Fun at Funerals
Most of the funerals that I have attended have been sad even when death seemed like a relief for the deceased and his or her family. However, as I wrote in my last post “I Miss Sherry,” sometimes funerals are far from sad. They may even have funny elements that overcome tears. I have attended another funeral that included humorous moments and my mom recently attended one that crossed the line into territory that was ironic, if not funny.
About ten years ago I attended the funeral of the husband of a woman who had taken care of an ailing relative until that relative’s death. I was grateful for her kindness to my relative and remained in contact with her for many years after my relative’s death.
We had nothing in common except for the shared experience of caring for a lovable person until her death. I do not want to be disrespectful of the woman who gave so much loving care to my family member so I will call her Jane for purposes of telling this odd funereal story.
Jane grew up in a home fraught with anger and tension. When her family was ambivalent toward her, it felt like a relief. She spent some time in foster homes where she was unpaid help around the house. I have the impression that she never felt at peace in any of the places she lived.
This made Jane determined to own a home of her own. She lacked the education to do many jobs that might have brought her goal within easy reach. Caregiving seemed a good fit to her sunny and patient temperament. I hired her to care for my relative five days a week for several hours a day. She handled the evening meal and put my relative to bed at night. Jane made sure my relative was clean and comfortable.
Jane did so much more than that. She brought so much humor to every activity that I sometimes stopped in while she was there to share in the laughter. In her day, my relative was irreverent and often laughing, but the aging process was taking its toll. She was more often unintentionally funny than intentionally so. At times she was quite depressed and claimed she was ready to die. Jane did her best to cheer up her new charge. I still laugh when I recall walking into the room at an inopportune moment and hearing Jane say with no expression in her usually animated voice, “And now it’s time to wash the beaver.” My relative’s ankle was held high in the air–the way a cat might extend its leg while grooming its hindquarters and Jane was about to apply soap and water. My relative’s embarrassed grimace melted into giggles at the sight of my open mouth.
Jane was good company. She talked about herself without airs or humility, as if everyone’s life was as hard as hers. After my relative died, she called me up and said she would not be at the funeral, not because she was moving on easily but because she lived to serve the living and it was someone else’s job to shepherd the dead to their resting places.
She called to invite me to her home, and I felt I could not say no after all of the kindness she had shown someone I loved dearly.
Jane had married a man at least twenty-five years older than she was. In his prime, he was a handsome man with a modest income and boundless patience for a woman with little education and few skills. Their home was partly self-built, partly constructed. The entire front yard was a habitat for artificial creatures made of painted Styrofoam, plastic, wood, and plaster. There were deer and reindeer, castles and birdhouses, welcome signs and whirligigs. The dining room walls were covered with shelves of knickknacks. By knickknacks, I mean to include everything from gifts you collect if you buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal to china figurines. There were plaques with funny sayings. There were LP records, cassette tapes, CDs, and VHS videotapes. Jane and her husband Ed had dogs. I am an attorney and I dress in black nearly all of the time. It only took a moment for me to attract enough fur to the cuffs of my pants to form my own pet. As I took an offered seat I knew that it would take a dry cleaner to rid me of the fur that transferred to the seat of my pants.
The living room was in the part of the house that Jane and Ed had built themselves. If you dropped a pen, it might roll across the floor because one end of the house dipped while the other seemed to have buckled. There was an upright piano that Jane played while the dogs howled in a cacophonous chorus that called for everyone else to clap because a sing-along was not possible in the din.
It was not Christmas time, but the room was filled with expensive moving dolls in winter garb. While we snacked on cheese and crackers, Jane turned on the dolls. Some of them, like the little drummer, played Christmas tunes. Some of them kissed Santa.
Jane smiled at me when I complimented her on the staging. “After the childhood I had, every day is Christmas and I never want to forget that,” she said.
Ed turned out to be an ailing man himself. All day long he waited for Jane to come home and take care of him. He was a big man and it was plain that Jane put her back into getting him up and getting him down and waiting on him with love and consideration.
She insisted that I have a tour of the rest of the house. My heart just about broke when she showed me the tiny tub in which she bathed her husband. There were three beds in their tiny bedroom. There was a double bed for Ed, a cot for Jane, and a twin bed for the dogs.
