Saturday, August 27, 2005

Funeral History

I've been thinking a lot about funerals. I feel like I've definitely been to more than my share of them in the past. The first one I went to where I actually understood what was going on was when my best friend's grandmother died. My mother had been best friends with her mother since they were in fourth grade. Me and my best friend were born only two weeks apart from each other and had been best friends since birth. Her grandmother was hit by an eighteen-wheeler truck while standing at the bus stop waiting to go to work. My mother had to take care of all the arrangements for the funeral because her friend was too torn up to do it. As a matter of fact, her friend didn't even go to the funeral because she couldn't bear to see her mother in a coffin. Me and my best friend were about eight years old.

Next came my maternal grandfather. What I most remember about him was the way his kisses were always prickly from his five O'clock shadow. He would often tell me that one day he was going to take me to visit Yellowstone National Park. Thanks to his die-hard cigarette habit, he died of lung cancer that eventually spread to his throat and killed him. My grandmother found his body on the floor in the living room when she came in from work one evening. He really loved science so it was no great surprise when we found out (after he had died) that he had already arranged to have his body donated to a local university. So, instead of a full-fledged funeral, we all got together at my grandmother's house, read a few verses from the Bible and said a little prayer. I was around twelve years old.

Then there was my friend Clarence a.k.a. Clay. I was fifteen and he was sixteen. He was shot to death at a birthday party after trying to help break up a fight that had erupted there. The sad thing is that his friends who were actually doing the fighting didn't get hit at all even though they were the ones the shooter had aimed at. After the funeral, I (along with the other twenty or so kids who had skipped school together that day) went to his parent's house and did our best to comfort his family. That was the first funeral that I went to on my own. My mother never would have agreed to me going to Clay's funeral. It took years for the police to catch the guy who killed Clay. They claimed they couldn't find him but the thug never even left the city. One day, Clay's mother saw the boy walking through the mall shopping with his friends. She called the police and they finally picked him up after having that one basically handed to them on a silver platter.

My beloved maternal grandmother came after that. For most of my life, my grandmother worked in the housekeeping department of a fancy downtown hospital, the Dauphine Orleans. She would often receive foreign coins in her tips and she always saved them for me. The hotel where she worked used to have them put these little piroulines on the bed pillows. The staff also had to stock those little Andes chocolate mints in the rooms too. My grandmother always had plenty of these left in her pockets and gave them to us to munch on when we came to visit. A few years after my grandfather died, she came and lived with us. Once she set the house on fire because she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand but fortunately, no one in the house got burned. It was diabetes that killed her. First she had one foot cut off. Then they amputated the other. Then they cut off her legs up to her knees. Then she died. I was sixteen. I almost got into a big argument with the guy who officiated the services at the funeral. His mother had been friends with my grandmother. So, the jackass proceeded to spend the entire service talking about how nice his mother was to my grandmother when she was alive. I really wanted to tell him that with the way things looked, he wouldn't have long to wait until it was time to talk about his mother at a funeral. My mother stopped me.

Shortly after graduating from high school, another one of my close friends from that period died. Karl Brooks and his girlfriend had gotten a place together. One day after work, Karl went into a little corner store to pick up some diapers for his girlfriend's baby. When he stepped outside, someone asked him if he had any change to spare and Karl said he didn't. A moment later, Karl stopped to use a pay phone. While standing at the phone stand, the same person walked up and saw him. The people who witnessed the incident say that the guy got pissed off at seeing Karl putting money in the phone and yelled, "I thought you said you didn't have any money!" before shooting him several times. I got to see many of my old high school buddies at Karl's funeral. One of our friends had been pregnant with twins for Karl while they were in high school but her mother had forced her to have an abortion. She was there too. A few years later, Karl's mother went on one of the afternoon talk shows and told his story hoping that this would help the police to find the killer. It didn't.

When I was twenty, yet another one of my high school pals was killed. His name was Fred Beasley. He was sitting on the porch of the house that he shared with his girlfriend and some unknown person came up and shot him in the head. He was known throughout the neighborhood as a stay-out-of-trouble kind of guy. He wasn't a drug dealer. He worked. He paid his own bills. It was completely unexplainable. His was the worst funeral that I have ever been to. Fred's family and his girlfriend were mad and fussing about the fact that the mother of his daughter arrived late. The pastor did everything he could to try and recruit new members during the funeral by calling for everyone who knew they weren't "saved" to come up so that they could be baptized after the funeral. The organ player and the singer did their best to choose songs that would get the family hysterical with grief. Despite how much I liked Fred, I was really sorry that I went to his funeral and I swore I was not attending another high school buddy's funeral EVER.

A couple of years ago, I went to the funeral for my step-sister's baby. My step-sister was living in Germany at the time where her soldier husband was stationed and she went into labor too early. She was only about six months pregnant. The doctors were unable to stop her labor from progressing and she gave birth. The baby only lived for a couple of hours. They flew back to the U.S.A. to have the baby buried here. There was no funeral, only a gravesite prayer. My step-sister's husband wouldn't let anyone else handle the coffin. He carried the it from the hearse to the grave himself. Unfortunately, none of us ever got to know the baby or make any memories with him.

I think it's kind of sad that none of the deaths I've had to deal with personally were simply from old age. They all seem like lives that were cut short prematurely. I wonder if that's because of the way my friends and family died or if it's just that all deaths feel like that.

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