My Three Funerals
David Lee Beowülf
I’ve always been able to face death, my own included, with a straight face. I do not cry. (OK, I managed a few tears when my dog died.) I am a Viking, right? We are all born condemned to death, and there are only two people in the history of the world who did not die, and from what I’ve read, a few others, in the near future, maybe, will bypass death, but otherwise this we all have in common: we’re going to die. You won’t know when, but it’ll happen, face it.
I face that.
One of my rules is to never miss weddings or funerals. So far, of those to which I’ve been invited during my lifetime, I missed one and a half weddings and one funeral. I missed my brother-in-law’s mother’s funeral in early ’96, and frankly, I feel pretty damn bad about that.
One day in July of 1988, I got a phone call from my mother. It was very quick, “listen,” I remember her saying, “something happened to Aunt Shirley and it doesn’t look good.”
It didn’t look good one bit. She was dead within the week. My dad called me immediately, and I remember his words: “the situation up here is finished, come on up.” Aunt Shirley was someone I grew up knowing, a family member whose blood I indeed shared, someone I was pretty close to.
Maryland was experiencing some sort of unheard-of heat wave at the time. So naturally, Aunt Shirley took her grandson out to the backyard pool to cool off. The heat was too much for her — and she might have had a drink — and wham! Stroke! Which isn’t particularly lethal. That is, unless you’re in a swimming pool and the only person around is your 8-year old grandson, who, appreciate this, wasn’t yet a lifeguard. Cause of death: stroke/drowning.
Guess what? That really sucked. Watching my uncle — a rugged man who I thought chewed railroad ties — crying, was harsh. Being a pallbearer was a privilege I could have done without.
But, ahhh, there’s more to it than meets the eye so far.
See, funerals do one of two things: in varying degrees, they either bring a family closer together or they rip them apart.
This one brought the family closer together, at least on the Germans-only side. The funeral itself was decent; my Aunt Shirley was, I’m pretty sure, a Christian, and the preacher made excellent points about not blaming God for the tragedy, etc. Everything, like the wake or whatever the Maryland Germans call it, was sad, but, well, decent. People came from all over, as my Aunt Shirley touched an awful lot of lives in a positive way. That’s respect. That’s why it’s a rule to not miss funerals.
This ripped the family apart. See, my grandmother, Aunt Shirley’s aunt, hates the man Shirley married. And I don’t just mean a congenial dislike. I mean unrelentless, cold venom, 24-Karat hatred. Want to know why? I’d like to know, too. The man was decent to my grandmother all his life despite all the shit she gave him for doing things like putting up with her shit. I mean, even though the man allowed my grandmother and grandfather into his house for months and months and didn’t complain about his wife waiting on them hand-and-foot, she cultivated a hatred of him that ran deep into the veins of blue-collar Baltimore. I couldn’t relate one bit. And neither could my mom, who thought Aunt Shirley and Uncle Dick were some of the most decent people to walk the earth.
My grandmother and grandfather did not attend the funeral.
Why didn’t they go? Well, Grandma says she was sick (she wasn’t) and couldn’t make it.My uncle’s answer: get in a ambulance and get over here.
Rightly so, that side of the family, the only side I really know well, hasn’t spoken to her since. Will she ever apologize? Hell no, what did she do wrong? She gets hers, though.
OK, the second recent funeral wasn’t colorful, just sad. A coworker of mine, well, coworker because I worked with him for two years, but he was something like fifteen years my senior, died of colon cancer. He knew he was dying, as did everyone else. He tried to fight it, but man, that’s a nasty one. What do I remember most about Mike? Well, he told me stories about seeing Black Sabbath back in ’73, and such. He was also a great engineer. Anyway, his Roman Catholic funeral was attended by lots of his friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family. It was just all-around sad. But decent — like a funeral should be.
Mike’s doesn’t count in this article, because its highlights are people saying nice things about him that were true. After that, a bunch of us went out to eat, and later on, we named a conference room after him.
Back to the juicy stuff.
My grandmother kind of got hers.
That’s a terrible thing for a grandson to say, but it needs to be said as her life is a lesson in how not to live. Hey, I don’t get along with one of my sisters, but I don’t tell people lies about her and such; we keep our distance from each other, yet are civil in each other’s company. My grandmother, well, that’s a different story.