Everything was broken and she was proud of the fact that these were things she found scavenging others’ curbs on the night before the garbage men would come. She even had a word processor. It was not really a computer. Maybe it was an advanced electric typewriter. Ed was teaching her to write. She was writing her story because she had no children to be retelling it for her and felt the need to leave some record of her life.
She was not entirely selfless. Shortly after I arrived we were joined by a neighbor who let me know that Ed helped keep a roof over Jane’s head and helped her with decision-making. Bob took care of her physical needs.
I will confess that I was a little surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Jane’s earthy humor came from some place. I came to understand that Bob kept her young even if he was only a little younger than Ed.
Ed seemed oblivious to their neighbor’s intimate relationship with Jane. I say that because, after a dinner that good manners compelled me to compliment, Ed tried to do a little heavy-handed matchmaking. I beat a hasty retreat when he suggested that the four of us watch Debbie Does Dallas.
I sent Jane Christmas gifts for several years. I once took her to lunch at a dive in the neighborhood. I went to the mass at which she and Ed renewed their wedding vows and met the patchwork community of blood and foster relatives she called family. Bob was there in what I am prepared to swear was the same combination of baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans, and windbreaker as he wore when I first met him. Everyone else present was someone Jane had cared for or a family member of such a person. There were people in wheelchairs and children with braces on their legs. I fit right in because I, too, had experienced this simple woman’s kindness and cared about her.
She was the wealthiest person most of them knew, and you didn’t have to work at it to overhear several try to borrow money from her. Ed handled this with a gallantry I would not have expected. He would struggle to his feet and get an arm around Jane’s shoulders and say very gravely, “I’m sure Jane would love to help you out. My wife has a tender heart for everyone who has helped make so much happiness in her life. Blame me for her not lending you money today. I don’t have long now that the lung cancer has got me. Jane’s going to need the money to bury me.”
He died shortly after they renewed their vows. I took my mom along to the funeral for company and because she had never met Ed, but had certainly learned a lot about Jane.
We had a long drive to the funeral home. The priest who officiated at their renewal of vows came to say a few words over the casket. Ed wore a handsome suit that Jane had bought in a thrift shop in anticipation of the event. She led us to the casket and pet his hand with hers like he could tell she was still at his side. “I took good care of him and he did the same for me,” she said before turning to greet other guests. I cried for her and for him and a little bit for myself, because I have had many gifts in my life but have never been loved like she was. I have never been so conscious of the fact that what matters most in life doesn’t have a price tag.
When it was time to leave for the cemetery, the pallbearers were assembled. Ed was there in his usual windbreaker and baseball cap. He was the only person who dressed for the occasion. The rest of the pallbearers were boys in t-shirts, jeans, and gym shoes. Most needed a bath and a comb.
They escorted Ed’s body in its simple wooden casket out to the hearse. Mom and I walked out to my car where we expected the funeral director to line up cars so we could proceed to the cemetery. It was the same cemetery where my family has plots, but we were quite a distance from it.
Most of the rest of the group, including Jane, were still inside the funeral home when Mom said, “Isn’t that the hearse leaving?”
It was. The hearse took off at about 40 miles per hour without waiting for the mourners to assemble. It left a trail of dust and a couple of skid marks on the pavement as the driver tried to control a crazy turn. We took off after it and did a pretty good job of following until the driver powered through a red light and swung up onto the highway. My brakes squealed as I struggled to stop before a truck could take us out. Some of the pallbearers had managed to follow us. They had no idea where the cemetery was. I led the small caravan of pick-up trucks and RVs to the cemetery. It was about a forty minute drive that required us to make various twists and turns. Several times we had to pull over and wait for someone to catch up.
In the privacy of my car there was plenty of time for Mom and me to discuss the fact that we had never been to a funeral like this one. Usually there are a couple of cars driven by representatives from the funeral home. Everyone has a sticker or two on their cars to warn other drivers that this is a funeral cortege. People turn on their headlights for the same reason. Someone blocks busy intersections to ensure the entire party gets through if a light changes. Ed was about to be buried with much less pomp and ceremony.
When we got to the cemetery there was no sign of the hearse or any other hearse. I drove to the sexton’s office and Mom got out to ask for directions. She was just coming out when one of the pallbearers yelled, “There he is. Don’t let that varmint get away a second time.”
Sure enough, the hearse hurtled past us toward the old section of the cemetery, crossed a busy street without regard to oncoming traffic, and came to a shuddering stop by an open grave.
