Friday, November 6, 2009

Funerals, Part III

Part I
Part II

Sleep was not to be had that night. Even Only Son, who relished the thought of an uninterrupted night’s sleep away from his children, tossed and turned. Finally at 5 am, we gave up. In search of coffee, I left the room only to run into bleary-eyed Caretaker, who paced the walk outside of our adjacent rooms smoking a cigarette. We shook our heads and laughed.

A sleepy and apprehensive family drove through rain to the funeral home after breakfast. Youngest hurried into the parlor to fetch the remainder of Mom’s ashes; he brought the cremation box to the undertaker the day before so half of her ashes could be placed in Dad’s coffin. He feared that if he delayed, he would leave without the other half. The Episcopal priest awaited us in the lobby. We discussed what kind of service Dad wanted and decided on the committal from Burial II in the Book of Common Prayer. I had shown that service to my brothers before the trip to Arkansas so there would be no recriminations. They approved.

The funeral director pulled me aside. “We have Mr. E ready for you to see,” he said. He led us to a side room where our father was laid out in his silver coffin.

We had been warned that his face was swollen and discolored. “His face will be heavily cosmetized,” the funeral director continued, “as his nose is bruised. Just so you know.”

Seeing him, though, his face was not swollen as much as it was fat. Our father had weighed around 350 lbs; to us, he appeared as he usually did. We could see the faint areas of bruising on his nose from his death fall but the makeup hid it well. The funeral home had given him a nice haircut.

For a man in his coffin, he looked great.

Instinctively I reached for his hand. It was ice. I kissed his mannequin like forehead and patted his white hair. “Love you, Daddy.” Only Son held back from the coffin, silent and wide eyed. Caretaker and Youngest spoke to the body briefly. We stayed only a few minutes. My eyes were full as I dragged out of the room.

Driving to the cemetery, I was gratified to see cars pull over as we passed, out of respect for our father. We were silent. The rain continued.

We chose not to open the coffin at the gravesite. We had no idea who might come, if anyone did. Dad had not lived in his hometown since 1962. Who would remember him?

As the time for the service approached, as sappy as it sounds, the rain quit and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. We noticed several cars parking and elderly people beginning to make their way to where we stood. Happy to see people arriving, Caretaker and I practically ran to meet them. Seven people in all came. Among them were one of Dad’s best high school friends, now a retired Arkansas Supreme Court judge; the woman who had been Dad’s date to both their junior and senior prom; and Dad’s seventh grade math teacher. We visited for a few minutes then began the service.

If you know the Episcopal prayer book, you know that the committal service is very short. It was just perfect for what my family needed, and was in accordance with Dad’s wishes. Caretaker, who knows nothing about the Episcopal Church except what he has read in the newspaper, was impressed with the priest. He thought the robes were “cool” and called him “the Episcopal priest surfer dude” due to Fr. B’s beard and demeanor. We visited with everyone a bit more, thanked them for coming. Dad’s long ago prom date was very happy to meet us and told Caretaker that she wished we could have been her children. She had just lost her own husband in April.

The time at the cemetery drew to a close as the rain returned. I kissed Dad’s coffin before we left, leaving a lipstick print as a goodbye present. We spent perhaps forty-five minutes there. We spoke about the service back at the hotel as we changed into traveling clothes and agreed that it had gone quite well. As for me, I felt much better than I had when Mom had died. Dad’s funeral had been a good and necessary experience.

A month has passed since Dad’s death. In further answer to Law Enforcer’s question mentioned in Part I, I am much stronger now than I was at this point after Mom’s demise. A good bit of that I attribute to the ability to say goodbye to Dad in a final, ritualized way. There is no doubt in my mind or heart that Dad is gone, no abstract thoughts that he could be just away. Saying farewell to Dad helped me bid so long to my mother also. The urn containing her ashes was tucked into the coffin, out of sight to the onlookers but certainly not out of mind to us children. Although her name was not mentioned, we knew she was there with him and both were going to their rest. This sense of closure relieved my troubled mind.

And awaiting Only Son and me at the end of the journey that funeral day were his children, my dear grandchildren. When they ran out to greet us with grins, squeals and hugs, I almost forgot my grief. Mom and Dad may be gone, but the family they started over half a century ago carries on.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I'm really glad you took time to record these three reflections. I think you're right about the need for a formal farewell. And I loved the way you ended this with the future generations.

Songbird said...

I echo Ruth. It's good to be able to look back to how these experiences felt at the time.