Funeral” is a word that makes me wonder how it ever got started with three letters saying fun. I know, to be sure, of the jazz celebration-style funeral that gives a joyous send-off, but those are the minority. How many of you have experienced one around these parts? It’s not that a funeral here has to be filled with sorrowful wails or maudlin sentiment, but they are more somber than party-like. In life a fateful parting is apt to be seriously felt. The same applies to a final goodbye. These are times we recognize, feel, and respond to on multiple stacked levels. As we part from one, we review them while reflecting on our own lives and condition.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained more experience in the funeral line. Before I reached my mid-teens, a wake/funeral scared the beejeebers out of me. At age ten I did NOT want to look at any dead people. But custom demanded I view this or that heavily made up, deceased aunt or uncle. But it was creepy, and if I wet the bed that night, well, what did they expect? I wasn’t getting up with all those visions of ghosts fresh to mind.
As an altar boy server I got more accustomed to the rite, but of course those dead were strangers and their coffins closed. That made it fairly tolerable, as did the small “tip” a server might get (had to keep that hidden from Mother). For a really big funeral, the servers were packed in a fancy car to be vestment-wearing decorations at graveside. Standing with folded hands looking angelic was something I could pull off, especially with the promise of a feast to follow. Cassocks and surplices were tossed aside while we tucked in with the other guests to gorge. It didn’t take long to discover that it was easy to gulp down drinks set casually aside by an inattentive adult. One or two of those was well enough to pot a twelve-year-old.
My second year of university, Grandfather died. I flew (in a DC 3, quite nice) to Chicago to get my first “adult” view of funerals. If you know Polish ways, you’re aware that the wake, funeral, and gathering afterward take up two to three days. People came seemingly out of the woodwork for old Joe’s send-off. At first I saw all those “strangers” as freeloaders, but Grandma didn’t mind and was happily occupied helping serve the multitude as much kraut, kielbasa, and boiled potato as they could hold. I knew this had to be stupidly expensive, but there was a human side of gathering and connecting that made sense. Life, after all, is not all about money, and living is not a balance sheet. Grandma’s budget may have ended up strained, but treating with friends and family was important. She was glad to do it.
I’ve been to many more final farewells since then. With decades of experience under my belt, I can say with certainty that no funeral I’ve attended in Minnesota gets within half a mile of the affairs put on by Poles in Chicago. The masses of people and heaps of food at relatives’ funerals would take care of the farewell needs of ten deceased folk in these parts. A Minnesota funeral is quite modest compared to those of my youth. I’m not implying insult. A funeral here is practical, not to mention the change in style since serried ranks of altar servers were the vogue. Back then there was no photo and memorabilia tribute review of the deceased’s life where the church vestibule becomes a temporary museum and memorial. In the past I grew up in, there was no time given for the congregated audience to chime in. We did the Requiem, went to the internment, and then over-ate and got tipsy in a rented hall that kicked us out after midnight.
I think it would have much annoyed people in my day if they were asked to speak or if anyone dragged the service out to delay getting to the food and drink portion. There’s nothing wrong with friends giving fond reviews of the deceased. It’s fine. But the majority of my relatives would have said, “Shut the hell up so we can get to the hall.” Theirs was a different form of practicality, where fond review was done over food and drink rather than over pews and heads.
I have my own small suggestion to make. I wonder why people have walked away from the tradition of grave goods. Our long ago ancestors put things in the ground with their dead. We assume these offerings were for the deceased to use in the afterlife. But what’s wrong with that same model or tradition serving as personal tribute and reminder? When Dad died, Mom made sure he had a rosary, something I’d never seen Dad use in life. I made up for that by slipping a pack of Pall Malls in alongside him. They weren’t good for him, but at that point it no longer mattered, and it seemed to me fitting that Dad should have a pack of his favorites instead of his usual roll-your-own cheapies. When Mom’s turn came, I sent her down with a bottle of her favorite perfume and photos of her much-loved cats. Since half the time she was mad at me, I thought cat photos a better mood setter for a successful afterlife than a picture of me to set her off.
When I’m planted, I swear to goodness I will get out of the box and hit someone if I hear music less than 200 years old. Simon and Garfunkel are not Requiem material. Don’t test me because I will get up and hurt you. And don’t forget grave goods. Put them in the box with me or dump them on top before the vault lid goes on. Be creative and have fun.