much sympathy and support from the other women, gather up
their children and take their bleeding husbands home.
Then the party mellows out. All the noncombatants
feel good about one another. Somebody brings out an album of old photographs
of the Dearly Departed and the whole family.
One of the younger women screams, ďOh my
God, donít show that picture to anybody. Itís terrible. My hair up in
curlers and that old bathrobe. Iím going to tear it up.Ē
She grabs for the photograph but is restrained
while everybody looks at it and laughs. The children have quieted down
from exhaustion, the ball game is over, the house is wrecked but fairly
peaceful. Somebody says, ďDo you remember the time weÖĒ and the stories
begin. One after another we tell our best, our funniest, our saddest memories,
and suddenly, without warning, somebody starts to cry. Then gradually
we all start to cry. The men slip off quietly, one by one, back into the
kitchen or out on the porch so others wonít see them. Itís the end of
the last act. None of us wants to be caught crying when the lights go
up in the theater and we all return to our sad, enduring lives.