It was a hot day, but a little breezy. The pallbearers decided to cart Ed’s casket over to the grave so all would be in readiness when the widow showed up. Bob opened his trunk and revealed a cooler of beer. He offered us a bottle. My mom whispered to me, “What time is it? Ten in the morning?”
It was nearly eleven. I also declined his offer.
My mom egged me on to “give the hearse driver a piece of your mind.” I declined because I doubted he would listen. He reclined on the ground beneath a tree and read a newspaper.
The other pallbearers hauled folding chairs from their vehicles and set them up. Folks had picnic baskets and blankets. They started chomping on fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon. We had quite a wait. Mom and I sat in the car and talked about the scene before us. Someone turned on a car’s radio and there was a festive atmosphere.
In the years since Ed’s death I have read a bit about how our attitudes toward death differ in different parts of American society. I would have had trouble eating in the presence of a dead body roasting in the hot sun, but no one but my mom shared my compunction. Death was a normal part of life and Ed’s closest friends were enjoying a little private time in his company before burying him.
Eventually we got in the right mood because we expressed no surprise when Jane and the priest and the rest of the mourners arrived and Jane scolded the men for beginning without them. They jockeyed for the remains of the picnic while the cemetery staff looked on in amusement. It took some time for us to get to the business of burying Ed. By then it was long past the time when people cried.
Bob smooched Jane’s cheek and wrapped an arm around her waist in casual contemplation of their future. The pallbearers tossed a ball to each other in the middle of the cemetery road. The priest headed home after hugging Jane and wishing her well. Jane thanked everyone for coming then asked a cousin to turn up the music because she had always liked the song that was playing.
I had planned to drop my mom off and proceed to the office, but that seemed out of keeping with the celebration of Ed’s life that his widow, family, and friends had planned. We decided to go out for lunch.
My mom’s other “fun” funeral was the funeral of one of my high school classmates. Rick (names changed in this story, too) died of a heart attack at the age of 50. His parents are my mom’s very good friends. Rick was a difficult man. When I met him in high school, he was a “stoner” who liked to dress in a leather jacket and hat and jeans and boots. He made fun of me for being a “brain.” He studied anthropology and worked “digs” in various parts of North and South America. He may have smoked some stuff that was good for what ailed him but a little mood altering. He taught classes. He bought a piece of rural land on a tree-covered lot and built an underground bunker where he reportedly lived with chickens. I am pretty sure some of this is lore rather than truth because, if it were entirely true, it would all be too strange.
He got a girlfriend pregnant and she had the baby (named Todd), so Rick was a father. But he never paid child support or sought to spend time with his son. The boy’s mother, Haley, was a free spirit in her own right. She tried hard to make things work, then took her boy and went in search of Rick’s “alter-ed ego.” She married an Air Force airman. His name is Joe. He is, by all accounts, a solid and dependable man. They had a baby named Tom.
This did not give Haley the settled and normal life you might imagine. She got involved in some church that decided to do its best to convert Russians to the Christian faith by trading conversion for U.S. citizenship. While her husband was deployed overseas near Iraq or Afghanistan, she arranged to bring three children to the U.S. All were young adults, close to the age of independence. They hoped to achieve U.S. citizenship and economic “independence” in relatively short order in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their savior. Haley also hoped they would adapt and move on swiftly.
One proved to have attachment problems. These were demonstrated through various incidents in which the child “acted out”–whatever that means. Haley sent that child to someone in Florida who claimed to be able to work miracles with children with attachment disorders. We never heard about her again. A second child learned English, finished high school, and moved out. Again, I cannot recall ever hearing of him again. The third was a “keeper.” He finished high school and managed to get scholarships and jobs to finance college. He seemed to embrace his new family as well as faith and friends in the U.S.
The adoptive/adopted kids were not the only ones growing up during this timeframe. Todd and his half-brother Tom grew up as well. Rick’s parents worked hard to stay in Todd’s life. They made trips to bases where Haley and Joe were based. They paid for Haley, Joe, Todd, and the rest of the family to visit them. They paid for other things, too. All this time Rick was a missing-in-action dad working out of his bunker in the woods.
On those few occasions when Rick came to town to visit his parents there were problems. He appropriated family heirlooms. He picked fights. When his parents changed the locks on their home, Rick strode around the house yelling for them to let him in like a scene from the story of the Three Little Pigs. He eventually showed up during a visit by Haley, Joe, and Todd. He met his son.
