Public Whispers, Relations, and Funerals

*This article is not an attempt to disrespect, dishonor, or otherwise offend the loved ones of deceased, or the deceased. This is strictly a story of humor. I believe that as believers there is life with and through Jesus Christ and that allows me the strength to look objectively at an event that I do not perceive to be an end, but rather a beginning.*

When a local Quaker Tom died, I entered the Quaker Meeting House for his service. I sat on the wooden bench, and waited for the service to begin. It was summer and without air conditioning in the old historic building. I waited for the service to begin, trying not to judge the tardiness, and kept looking for some clue as to when it would start. No one seemed perturbed by the late preacher and my eyes only met glares of disapproval directed towards me. They better save that anger for the preacher, I thought. After waiting a little over an hour in silence, a man stood, thanked us for coming, and everyone stood to leave. I couldn’t believe that the preacher never showed! Navigating the stone steps out of the meeting house I asked out loud to no one in particular, “What happened there? I was waiting for it to start and then it was over.” Someone responded, “It is over. Quakers don’t talk. They sit in silence until the spirit moves them to share or split.” I felt silly for not remembering that Quaker’s do not talk in their services. The silence was the service! As I thought about it later, I was sad no one shared about Tom’s life or shared a single memory out loud. My family, however, tends to take things to the opposite extreme.

Joe was a Pagan (a local motorcycle gang but not in a cool Sons of Anarchy way). We were related through my father in one way or another but I never pegged it down. Now that I think of it, his mother’s name was Peg. Anyway, the day we buried Joe was sunny and cold. We stood under the white cemetery tent while a classic rock tune played vaguely from a portable radio and was competing with the wind in our ears. Then something caught my attention. That was the sound of a soda can, I thought. I looked around and to my mortification found the person delivering the typical boring funeral dialect, was now distributing a six pack of light beer to any willing recipient! He summed this distribution up by masterfully declaring, “Joe, this here Bud’s for you!” Confused about who got a beer and who didn’t, and why there wasn’t enough for everyone, I was further set back to see him take a sip (more like several gulps) of the beer before pouring out the remainder on the casket and wiping tears from his eyes in conclusion. I was standing in the back overlooking this scene, shocked and disbelieving so obviously that I earned a discreet jab in my side from my father. I couldn’t process what had just happened! Was it some Pagan communion ritual? And where did the other five beers go? I never found out. Since that day I never hear the song There’s a Tear in my Beer without thinking of Joe and his crying compadres.

Soon after this we had another funeral where a relation with Alzheimer’s passed and my father left the heartwarming public words: “I only wish I knew half of what he forgot.” At that funeral, when it was my turn to pass and view the body I saw a woman taking advantage of the occasion to take family photos. She not only was taking photos of the deceased in the coffin but threw in a few selfies (before they were called that) to capture the coffin arrangement in the background of her frowning/grief face. Inquiring, I was raptly informed (as if I were the one lacking common decency) that she was performing “genealogical research.” I backed off, but I still haven’t seen any of those images on Ancestry.com, just saying.

One of the most memorable funerals to me was Uncle Ben’s. He was in his 90’s and a very healthy, sane man; he was also the oldest member of our family when he died. I crept into the funeral home with my husband that morning where we were greeted by my great uncle, Larry, who was in his 80’s. Uncle Larry took me under his wing and started immediately pushing me past the rows of chairs and people, straight towards the casket. As mentioned, I am an amputee and I was walking on a brand new prosthetic leg which meant I wasn’t exactly sturdy-in-step. The constant pushing in my back started to make the fake knee buckle under my weight which inflicted tormenting images of toppling into the casket face-first, or falling backwards and taking the coffin down with me on my anxious mind.

Using his public whisper, at no less than 8 decibels, Uncle Larry began to fill me in on all the family gossip. He was completely unaware of, well, everyone being aware of every single word he spoke. Any effort I made to thwart him merely provoked him to speak louder. Agitated at me for this, he visibly shifted his focus to the body in the casket. Apparently, there is this thing about death that older people are obsessed with called closure. They believe that in order to achieve closure, and have peace with the loss, it is necessary to physically touch the body to experience the empty shell. Now let’s pause and be very clear: I don’t need closure, didn’t need closure, will never need closure. I have never touched a dead person or dead mammal and I had no intention of doing so that day. None. The truth is, I’m petrified of dead things in an out-of-control, spasmic, immature sort of way.

