I’d spent a considerable amount of time deciding whether to even write this. On first blush, it seems disrespectful. I mean, how could telling a funny story about my stepfather’s funeral be anything BUT in poor taste?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that our final respects to “Poppy” weren’t contrived or phony. Rather, they were a sincere goodbye to one of the family and the way I’d wanna go when I gotta go.
Ray, or “Poppy” (as he came to be known), 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 that living with five kids really wasn’t much worse than a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands.
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, he was still the glue which held us together.
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 high gear, we didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the person we had lost. Concerned with the how and where (we definitely knew “why”), we began to lose our grip on the “who.”
During the two-day viewing, my brothers, sister, and I took our proper places in the front row (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 quiet as mummies, while mourners shuffled by the open casket. As they finished, they turned to us, murmuring “I’m sorry,” “He looks so natural,” (one of the stupidest sayings known to man), or some other such platitude before rushing home to watch “Jake and the Fat Man.”
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. Although prepared to be good soldiers throughout the duration, our solemn façades began to break down 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 goodbye. This, of course, didn’t stop the smirks from me and my other brothers and sister. Nor 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, 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 home comedy.
As bad as our performances at the “home”, they were nothing compared to the actual funeral.
Starting off with a service at the
(what we refer to as “Catholic
Light”) we ended up at the biggest cemetery in town. Episcopalian Church
A military funeral (because he was 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 (something about a funeral makes me crave boiled ham on a little roll).
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 our loss.
It was then I felt a little guilty over our hijinks from the night before.
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, as he stepped from behind the tree, a 30-pack of Budweiser in his hand. “Everybody gone?” he called.
When we told him we were the only ones left, he came over to the site and placed the case of beer on the ground. “Well, here you are.”
Sensing we had no clue what he was talking about it, he said, “When Ray knew he was going to die, he told me to get a case of beer and 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 one of us-I don’t remember who-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!” Opening a can, he set it on top of the casket and said, “Well, here you go, cheaper than you can get at Yankee Stadium.”
With that, we all had a beer to the memory of our father.
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, 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 "Deviled Eggs and Macaroni Salad Fest", we were discussing how we’d 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 pretty much sums up our philosophies.
Then, we “handicapped” who would go next. After focusing on who had the most hazardous profession, the discussions finally centered on our 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 die next, we flipped a coin.
Wonder if George is in the phone book?