No one thought the meeting had made much of an impression on Rick or Todd, but children are unpredictable and so is blood. The boy may have romanticized his “real” father. An intelligent, socially maladapted eccentric sounds like a perfect antidote for a spit-and-shine airman of a stepdad looking for folded corners on a sheet and blankets tucked in so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off the bed during weekly inspections.
Father and son may not have ever met again. I cannot recall hearing of any other meetings. When Todd was about eighteen years old, Rick’s parents got a call from a county sheriff. Their son had not shown up in town for awhile. Someone thought that was odd. An officer drove out to the bunker to see if Rick was around. The officer discovered that Rick had died and been gone for some time.
It was a time for regrets and lots of tears. No matter how difficult the relationship was for them, Rick’s parents grieved over death. Rick’s parents had him cremated and arranged to have his remains buried in a local cemetery where they will one day be laid to rest. The land and bunker where Rick lived had liens against it for unpaid taxes. Rick had not left much. Even the missing heirlooms were gone. I don’t recall hearing he had any chickens left at the time of his death.
Rick’s parents paid for Todd to attend his father’s memorial service. Joe planned a trip that would bring him into town a couple of days later. He would pay his respects and collect Todd. Haley chose not to attend.
Everyone gathered at the cemetery at the appointed time, including my mom. I was not there, so may have the facts a little out of focus. A friendly minister was on hand to lead a small group of about ten people in prayer for Rick. A female relative brought an iPod and some speakers and played some appropriate music. Two cemetery employees stood by to cover the urn with dirt at the conclusion of the brief ceremony.
Rick’s parents said a few words about the son they would miss–had long missed. When the minister concluded the brief ceremony and Rick’s mom was weeping softly for her troubled son, Todd made his move. Snatching the urn from the ground, Todd tucked it beneath his arm like a football and took off with it.
The assembled senior citizens lacked the reflexes necessary to stop it. Todd’s grandparents yelled after him to stop. He yelled over his shoulder that his dad would never want to be buried in anyplace as dumb as a cemetery. Todd didn’t have a car. Everyone scurried to their cars and pursued him. All to no avail.
They have not heard from Todd since the memorial service. They called Haley, but she declined to comment on the matter. Joe, who was scheduled to visit a couple of days later, has not been in touch.
Rick’s parents have talked about what happened. There has been speculation that Todd rented a car and drove to Wisconsin to spread his dad’s ashes in the woods where he lived and died. However, Todd never saw the lot or the bunker and did not grow up in the Midwest. He knows Air Force bases here and overseas. How could he have made it to his father’s last home without help?
Did Haley and Joe assist in the “theft”? We do not know. They are adamantly silent.
Perhaps Todd still has his father’s cremains. If so, his grandparents would be happy if he returned even a portion of them so that they could bury Rick beneath the headstone they had ordered that now marks his death but not his final resting place.
There was talk of filing a complaint with authorities, but that would have been done to find the cremains. No one wanted to create a legal record of Todd’s actions that might mar his future. Who owns the cremains of a person survived by parents and a newly adult child that inherited nothing else from his father? Do the parents have the priority claim because they claimed their son’s body and paid for the cremation? Does the son, as heir, deserve to make the decision?
Rick’s parents feel like they have been deprived of “closure.” Closure is everything in modern times. It is the nearest thing to commercial failure for ending a once successful movie franchise. It is burial that usually gives closure when a child has been lost and the family has waited in vain for his return. We can mourn lost loved ones any place, but a grave offers expressions of grief a locus that the four winds or a box beneath another “lost” relative’s bed cannot.
The memorial service has meant the loss of another family member. Rick’s parents have invested many years in sustaining a relationship with a grandson who has finally forced them to admit that their son is lost to them and will likely never be found. Now he appears to be gone, too.
Rick’s mom has gone for some counseling, but she has given up on understanding what happened.
The two funerals are connected in my mind. We choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. Jane had very few comforts in childhood but manages to revere people who were charged with caring for her and let her down. Todd was surrounded by love but chose the one person who kept him at arm’s length when he felt his loyalty torn in two directions. Sometimes death means a quick transition to a new life for a loved one. Sometimes death fails to put a period to the sentence of a difficult life. Both funerals serve as reminders to me that whatever comes my way, I’ll handle it better if I keep my sense of humor.