Thursday, September 9, 2010

Laughter and Tears

Funerals are stupidly expensive.

Even knowing all the tricks of the trade, they’re still stupidly expensive.

In fact, I beginning to think they’re just stupid.

I know it’s a bit irreverent, but seriously--- do we really need all this overblown pomp and ceremony?

The Saturday before my grandma passed my sister and I accompanied various other members of the family over to the funeral home to begin planning my grandmother’s funeral. It seemed a bit morbid, seeing as how she was sitting on the sofa in her living room, watching tv, but it was a necessary evil.

We showed up at the front door of what appeared to be an immaculate mansion, and nervously pushed open the nearly silent door.

There’s a stillness to the air of a funeral home that seems to suck the words right out of your mouth.

We huddled together in the chilly, overly-perfumed air, silently looking around the bland, non-offensive hallway before we made way into an equally bland, non-offensive meeting room.

A somber man with a serious goatee welcomed us with a small, serious smile. “Take a seat,” he murmured in comforting tones.

My sister and I perched on the edge of our chairs, backs stiff and uncomfortable.

What followed was a dizzying amount of options. Package A or Package A-C? Package C-A? Package B-C?

Kinkaid memorial books with the Lord’s Prayer or somber watercolor books with the 23rd Psalm?

Organ music?

Viewing room?

Embalming or refrigeration fee?

Pre-written obituary or something more personal?

The family and I looked at each other in brief, furtive glances, all of us studiously avoiding each other’s eyes lest we burst into tears. We murmured “I guess”es and “I suppose”es like they were going out of style. Our voices seemed muted and subdued, overwhelmed by the crappy, somber, tear-laden songs that played throughout the home.

I glanced at the memorial book in my hands, and at The Lord’s Prayer which was inscribed on the inside cover in flowery script. I didn't really care all that much, but suddenly I heard myself asking, “Does it have to be the Lord’s Prayer? Can it be something else?”

I didn’t really have anything in mind, but I just couldn’t stomach the thought of commemorating my Grandma’s rich, full life with a series of impersonal choices we chose from the list. Package A… Memorial book C… Viewing option B… She deserved better than a Scantron-answer version of a funeral.

“Of course,” murmured the man in charge. “We have several options you can choose from, or we can incorporate some of your own words,” he said, handing me a large book full of quotations.

My sister leaned over my shoulder, and together the two of us flipped through plastic pages of funeral-appropriate sayings.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”

“As we walk through this garden of sorrow, He is with us…”

“To everything there is a season…”

“Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd, buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks…”

Say what?

Suddenly, the funeral home’s somber atmosphere was shattered by the distinct sound of me snorting loudly through my nose.

My sister glanced up at me quickly, eyebrows lifted in question.

I pointed a finger at the bottom of page 15, and even hummed a few bars for her.

The peace of the funeral home was interrupted once again, this time by my sister’s horrified laughter.

At this point, our entire family was staring at us.

I turned the book to the funeral director, trying to hold back my laughter, and pointed at the song. “Is this for real? Do people actually choose this?”

He nodded. Somberly. Seriously. “Yes. Yes, it’s a popular choice for loved ones that have passed.”

My sister and I met each other’s eyes …and dissolved into helpless laughter.

The meeting went downhill from there.

Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was our way of coping, but suddenly, everything seemed just so incredibly funny. We couldn't stop cracking jokes.

Within minutes, we had completely derailed the efficient planning of our Grandmothers’ funeral and were listening in horrified fascination as the funeral director gossiped eagerly about the latest fad--- talking headstones that were activated by motion sensors.

It was too much.

Talking headstones.

Suddenly, I found myself almost disappointed that for my own death I am planning on a simple cremation with no ceremony. I mean… a talking headstone? Think of the possibilities!

People could walk by, and you could program it to scream out, “BOOO!” followed by creepy, ghoulish laughter.

You could have a recording of your voice annoying passerbys with lame knock-knock jokes followed by bad puns, “What, you guys don’t think that’s funny? Man, this place is dead.”

The rest of my family tried to soldier bravely on, discussing the finer details of the service.

Meanwhile, my sister and I were red-faced and breathless in the corner, giggling over stupid possibilities.

By the time we started discussing appropriate burial outfits for Grandma, even the funeral director had loosened up some.

“Just… make sure it’s appropriate for the occasion,” he said, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of little old ladies that are sent in with filmy nightgowns. You know they haven’t worn anything like that in decades, and yet it’s what their family chooses for them.”

“You’re KIDDING, right?” I asked in horrified fascination. “People actually do that?”

The funeral director leaned forward conspiratorially. “Actually, we did have one lady who actually wrote it out that she wanted to be buried in a lavender teddy, with lace and ribbons.” He shook his head, disgusted. “We had to put something underneath it since it was an open casket. It wasn’t… appropriate.”

The sound of jazz-infected Elton John was drowned out by the sound of our laughter.

Hey, it may not be the most appropriate way of releasing sadness, but it sure beats crying.

By the time we finished concluding on all the details, I felt like we might actually make it through the whole screwed-up mess.

With only the casket left to choose, the rest of my family went back to be with Grandma. My sister and I followed the funeral director into a large, well-lit room, with various caskets lining the walls..

“Take your time,” he said in a sorrowful tone, slipping back into the role of somber comforter. “I’ll be down the hall if you need me.”

My sister and I walked slowly from casket to casket, staring at astronomically high prices.

I stared at disturbingly fluffy, satin-lined interiors, and I couldn’t help but wonder--- why? When you’re dead, you don’t exactly have to worry about getting a backache anymore, so why all the pillows?

It all seemed over-the-top. Garish. Almost overwhelming.

So, of course, my sister and I coped.

And by cope, I mean we laughed.

