I’d spent a considerable amount of time pondering whether to even write this, in spite of the fact the subject invariably pops up whenever my family gets together. On its face, it seems disrespectful. I mean, how could telling a funny story about my stepfather’s funeral be anything morbidly tacky? In fact, how could I find anything even remotely humorous about what should be a solemn event?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that our final respects to Poppy weren’t contrived or phony. Rather, it was a sincere way to say goodbye to one of the family. Indeed, it’s the way I’d wanna go when I gotta go.
Poppy (as he was known to our kids-his real name was Ray), came into our lives when we were children. Our mother, having grown tired of living with a man who resembled Ralph Kramden, acted like Archie Bunker, and possessed the social skills of Fred Flintstone, secured a divorce and somehow managed to convince this relatively young man (in his mid-30s) that living with five kids was really not much worse than a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands.
I mean, if it worked for the Brady Bunch, why not us?
So it went through thick, thin, and adolescence until, after the untimely death of our mother, it was Ray to whom we turned as head of the family.
Even though he remarried a few years later (What do you call a woman who marries your stepfather once your mother dies? A step-stepmother? A stepmother once removed? We just called her ‘Ursula the Sea Witch’), he still was the magnet to which we were all attracted.
He took us to ballgames, gave us advice, provided an anchor through tough times, and was a father to five kids when he didn’t have to be. He may have thought onion dip with chips was high cuisine and Howard Stern was Masterpiece Theater, but he was our model for manhood.
When he succumbed to cancer several years ago, we were overwhelmed with grief at the loss of someone who had guided us into adulthood and sadness that our own children wouldn’t get to know him as we had.
As funeral preparations went into frenzied high gear, we didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the person we had lost.
During the two-day viewing (or wake; now, THERE’s an interesting term. We didn’t think he’d wake up), my brothers, sister, and I took our proper places in the front row of the funeral home (the only place where being in the front row is not a good thing) and paid our respects to all who came to...uh...pay their respects.
For two hours, we sat still, quiet as mummies, while mourners shuffled by the open casket. When they finished, they turned to us with murmured “I’m sorrys” (well, what ELSE are they going to say?), “He looks so natural.” (one of the stupidest sayings known to man), or some other such platitude before retreating home to watch Jake and the Fat Man in their underwear.
Needless to say, it was kinda rough. Enduring the parade of mourners while solemnly staring at someone who looked nowhere near natural took its toll.
The second night was a little different, though. Although prepared to saddle up and be good soldiers for the duration, our solemn façades began to break down soon after the arrival of one of my brother’s old girlfriends.
I’ve always admired her for showing up. She didn’t come to see my brother; she came to say a heartfelt goodbye. This, of course, didn’t stop the smirks from me and my other brothers and sister. Nor the disapproving looks and hushed “tsk tsks” from some of the other, more distant, relatives.
Through it all, though, we maintained our composure.
Until another brother’s old girlfriend showed up. More smirks. Then, when one of MY old girlfriends arrived-with a nose ring that looked downright painful-smirks became giggles.
Giggles became whispered jokes. And whispered jokes became throwing our voices at the casket when elderly relatives showed up. This (to us, anyway) was the very best in funeral parlor comedy.
As bad as our performances were at the parlor, they were nothing compared to the actual funeral itself.
Starting off with a service at the Episcopalian Church (what we refer to as Catholic Light) we ended up at the biggest cemetery in town (reminds me of that old joke: Why are there fences around a graveyard? People don’t want to break in and those who ARE in can’t get out. But, I digress...).
A military funeral, because he was once in the Marines, the service was very dignified and steeped in an appropriate level of sadness.
At its conclusion, everyone but the immediate family withdrew to a cold cuts, beer, and coffee fest at the Elks Lodge (I don’t know, something about a funeral makes me crave boiled ham on a little roll. How ‘bout you?).
My brothers, my sister, our spouses, and I stared quietly at the casket as it sat suspended over the open vault. Festooned with an untold number of floral garlands, its mute presence reminded us of the loss we had all suffered.
It was then I felt a little guilty over our hijinks from the previous night.
As we began to move toward our cars, we heard an almost imperceptible “psst!” Quickly scanning the cemetery, I didn’t see anything or anyone. Still looking, we heard it again and spotted a head peering around the side of a tree.
Suddenly, we spotted one of the people we went to high school with. George stepped from behind the tree, a 30-pack of Budweiser in his hand.
“Everybody else gone?” he called.
When we told him we were the only ones left, he came over and placed the case of beer on the ground. “Well, here you are.” he said.
Seeing we had no clue what he was talking about it, he explained, “When Ray knew he was going to die, he told me to get a case of beer, go to his gravesite and hide. Then,” he went on, “when everybody but the kids left, he told me to come on out and let you have a beer on him.”
Stunned, we stared at George, the beer, and the grave. Nobody said a word for a few minutes. Then-I don’t remember who-one of us stepped up and grabbed a can. The rest of us immediately followed.
Popping our tops, we raised our cans to Poppy in toast.
Before we drank, though, my brother said, “Wait!” Grabbing a can and opening it, he set it on top of the casket and said, “Well, here you go, cheaper than you can get at Yankee Stadium.”
Needless to say, we finished that case and, despite the “These people are nuts” looks from the cemetery workers, stayed until the casket was finally lowered into the ground.
It may have been a strange way to act at a funeral and it may have been irreverent, but we knew that was the way Poppy would have preferred it. Why else would he have had the presence of mind to contract the services of “Funerals By George”?
Epilogue: At the post-service "Cold Cut and Macaroni Salad Fest", we were discussing how we would like to be remembered when it was our turn to shuffle off this mortal coil. We all agreed that nobody should be sad; while “have fun with it” sounds morbid, it still pretty much sums up our philosophies.
Then, we were “handicapping” who was next in line to say “Howdy” to Saint Peter. After focusing on who had the most hazardous profession, the discussions finally centered on who had the most serious health problems. While none of us have any medical issues to speak of, my brother and I DO have high blood pressure. Since we couldn’t decide who was more likely to assume room temperature next, we flipped a coin.
Wonder if George is in the phone book?