My grandfather died, also at age 87, on Valentine’s Day 1997.(Note: pay attention to how old your immediate relatives are when they die, that’s how long you may live, assuming you don’t do stupid things like OD on heroin or pull a shark’s tail.)And it was ugly.
My grandfather, though a bit of a war hero, was the victim of too much henpecking, in my un-humble opinion. As a result of that and her horrible cooking (?), my grandfather spent the remaining thirty-five years of his life being taken apart by doctors, living in and out of hospitals, living off the good nature of others, and collecting Social Security. Not a good way to live.
So he gets diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his bladder one time. Yikes! Well, out comes that organ. And a cancer like that shouldn’t let you live, right? Well, he kept going for another twelve years, dude.
The man was a fighter, that’s for sure; he didn’t quit. And I never heard the man say a word in bitterness, even though he needed a bi-weekly enema for nigh on twenty years. But one day, I was walking home and I noticed that the car was gone. Whoa! I knew right away what happened. There’s a note on the door from my mother saying that “…your grandfather died last night…come down to Baltimore immediately…”
Now let me say one thing, my mother wrote the right kind of note. What did my grandfather do? He died. He did not “pass on” or “pass away” or “pass” or “leave this mortal coil,” he died.
And he didn’t die right, either.
He died in an emergency room in extreme pain while my grandmother watched, demanding that they “…do all they can…” Prior to that he’d been living at home in the living room in a hospital bed surrounded by incompetent, State-funded nurses. They tried a State nursing home for a week after his last attack, but that went over like a lead balloon. So apparently, he was screaming in agony in the ER, and then, had I been there, I bet I’d have witnessed him give up for the first — and last — time in his life, neverminding that he’d given up an awful lot to marry some hot Irish-German broad.
Now there’s a lesson in everything, especially when someone dies. I took notes at the funeral.
First of all, poor old Grandpop didn’t prepare himself too well for the funeral. In the case of my Aunt Shirley, my cousin Rick took the reins and arranged for everything. In the case of my grandfather, well, he was a Veteran, so a burial plot was already reserved in the enlisted men’s cemetery near Towson, Maryland.
Hey! A free burial plot! Bonus!
The “funeral,” however, that I should sell to Robert Altman.
My grandfather was Jewish. And in the Jewish religion (check the Talmud for this), when you kick, the “festivities” all take place rapidly (as in one day). The funeral service can have plenty of ritual if you so desire, but there’s no open-casket option. Afterwards, the family has an open house (Sitting Shiva) for a few days, where everyone wears black and eats pastries; it’s a nice bit of semi-formal mourning. Misery loves company, and it’s genuinely therapeutic if the grief is shared collectively.
Not in the case of my grandfather.
First of all, he was unofficially booted from the Jewish side of family for marrying outside the religion, or simply the wrong branch of the Baltimore white trash tree. Secondly, he, with the encouragement of my grandmother, hated all his family members. Third, well, here goes…
He died on a Saturday. OK, so what, have the service on Sunday and bury him, priests, rabbis and others are ready for such things, they can do a funeral on-the-fly, right?
Not in this case. You want a free burial plot? OK, get in line, we ain’t got room until Wednesday.
Sunday night it’s an open-casket viewing at the funeral home starring my grandmother the invalid dry-heaving and crying all over the place. Four hours worth. And who the hell are these people showing up? OK, they’re the neighbors, who, when they weren’t around, you’d think, according to Grandma, were slime. They’re acting decently, reverently, and they’re respectful. That’s four people. Who are the other five or six besides the immediate immediate family? No idea. Oh, those two are my grandmother’s “friends, the gypsy cab driver and his woman.
Monday? What’s Monday like? Well, we can’t bury him for another day at least so…
I know! Let’s have another viewing and heaving and convulsing! Yes!
This is frickin’ great! It’s a three-ring circus, is what it is. But Monday was extra special.
Monday, the Masons came.
Coincidentally, both my parents’ fathers were Masons, though I gather they didn’t get along, since my grandmother referred to my mother’s father as “…that horrible man.”
