I’ve been to two funerals: My father’s when I was 16 and my mother’s when I was 18. Both were awkward affairs. You know how the holidays with your family begin to lose their luster when you’re old enough to realize they’re expensive, gaudy, and stressful? But you still take part and stitch your face into The Expected Emotion because at least the kids are having fun? A funeral is like that, except the kids aren’t having fun. No one is having fun. Funerals are decidedly and purposefully designed to be as depressing as possible, what with the crying and the speeches and the cold body of a parent, because that is what is Expected.
My father’s funeral was actually at the gravesite. A common trope in films is the manicured grass, the grey late-afternoon sky, the weeping widow, the gravediggers chain-smoking in the distance. My father’s gravesite was on one of those odd midsections of sand and grass that exists in Las Vegas and construction sites, and my father was buried in a construction site in Las Vegas. It was an actual graveyard, but a mausoleum was being built right next to us. The construction workers were nice enough to leave, but not nice enough to move the Caterpillar. The audience (mourners? Attendees?) consisted of myself, my dad’s brother, my dad’s sister, and my sister. Following them was my dad’s massive collection of friends, poker buddies, and co-workers. There was Tom, a giant man with a crew cut who drove me to the funeral because he figured his Camaro IROC would cheer me up. He also thought playing Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” at top volume on repeat the entire way there (including with the windows down through the graveyard) would cheer me up, and he was right about one of them. In fact, he would later try to cheer me up by playing Rodney Carrington albums, because if it’s one thing a teenager mourning his father needs to hear, it’s an asshat in a cowboy costume making shit jokes. There was Sam, a former POW in Vietnam who kept asking me if I was cold and ended up giving me his flannel coat (this sounds really creepy in retrospect, but it remains one of my favorite memories of the day and flannel has been my favorite material ever since). There were also Olga and her kids, mostly grown. Olga watched my sister and I when my dad was working and my mother was catatonic from drugs both prescribed and not. Olga was a powerhouse of a matriarch. She was once arrested for assault after beating a man near death because he had raped her youngest daughter (he was later arrested and imprisoned). She probably learned how to do so from her husband and sons who, along with running a trailer detailing business, were some of the top ranked amateur boxers in the state (seriously). Then there was Bob, my dad’s best friend who helped my dad detox and quit a crack cocaine habit.
Point being, aside from my aunt, uncle, and sister, these were people I hadn’t seen since I was a small child or never. I had attended a boarding school in Pennsylvania while my father moved back to Las Vegas, putting a solid seven years of pubescent maturing between myself when I knew these people and that instant, sitting under a canopy with my dad’s baby-blue coffin suspended over a hole. They all spoke about my father in terms contrived in such a manner as to reveal their honesty, like an accent from a faraway home country. Most brought playing cards to put in the coffin as that is how they knew my dad best. My survival instinct toward awkward situations led me to be absolutely silent, hunched over in my chair and staring forward. My sister, on the other hand, took a far braver route and had an absolute conniption. She had been crying since the beginning, but when it came time for a moment of silence, she gripped her hair with both her fists and screamed at the top of her lungs “THIS IS FUCKED UP! THIS SHIT IS FUCKED UP!” before stomping her high-heeled self back to the car. See, my sister was actually enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the time, something that no one expected of the girl who typically got jobs at Hollister and dELiA’s and whose idols were Jewel and the cast of Clueless. She was five weeks into basic training at Parris Island (the exact site of the film Full Metal Jacket) when, as next legal kin to my father, she had to bury him. To make it all the more distressing, she only had four days to do so and then return to actually start her nine-week training period over. So bitch on, sis. This shit is fucked up.