Uncle Larry decided I needed closure. I resisted. As we stood there in a stalemate, Uncle Larry started applying pressure to my back and gesturing towards the casket. My noncompliance caused him to start public whispering directions for me to touch Uncle Ben’s cold and lifeless body. I dug my heels in, whispering back my refusal. I didn’t want to offend the family, but I also wasn’t about to participate in any form of closure. Uncle Larry pushed me harder, taking it up a notch from his public whisper level to low voice level to make sure I understood that he wanted me to get closure. I felt eyes on me from the whole room and I felt myself turning red, but I also knew if God himself were pushing me at that moment I would not touch that dead body. I locked my real knee (and prayed the fake one would hold), shaking my head defiantly. There is no way in hell I am going to end up being pushed into this casket and end up rolling around with a dead man, I thought. Ignoring all of my words and extremely clear body language, Uncle Larry resorted to pulling my arm which I yanked back nearly demolishing a nearby floral arrangement. This rapid escalation caused me to begin frantically searching the room for a distraction ploy. I found one rather quickly at the other end of the coffin. You probably guessed it, a photo-shoot with a disposable camera. Selfies with a body, genealogical research, whatever you want to call it. Again!

At this point I closed my eyes and bowed my head in resigned defeat to Uncle Larry. It was clear that I was going to bailar con el muerte – dance with the dead – one way or another, when suddenly the rescuing hand of God appeared in the form of a relation. As Uncle Larry introduced me and explained the intricacies of how I was related to the old man in front of me, I lost track after at least five paternal removals. Smiling and politely shaking his (very alive) hand, Uncle Larry and I turned to find another approaching relation and repeat encounter. I had never met these people, and for some reason this upset Uncle Larry more than my refusal for closure. Uncle Larry contained his annoyance well, but when the third relation that I didn’t know approached for introduction, he (still annoyed at my disregard of dancing with the dead) got angry and abandoned his low voice for normal voice. “THESE YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY – You, YES YOU, DARLING! – HAVE NO RELATIONS WITH YOUR RELATIONS! You know nothing of where you come from or where you’re…you’re clueless! It’s a d*** shame, you see, you’ve no business…” But I stopped him right there losing my sense of propriety. “Listen,” I said, “as far as relations go – if I can legally have ‘relations’ with a relation, we really aren’t relations!” Proud of my own cleverness, I nodded at said relation, and walked away.

Actually, I didn’t walk away as much as cautiously proceeded on my fake leg five feet to the other end of the casket. Selfie lady was gone then and I greeted a legitimate relation. She tried to tell me something quietly. At this point I should mention that in addition to being an amputee, afraid of dead things, and wearing a new fake leg, I’m also hard of hearing. I didn’t understand her, so she repeated herself a few times. I tried to read her lips but I really had no idea what she was saying. The various sets of peculiar eyes characteristic of our family, stared at me from around the room because I was still in front of the room and casket. I felt the pressure on me, the judgment of those eyes, and after a few repeats I just took a random stab at what I thought she said. “You had SEX? Oh, ok, good!” I exclaimed in my own (apparently inherited) public whisper. It wasn’t my greatest moment, I realize. Mortified by my announcement, she dismissively shooed me away from her and I found out later she was saying, “I have GUESTS.” Two relations she had never met, likely more than five times removed, showed up on her doorstep the night before the funeral expecting to be put up for their stay. FYI – Guests and sex look pretty similar to a lip-reader, so while I felt guilty for starting such a horrible rumor we did laugh it off later. Much, much later.

The clock hadn’t even struck 11 a.m. at this point and with all of this drama I was convinced that the Quakers might be onto something with silent services. With my husband in tow, I made a beeline for the exit. I didn’t break a limping stride or even glance towards the calls and beckons of cousin relations. Then, just as I reached the door, my parents arrived. Decked out in a bow-tie tuxedo, top-hat, and an extravagantly sequined skirt with a fur shawl, they sauntered on scene like it were just another dinner party. When we finally got outside and shut the door behind us, I paused in shock to look at my husband. He grinned, “You sure we shouldn’t stay for lunch?”

Another memorable time, held at the same location, was a funeral for Ernie. Ernie was Catholic, so I wasn’t too sure what he was doing at a funeral home and not at the Catholic church, as if he had any say in the matter. He was Puerto Rican like my grandfather, so not a direct relation but pert near (at least closer than five times removed and besides, I had actually met him). As soon as my foot hit the parking lot, I remembered something: Ernie’s brother, a full twenty-five years older than me, showed up on my doorstep one sunny afternoon a few years before this with a random marriage proposal.