OK, so here’s the Baltimore Masons, and they’re honoring my grandfather with about half an hour of pomp, never mind that grandpop hadn’t attended a meeting since 1957 or so, he was still one of them. Interesting ceremony. I am positive none of these men ever knew my grandfather, but they were respectful and made clear their belief that the “…soul is immortal.” Like I said, interesting, but since I happen to be me, I saw something dark, mysterious, and, and… Man, this is getting ridiculous. I don’t recall my grandfather stating any beliefs of being immortal.
Tuesday, IT JUST DOES NOT END!!!
Tuesday started off pretty much the same, with the dry-heaving, crying, staggering, etc. Tonight, some people who I actually know have shown up, damned decent of them, too, considering… Tonight, it’s time for a Roman Catholic priest who, apparently, was friends with my grandparents. Ah! Turns out he was the local hospital’s resident priest, no wonder… Confuses the heck out of everyone, because my grandfather was not a Roman Catholic. So he makes a bit of a speech, pronounces my grandfather’s last name wrong, and takes off. Then it’s my father’s turn to talk.
My dad’s an excellent speaker, but he lacks something. I don’t know what, but it’s hard to tell when he’s sincere. I, personally, could talk to my grandfather honestly, and I think my dad could, too.When it came to talking to his mother, it was, “yes” or “uh-hunh” or “you’re right” and so on.His parents weren’t the most honorable or decent people, but they were his mom and dad, and they took care of him. So my dad gets into his speech, and half way through, he breaks down and cries, just a little.My father is not an emotional person. Then again, the last time I saw him cry was when he watched a video tape of the Baltimore Orioles’ last day at Memorial Stadium. I guess seeing boyhood hero Gus Triandos one more time in Oriole uniform was too much.
My father’s normally deep voice takes on a short of high-pitched yell/squeal when he cries. It’s like he’s mad at something or yelling at someone. Very strange. He spoke of his father’s stories of how he met my grandmother — on a bet! Charming.(Even more bizarre was the fact that the dude who lost the bet showed up at the funeral!)Afterwards, my grandmother was not herself, and congratulated my dad for “…being very good…” Odd.
So Wednesday morning rolls around, and I’m getting tired of this crap. Today is burial day! So we get to the veteran’s cemetery on a clear but cold morning. The coffin is finally closed, and I don’t recall much being said except by the director of the cemetery, who presented my grandmother with a triangular-folded American flag. She, of course, was in hysterics. Within the hour, he was buried, and that was it.
Got a call a few weeks later from one of my cousins. She had known, of course, but they weren’t going to the funeral — if I could understand that. I said that I could and that, well, you missed a really horrible experience. My grandmother wouldn’t have wanted them there anyway, nice woman that she is. It’s better that her “friends” (the gypsies) who later on tried to move into her house and “help” her were in attendance instead of the blood relatives she despises.
A real lesson in reaping what you sow was exhibited for all to see.
But let’s wrap this up on a positive note.
Providentially, while I was dreaming up this essay, one of my best friends’ mother-in-law died just a few weeks ago. This woman had fought ovarian cancer for ten years, and I never once saw her complain about her problems. I’d known her since my pal John’s wedding back in ’91, and since then had gotten to know her as we’d be at the same parties, etc. The lady was always decent to me.
Anyway, out of the blue, she dies. The funeral is when? Well, she was Jewish and therefore…
The very next day.
And everyone showed up. Everyone was sad. Everyone was nice to each other, too. Helen touched a lot of people’s hearts in various ways, and they all came to pay their respects.
Including her ex-husband who ran out on her years ago for another woman. Turns out he footed the bill for everything. The Rabbi, who admitted never knowing Helen, after a brief meeting with the family gave an astounding honest eulogy. I was blown away! He pronounced her name correctly, he had memorized the names of all her family members, her friends, her grandchild; This was amazing, plus he quoted from a few Psalms of David. Afterwards, everyone was sad, but not spiteful or hating of God or anything(unlike my grandmother). I tell you, when you live life to the fullest and treat people decently, it comes back in the end. And even more strange, at the “wake” (Sitting Shiva), held in her old apartment, we all remarked at how we really could hear her voice bouncing off the walls, interacting with everyone there. Now that’s immortality.