My mother’s funeral was actually far more maudlin. She had few friends outside of her boyfriend Chuck (a blind, pothead stable hand who ate a bowl of Total for breakfast, a bowl of Total for lunch, and a non-marinated steak for dinner every day) and a few people he knew from the horse track. Chuck actually found my mother dead and spent the ensuing week apologizing and blaming himself for assuming she was sleeping, believing she may have lived if he had called 911 sooner (she wouldn’t have as she injected herself with a lethal dose of morphine nearly 8 hours earlier). I hated him for this extra bit of drama, forcing me to coddle his ego while burying my mother, but I can’t imagine having been in his space. One friend that attended was Edwina, a middle-aged prostitute who could easily have been a Desperate Housewives extra if she ever owned a house or was a wife. My sister hated her for her cell phone going off in the middle of the service, but having sat next to Edwina, I can confirm she was in tears the entire time and shut her phone down quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. Then there was Lou, a tall stoner and baseball fanatic who lived in a basement studio apartment with one very social cat and another which lived in the walls. The rest of the non-family attendees were either Narcotics Anonymous members who knew my mother (some of whom couldn’t be bothered to not wear khaki shorts to a goddamn funeral) or people who tried to help her through her mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. Her therapist was actually there but left before the service. She handed me something my mother was going to give to me as a gift for high school graduation: my father’s gold Mickey Mouse watch which had been broken for a decade or more. I took it around the back of the funeral home we were using for the service only to stare at it emotionless for an hour, hearing The Dixie Chicks come out of a nearby ice cream parlor. I’d like to say this had great meaning and lead me to a very satisfying sense of closure and I could smile again and roll credits, but it did not. My mother hated country music and I hate ice cream.
The real star of the funeral, however, was money. My mother’s family was quite wealthy. Retired, her parents spent their time driving across the country in a camper towed by a new red pickup truck (somehow it was always new). Rather, that’s what they did when not on cruises or jaunts through South America. Her brother was a software engineer who lived in Thailand, designing flight simulation software for private companies. Her sister was a programmer for Microsoft from their hometown of Seattle. All four were in attendance for the funeral, but not before they had only offered my sister and I a pittance to actually pay for the damn thing. Funerals are expensive. A really slim one costs roughly $5,000, and that’s only if you have the body cremated to drop a ton in embalming and handling fees. So, against my Catholic mother’s wishes, we had her cremated because her rich-ass family decided to offer $2,500 to us. At this point in our lives, my sister was six months pregnant with her first child (having been honorably discharged from the Marines) and waiting tables at an Olive Garden while I was an unemployed high school student three months away from graduation. Luckily, my aunt and uncle (that’d be my father’s brother and his wife) lent us the money to save my mother from being thrown into a Glad bag and shipped to nearest med school. While I was fuming at my mother’s family, I didn’t really quit communicating with them until — a few months after their daughter’s funeral for which they refused to pay — they sent me an email bragging about their latest Mediterranean cruise. Haven’t talked to them since.
The funeral was very dry. While it seemed like quite a bit of people, very few knew anyone there to any great degree, and I know I was certainly not in the mood for social niceties. A priest from my mother’s church spoke free-of-charge about my mother’s devotion to God and her children. A prayer was said. My sister cried over her swelling belly. We went home. I watched Band of Brothers and fell asleep.
It’s obviously trite to say the movies get everything wrong. They make love seem too simple and war seem too exciting (except Jarhead, which brought the excitement of sitting around and waiting for a delivery to the silver screen). Most people aren’t witty and they tend to be far uglier than we expect. But fewer things are portrayed as wrong-headedly as death. Mourning is a hyper-individualized experience. It depends not just on the intricacies of the dead but also of the living and how they interact. It is a social exponential. So the intensely askew way I sat in folding chairs and stared at either a full coffin waiting to drop or an empty coffin they dragged in from the showroom haunts me still. Funerals are an entirely mechanical and planned process, making them the exact opposite of death. Death is raw. It jumps from the darkest corners of your day-to-day life and bares its yellow teeth at you. Once you quit vomiting from the sight, it slinks away and waits for as long as it likes. And yet when I attend my next funeral I’ll once again experience the same feeling I did as a kid in Catholic mass, counting breaths until the plate is passed, the crackers are eaten, the hands are shook, and I can get on with things. I mourn my parents while driving. While writhing on the floor after too many Schlitz’s. While finding things to sell on Craigslist and coming across that Mickey Mouse watch. While Googling my mother and finding her posts from ten years ago on a Linux forum, an anxiety disorder forum, a forum for SSI beneficiaries. All the slaps on the back and the “kiddos” and the “champs” and the “sports” did not help. The dastardly chairs and platitudes about weather and manufactured eulogies were of no service to me. For the love of all that is sane, do not give me your phone number and tell me if I need anything — anything — to just give you a ring. A Catholic aunt of mine criticizes people who call a church God’s house because if there is a God, all of this is God’s house. So we can act like a funeral is Death’s barbecue. But once the papers are signed and the parking lot is emptied, it is with you, lying in that corner, waiting to prove that nothing is waiting for you. To quote those immortally screamed words, this shit is fucked up.