Life is brutal
There’s nothing fun or funny about funerals. There really isn’t. Ok, maybe there is. Let’s start again. There’s nothing fun or funny about death. There we go. That sounds right.
Death, not funny.
Funerals, sometimes funny.
I’m lucky in that I don’t often go to funerals. They are getting more frequent though. I don’t like that, but what can you do?
My first funeral, sort of
My first “big” funeral was that of my paternal grandmother. My paternal grandfather had died years before, and we kids were not taken to the funeral. Maybe we were too little. Maybe the adults were afraid we wouldn’t know how to behave. My grandfather was the father of 8 children, so as far as grandchildren go, there were a lot of us, and he had no idea who was who. When something went wrong – crash, bang, boom – he simply grabbed the kid closest to him and gave that kid a thorough swatting. Claims of innocence fell on deaf ears. He had a system, a system that worked, and a no-fail system that resulted in the guilty party getting theirs. After receiving an unjust smack, the innocent party would make a beeline for the guilty party and transfer the swatting, a swatting just as thorough as the one received. The efficiency of the system – it worked every time. Needless to say, we weren’t close to our grandfather, and the only time he ever made physical contact with me was for a smack…before I learned the system…back when I thought my youth and innocence protected me…back before I learned to run.
Next to go
When my father’s mother died, those 8 children could not get themselves together to figure out anything….nor who would pay for it. My father gave my sister a blank check, and we took a cousin and went to the funeral home to plan everything. And there is a lot to plan, but when you have a blank check things tend to go smoothly. My aunts figured out the clothes and makeup. My father figured out the flowers and the wake. My cousin delivered the eulogy. It was like a huge sad, sentimental family reunion complete with my one annoying, passive aggressive aunt. The aunt whose husband was killed in a freak accident when were kids leaving her widowed with a small child. The aunt who was a very successful Avon lady at one time, and everyone thought she was just something. The aunt that looked just like my dad in drag, think Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”, complete with puffy hair and big “Tootsie” glasses. My dad was a handsome guy. I look just like my dad, so I kind of look like my annoying, passive aggressive aunt who looks like my dad in drag aka Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”. As we were sitting at the wake trying to figure out who was going to kick the bucket next and what the etiquette was for cutting out and going to a bar, another cousin from the Florida branch of the family, came over and said, “You know what Chris? You look just like Auntie. I can’t get over how much you look like her. You look more like her than her own daughter.” Cue the waterworks, my waterworks. “No, no, back when she was young and attractive! Not now! I’m so sorry. Please stop crying.” I can tell you that the etiquette for cutting out of a wake is to: Number One – get insulted by your cousin, Number Two – to dramatically cry “isn’t it enough that grandma is dead?”, and Number Three – to be escorted out on the sympathetic shoulder of your alcohol-loving sister who’s so grateful for the exit that she buys you drinks all night long.
And the funerals roll on
On the other side of the family, my maternal grandfather died well before my birth, and my maternal grandmother died while I was out of the country. My family didn’t wait for me (that will become a theme) and held the first secular funeral in our family’s history. Unlike the Catholics on my father’s side of the family, my grandma didn’t believe in any of that, and if you don’t belong to a church, you don’t belong to a church. Anyhow, my grandma had her whole funeral planned and paid for. You see, when she saw how my father and his siblings struggled to figure out what to do for their mother’s funeral, she decided to make an appointment with a local funeral director, decide on a cremation, draw up a contract, and pre-pay for the whole shindig. She even picked out her outfit, complete with shoes, and lipstick. My grandma had unusual coloring. She was a blue-eyed, natural redhead with ivory skin and no freckles. She was a teeny tiny lady who weighed 80 pounds on her best day. She worked as a waitress in a diner for years, smoked Pall Malls – no filter, got her hair set once a week and her nickname at work was “Red”. I miss her.
A funeral well-planned
Her favorite sister got cancer and my grandma took care of her till her last day. My grandma had an unfavorite sister as well and another even more unfavorite sister and a brother who moved to England after the war. She wore a very respectable navy suit to that funeral, new and two sizes too big because when you weigh 80 pounds, nothing fits. Well, not nothing. My grandma had a suit, skirt and jacket, from the 60’s that fit her perfectly. That was the last decade she could shop in the adult section of the department store. In her later years, she sported “best of Gap Kids” with the labels cut out so she wouldn’t know. Her 1960’s suit was a delightful salmon color paired with a white blouse that buttoned up to her neck and had a fancy bow. She was sensitive about a scar she had on her neck. She packed it with shoes and accessories into a garment bag in her closet and gave us instructions that she was to be buried in that when the time came. That garment bag waited more than a decade before it could serve its purpose.
I made it home a few months later. My mother tasked me with sorting through my grandmother’s things, something I agreed to do. Actually it was the least I could do considering my mother had had to take care of everything. I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s room. I looked through all her pictures, her old handbags, her old neck scarves. I found her old white gloves that ladies used to wear when they were fancy. I found the satin sleep bonnet she used to wear to keep her hairdo all done. In her closet I found beautiful coats, tailored like they don’t tailor anymore. I found a hatbox with the hat she wore to her own wedding….and then… I found the garment bag with the salmon suit that she had selected to be buried in.
I grabbed that bag and flew out of the room shaking it accusingly in my mother’s face screaming, “What is this? What is this?”