Transported back to that day I remembered answering the doorbell, and stepping out onto the porch of my apartment. I propped my crutch in the door to keep from locking myself out, and glanced at the three buildings facing me and this man old enough to be my father. Immediately, he got down on one knee. I thought he was tying his shoelaces. He stated his intention but I was sure I heard incorrectly, being hard of hearing and all. Finally, the whole thing bloody came down crashing and burning after he refused to seize any one of several chances to backpedal. Even my inquiry into the whereabouts of his common law wife that had stabbed him with a butcher knife didn’t deter him. Now, nearly four years later in the parking lot, I swallowed the lump of awkwardness and steped through the door with my Nan.

The mortician, Ed, greeted us. It’s a small town and he does most funerals here. I always think that Ed should give me a pointer or two for healthy living due to his hands-on experience with all my deceased relations. Whenever I see him, I wonder what he will if I ask him. While that strange thought hovers like a comic balloon it inevitably morphs into another: If I shake Ed’s hand is that like touching a dead body, albeit third generation? Those balloons casued me to stutter about and dramatically avoid Ed’s handshake. Rudeness was collateral damage in my war to avoid the third generation dead-man touch.

The room for Ernie’s funeral was completely silent and everyone turned to face forward again after observing my awkward entry. You could hear a pin drop if you were hard of hearing, which I was, and it reminded me of the Quakers. Nan took the lead by marching to the casket where we stood staring at the body. I would like to report that I respectfully held this silent moment in memory of Ernie but the the truth is, the only thing I could think about was Uncle Ben’s funeral and my survival of nearly being caught on disposable camara falling into the casket by the selfie-photographer-geneological-researcher.

Alas, my grandmother was satisfied and moved on to pay respect to the family. The brother – the now-even-older proposer – latched on to me and started sobbing. New balloons formed above my head: Is he sobbing for Ernie or a lost fairy tale with me? Where is the common law wife? Does she have a knife? Has he been touching the body and is now touching me? Confused, stunned, and frankly more scared of the dead’s cooties than the common law wife’s knife, I pulled away and sat with Nan.

Men entered the funeral room shaking hands, hugging, and kissing both cheeks like mafia dons. They did seem a little scary with their pinstripe suits, slicked hair, and shined shoes. Yet mere feet away my 4’9” Nan sat with her public whisper gossipping about their weight, flaws, and relational connections. (Puerto Rico’s an island, we’re all relations.) A few rows in front of us, I noticed a woman nodding her head to affirm or deny Nan’s comments. Thinking it was funny, I pointed this out to Nan, but it was not funny when Nan foghorned, “That nosy B**!”. I’ll stop there.

The most recent memorial went by without a hitch, mostly because there was no body present, I suppose. The minister didn’t seem to like our family very much but I couldn’t tell if it was due to public whispers, selfies, or general hillbilly elegy. It was for a man in his 80’s that had been convinced women were created to serve men and Aryan bloodline was best. Ironically, the minister and military funeral honors were presented by women, one of which was African American. Ah, the sweet rain of justice. He wasn’t a bad guy, or even completely racist, just a product of his time and as his service attested, times change. When he was alive, he would hop on his four-wheeler and deliver cabbage to my door each fall and turnips each spring and express excitement at anything in a mason jar. He would hug me saying, “I love you honey…but it’s a damn shame Jack didn’t have any boys…To carry on the family line, you see, you are all girls…and, well…[flips hand over and back again.” Now, fall and spring have passed since he’s been gone and no cabbage or turnips show up on my door, no four-wheeler visits, no reminders of being born the wrong gender and thus failing a line preceding MacBeth. Uncle Larry left me some laughs and tears. And the thing is, I find myself missing him. It makes me appreciate the way each moment of life and each interaction contributes to what we leave behind.

I suppose none of us is perfect, and we are made up of the quirks we possess. Pieced together like tattered quilts, we each have a story to leave at our wake. How odd will my funeral will be, with fake legs, crutches, and my real leg already buried? Will my fake legs and crutches be displayed like I’ve seen motorcycle cuts, beer cans, photos, hats, gloves, jackets, purses, and bibles? I don’t know what will happen when I die, but I leave charge for remaining family to follow up with stories. Regardless of the way it happens, I think I prefer a funeral with my relations, public whispering about closure over a funeral that ends before anyone even realizes it started, any day.

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