I’m hoping that the funeral director that the muffled gasps and shouts were cries of sorrow.

Somehow, I doubt we fooled him.

The longer we walked around the casket-lined room, the funnier everything became.

For instance--- Casket Cap Panels. On the inside of a casket, there are cut-away sections in some of the cloth liners that are designed to fit personalized color inserts.

Most of the inserts they had on display were what you’d expect--- a smiling, beatific Jesus, chubby little angels, rainbows, birds in flight, and the like.

What interested my sister and I was the fact that you could request this insert be any photo of your choice.

So, if you were burying someone you didn’t like, you could theoretically have this:

Smiling down at them for all eternity.

The idea has some merit.

Some of the caskets were so over-the-top that you couldn’t help but laugh at the price tag. They were rich-colored wood with gold-lined filigree edging the corners, their interiors lined with mounds of cush satin.

You could almost forget their purpose…. Except for this hideous little sign we saw leaned neatly up against one of the pricier caskets:

Yes, that’s a photo we took with our own camera. I swear, I’m surprised they didn’t kick us out. We were like obnoxiously loud, giggly tourists. I hope nobody heard us.

The longer we stared at that sign, the funnier it became. I think it loses something in the telling, and that it’s something you had to be there for. There’s something about the incongruity of massively expensive caskets, mellow, heart-wrenching music, the drifting scent of flowers… and then a sign that says, “Yeah, dude… you do realize that this coffin isn’t really going to work, right? I mean, you do realize that the worms are still gonna get ‘em?”

Anyways, I think you had to be there.

One of the strangest casket options were tiny little figurines you could post as sentry-like pillars around the four corners of the casket.

It may sound like a neat idea on paper, until you realize what it actually looks like in real life.


Four giant, angry bass flopping around on the sides of your loved one’s casket for all eternity.

If you don’t feel like fish are the appropriate way to commemorate your loved one’s death, you could also choose from some of the other options:

A mallard bursting into flight.

A baseball glove.

A strangely stupid looking deer bearing the title “Majestic”.

I apologize about the quality of the photo, but by this point my sister and I were laughing so hard we couldn’t even stand up straight. We were terrified someone was going to come in and ask us to leave, so we snapped a quick photo before stuffing the camera back in our purse.

I'd also like to apologize that we didn’t manage to take a picture of a strangely expensive flimsy-looking blue coffin that we both SWORE was made out of paper mache.

It looked for all the world like a creepy, giant piñata.

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to figure out the line of jokes that resulted from that one.

Before we dashed out the door and lost it completely, my sister and I managed to let the funeral director know our choice of casket.

The bone-sapping Bakersfield heat felt like a warm hug as my sister and I tripped giggling down the stairs to the car.


That trip to the funeral home made me laugh harder than I have in months. Like I said before, I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate way to cope, but I know that my grandma would definitely have approved. I may have cried at her funeral and at her viewing this past weekend, but when I think of her I'll always remember laughing with her.

I mean, this was the woman who once accidentally grabbed Ben Gay from the "Married" side drawer instead of the spermicide. She definitely knew how to laugh at life.

When I remember her, I remember the two of us sitting at the round, wooden table in the dining room, laughing so hard at a joke that we actually started to pee our pants. At 20 years old, I barely made it to the bathroom in time.

At 79 years old, she didn't.

Somehow, that made it even funnier, and the two of us ended up collapsing in the hallway against each other, struggling to breathe through cramping sides and choked laughter. I can't even remember what we were laughing about--- it probably wasn't even all that funny.

So, here's to you, Grandma. Here's to your marvelous paintings and your sensible nature. I already miss you and your sense of humor. And I definitely miss your "yella jelly", your steak fingers and fried okra, your sweet tea and laughter.

I can't wait to see you again one day.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute to your grandmother! And I bet, because of who you describe her as, the laughter at the funeral home was probably the most appropriate way to honor her memory.

September 9, 2010 at 6:02 PM  
Blogger Veronica said...

You look like her :-)

And if it's any consolation, we got through cancer and funeral planning by jokes (sometimes really bad ones) and laughter too. Better than crying.

Thinking of you xxx

September 9, 2010 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger AareneX said...

At the funeral for my uncle (a proud Irish/Tlinquet elder), his son stood up and announced that he simply had to share his dad's favorite joke. Here it is:

Sean and Paddy are sitting down at the local one night, lifting a few jars. After a bit, Sean turns to Paddy and says, "Paddy, I want ya to promise me something."

"Sure, Sean, what is it?"

"When I'm dead, I want ya to pour a bottle of fine Irish whiskey all over my body."

Paddy thinks about this for a bit, and then says, "Well, Sean, I'm happy to do that for you. But tell me: do you mind if I drink the whiskey first?"

My uncle has been gone for more than 15 years, and to this day, when I think of him, I think of that joke and I giggle. Uncle Don would get a huge kick out of that, I'll betcha.

September 9, 2010 at 7:07 PM  
Blogger JJ said...

What a beautiful post. I can't imagine going through that whole funeral home scenario - how icky, but I love how you and your sister made it into a funny process. It sounds like your grandma would have appreciated that. Some of those casket decorations are ridiculous, too!

You almost had me in tears by the end. Your grandma seems like a truly beautiful person. I'm sorry for your loss.

September 10, 2010 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger mugwump said...

Go Grandma.
Go you.

September 14, 2010 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger phaedra96 said...

Your grandmother is sitting in Heaven with her cronies laughing her butt off! I am sure she would have found the trapping and rituals of death as funny as you and your sister did. Hugs and sympathy to you; it is so hard to say good-bye. She did not linger in pain and misery. That is the good thing.

September 15, 2010 at 3:05 AM  

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