My mother screamed back, “I just couldn’t bury her in a salmon suit. It’s so undignified. I buried her in the navy. She liked the navy.”
“What does it matter to you, Mom? She was cremated!”
“Oh, we didn’t do that,” she scoffed.
All the sympathy I had felt for my mother drained out of me. I returned to my grandmother’s room, packed up the boxes, the keep boxes, the donate boxes. The closet I left empty. Well, except for one small garment bag.
My mother upon seeing the garment bag asked in a demanding tone, “What is this doing here?” to which I replied that we had to keep it so we would have something to bury HER in.
“But it’s 5 sizes too small,” she scoffed.
“We’ll make it fit!” I screamed as I went out the door, slamming it behind me.
I don’t know what happened to that garment bag, but when I came back it was gone.
Prepaid Funerals, a family tradition
After that, my parents decided to plan and pre-pay their funerals as well. My father really got into it, hence the incredibly expensive navy blue coffin with cream satin interior he was buried in. My father died at Christmas a few years ago, and I couldn’t get a flight in time for the funeral. I attended my father’s funeral from Poland via Skype. The public viewing, the private viewing, the drive from the funeral home to the church with my aunt holding the iPad up so I could give my uncle directions, the church funeral where the priest did mention how much money my father had given to the church, the drive from the church to the cemetery, the cemetery service, the wake in which I had to watch people eat steak while I had no steak – I saw it all.
My father dying certainly was not funny. It was not entirely expected either despite all the pre-payments and fancy coffins. My mother forgot I was there on Skype during the private viewing, and I had to silently witness her last moments with my father, her last words to him, her final kiss, and her closing of the coffin lid for good. I wish I hadn’t seen that.
The public viewing the day before was never ending. Hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects. We were positioned in a horseshoe formation. My mom, me on a plant stand, my father in the coffin, then my sister and her family oppite us. People started with my mom, tapped on my screen and got the shock of their lives when I responded, moved on to my father while looking back at me, and then moved on to my sister where they made an appointment to meet later at the bar. Hey, we’re consistent.
My sister and I messaged each other from time to time during this process. It was like a virtual whisper in her ear. Then I saw my ex and his mother. The ex I almost married. The ex whose mother had bought me a hideously ugly wedding dress and when I said, “Thank you, but no thank you” insisted the woman who married HER SON would be wearing that dress. The ex who told me to just wear the hideous dress because his momma knows best. The ex whose mother screamed at me that I had stolen her baby’s virtue when we announced that we were breaking up and that there would be no wedding. That ex. There were two mourners in front of them. I had time. I texted my sister…
Suck it, loser! Then she pointed at me from across the room and gave a silent laugh.
Yep, that’s about right.
The funerals in Poland
My father-in-law died a few months later at Easter. My husband was only able to say goodbye thanks to a phone call from an old friend who works at the hospital. We went to the funeral, greatly condensed as it was Good Friday. We were asked to not give my mother-in-law condolences as she had disowned us a few years before for failing to christen our children and not giving in to her ultimatum. She refused to interact with our children, her grandchildren, at the wake. We were also told that in the future we were not to attend her funeral whenever that may be. That was three years ago.
And she got her wish. My mother-in-law passed away sometime last week. Apparently,her funeral was last Saturday. Nobody contacted my husband. In the evening, he ran into a neighbor who has been working as a gravedigger since he got out of prison last year, and he gave him the news. He found out his mother had died not from his sisters, but from the gravedigger. Maybe some day I will see the humor in that, but not today.
EDIT – A few years have passed since I wrote this. I read it with great sentiment and a bit of sadness. I do in fact see the humor in this today.
dsMarch 19, 2018 at 10:09 am
I'm so sorry, this should not happen. Bad luck, because even in Poland it doesn't happen every day. What are you going to tell your daughters?
ChrisMarch 20, 2018 at 6:08 am
Thanks ds. It’s definitely not a “Polish” thing, just “a thing that happened” thing. The girls don’t really remember their grandmother. The whole disowning argument took place when they were 4 and 6. It was painful for them then. They missed her and didn’t understand why Babcia refused to greet them in the grocery store, for example. Slowly, though they got used to the situation and forgot about her. I explained that Babcia passed away and because it was what Babcia wanted we decided not to go to the funeral. I’m bending the truth a bit there, but I didn’t want to go into the whole story with them. I shouldn’t lie like that, even a little fib, but I hope they will understand in the future. They took it well. I will take the girls to the cemetery the next time we are in the area. What do you think ds? Should I tell them more?
AnonymousMarch 22, 2018 at 6:08 pm
The story started funny, ended really sad.
I think your explanation for kids is good for now. Later you can explain in depth…
Maria AgdalenaMarch 24, 2018 at 5:52 pm
I'm really sorry to read this. It might not be a "Polish" thing to disown your children but it seems to me that Polish parents sometimes have quite strong opinions about their children's lives and choices. Even so, knowing this doesn't make it much easier at this moment…
czarownicaMarch 24, 2018 at 7:24 pm
Almost Shakespearian, this encounter with the grave digger.
May seem awful now, but after a while your husband may and hopefully will find it comforting that he didn't have to make the decision if to attend or not.
ChrisMarch 28, 2018 at 12:52 pm
Thanks everyone for your comments. It still feels like something that happened to someone else, but we will slowly get used to the reality of it all. Thanks again.