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Friday, January 22, 2010

Today At A Funeral ...

A friend of mine recently lost his wife. Well, he wasn't so much a friend as the son of a good friend of my father's who we saw at picnics, Christmas and Fourth of July get-togethers, card club, and various functions while growing up. We went to rival high schools, so there are no great "buddy" stories or tales of high school hi-jinx. Now we just run into one another five or six times a year and force idle chit-chat.

I guess I'm trying to establish the "friendship" level of our relationship because his wife's funeral was a mess and I'm going to talk about it.

The rumor was depression, pills, recovery, and suicide ... in that order. Local gossip said she'd been extremely down and moody for months. Then she pulled out of it and things seemed good. About a week into "good" she checked into a hotel about 30 miles away, used the pool, ordered ice cream from room service, and then ingested a boatload of prescription meds. They didn't have any children, thank goodness.

At the funeral, the casket was closed which I found odd. The wife was really pretty and, well, I always figured if you still looked good on D-Day why not show off a little. And the family all told this "story" about a traffic accident out on a country road that was news to me. Everyone listening just nodded and "oohed," but when the family recounted the details of the accident, the inflection on certain words was so fake you could tell it was rehearsed. Weirder and weirder.

Anyway, I hate funerals. Meeting the distant and not-so-distant family of the departed and then making small talk is so uncomfortable. Making excuses for why it's been so long since you've seen the departed or general friends and family is equally exhausting. And watching little kids squirm in new clothes and uncomfortable shoes makes my skin itch.

The very first funeral I ever attended was for my great grandmother. She was nearly 90 and died from complications from pneumonia. Lying in that coffin, she just looked peaceful ... like she was catching a nap while the rest of us scurried about. I was too immature to get the finality and sadness of it all.

The next one I recall was in high school. A kid on our football team lost his father in a construction accident. Everyone turned out for "calling hours," a type of "Get-Out-Of-Attending-The-Funeral" event usually held the evening before the official funeral and burial. I went with a group of five friends. We were all clustered around our classmate when I happened to look over at the open coffin. Our classmate's little sister ... she was probably four or five years old at the time ... had pulled a stool over and had climbed up to get a better look at he father. She spoke something to him that I couldn't hear from across the room ... it seemed sweet. She then touched his hand gently with her much smaller one ... it was touching. Then she leaned in and kissed him square on the lips! ... I thought I was seeing things. Finally, an older relative swooped over and guided the little tyke over to a seat near two other children. The older lady looked around the room furtively, caught my glance, and smiled like she was saying "Oh, well." I smiled back with an "Oh, how gross!!" reply. I couldn't wait to tell my friends about what went down at this incestuous ho-down ... I think I was getting hives on my neck from the anticipation. To this day, I still run into that little girl ... she's recently married and expecting her first child. I know she was young and didn't understand what was happening around her. I also know that I stare at her lips like they should have open sores on them, or burst into flames for touching the dead. She probably thinks I'm a perv or secretly into her. I hope she doesn't sense my "Oh, I still think you're a creeper" thoughts in my present-day grin.

So we've established that funerals are on my "out" list, but I must say that cemeteries are "in." I think cemeteries are the most peaceful places on earth. Most are beautifully organized and manicured, almost always teasing your senses with an unnatural quiet and the scent of freshly-cut grass. Even the older ones ... complete with broken markers, overgrown perimeters, and muddy colored everything ... have a unique charm.

When I was in junior high, one of our projects for civics or history or some subject was to visit the grave yard and make charcoal rubbings of the headstones we found most unique or interesting. I remember I did a report about two families who tried to outdo each other with bigger and more intricate headstones, and it was truly fascinating. In college, I did some of my photography assignments in a local cemetery and asked dorm mates to help out as "extras." I also remember visiting a graveyard about an hour away because of a newspaper article ... it boasted this large granite orb that supposedly shifted on its pedestal with the rotation of the earth. One several occasions, the stone in question has been marked and sealed in place with various epoxies, only to be discovered slightly rotated a few days later. Spooky and cool at the same time.

But most of all, creepy as it may sound, I like to occasionally visit cemeteries for personal reflection and relaxation. When the weather is nice, there is one particular contemporary graveyard where I sometimes go and park myself on a bench to read. Anne Rice is wonderful to read in a cemetery ... and Ridley Scott. Other times, I visit relatives who have passed to tell them things about my life ... it's corny, but I feel more connected with a headstone to focus on.

Now, I'm not suggesting setting up guided tours or creating RV lots for eager campers, but consider visiting with a departed loved one more often then a sad geranium on Memorial Day.

POINT OF RANT: Death is a human ritual that lingers well after the actual event.

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