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Two Funerals

By May 16, 2004 No Comments
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The traction control moans when I turn onto the grey lane, covered in sleet. My car, an unexpected gift from my mother-in-law, is referred to by neighbors as “the Space Shuttle.” It is one of those luxury barges with crushed velveteen multi-functional power seats, authentic plastic wood grain trim, and nine settings for the wipers. It can comfortably accommodate up to seven senior citizens. Some obsessed engineer from Detroit, who knows the model name of every car ever built but doesn’t know his wife’s shoe size, who carves out of rosewood an exact diorama of the battle of Gettysburg for her thirty-fifth wedding anniversary gift, determines (after extensive research) that the average retiree in America would be fully satisfied with a second-tier luxury automobile with nine different wiper settings, one for every possible permutation of rain, snow, and in my case, sleet.

I should be grateful. Even as I am driving it illegally for a second year without New York plates, I should be grateful. I just can’t seem to get around to owning it.

It was my mother-in-law’s car. The stimulus for the transfer of ownership occurred a couple of years ago when I picked her up from the airport in my subcompact. “You need to have more metal around you and at least FOUR airbags. You are an important person to your community and of course to your own family and what you are driving, that DEATHTRAP, is certainly not in keeping with your status nor the safety you need.” Before the space shuttle made a forced landing at the house, I had been shopping for a Mini.

I set the wipers on four; yes, setting number four will plow away the heavy April sleet falling down. I could jack them up to number seven, even full blast to nine, but that might be seen as hostile or rash, and not in keeping with my position in the community.

I pull over to the side. The place is deserted; it’s hard to see where I’m supposed to be. The tent hasn’t been set up nor are there other cars in sight. Odd. It’s muddy in places so I’ll not risk cutting through the center where the biggest and oldest stones are. I’ve got friends just to the east of the biggest stones.

I finally make out the hearse and a pickup near the maintenance shed. The hearse flashes its lights at me and gets behind the truck. I find my way to the end of the three car procession: an old green truck, a black hearse, and a white space shuttle. We make our way over to the plot. The gravedigger gets out first; he’s in his worn green coveralls, soaked on the shoulders and torso; then the two from Clock’s Funeral Home, dressed in matching camelhair overcoats, waving to me and looking skyward and screwing up their eyes. I get out, pull on my trench and tighten the collar around my neck. Sleet is turning to rain; the wind is picking up. I expect the usual comment directed at my lack of supernatural powers: “Can you believe this weather! Can’t you do something about it?”

Cold water is now entering my wingtips. If I look in the trunk, there might be galoshes. No way in hell am I wearing galoshes. We stand around the grave, waiting, and the digger pulls out photographs of his new baby girl. “Born just yesterday,” he smiles. “Almost lost her; yeah, the cord was around her neck, doctor said for nearly six minutes.”

No one shows. The grave digger gets his tip and we walk to the back of the hearse and I take my place as a pallbearer. They don’t have to ask. The added weight of the casket causes me to sink deeper into the mud, which is now rushing into my shoes. Still, the coffin feels empty; the aged are often feather-light. We set the gunmetal casket over the open grave, crisscrossed with roots from nearby trees, making it look like it is resting on intertwined fingers. They should have taken the time to cut the roots; without the bad weather, they would have cut the roots.

We stand, each taking a side next to the hole. I read through the committal liturgy, slower than normal, the ink running here and there from large drops of rain popping on the page. Defying the cold and driving shower, defying the cutting wind, defying the world which is a no-show, I’m not going to rush. No one says a word about it being too long. They know I’ll read the whole thing. After the prayers, I look at each member of my forlorn congregation, my faithful puddle of three; I pronounce a benediction, and follow it with “Let’s make sure this scene doesn’t happen to us.” “Yeah,” the guy from Clock’s says. “Hell, yes, you got that right,” says the grave digger with the baby with the cord around its neck.

We let down the casket, but the roots won’t budge. With dignity we press on it and try to rake away the roots. Decorum soon becomes a casualty as we stand on it, trying to force feed it into the hole. We pull on the roots. Breathing becomes labored. There is an unapologetic grunt let out here and there: casket’s last stand. Finally we tip it on an extreme angle, loading it like a torpedo into a submarine. That works, and it gives out a little splash–already there is a lot of water in the vault. Our hair is wet and out of place. We all are spattered with mud, our hands cold and smeared with dirt. Our breath shoots into the air, making a belated cloud of witnesses.

One of the guys from Clock’s breaks the silence: “Easter’s not far off, you got yourself ready?” “Not yet,” the cold mud sloshing in my shoes. I say goodbye and turn for the car. A voice chases after me: “You still have Michigan plates on that thing? That’s illegal you know.” I flop into the car; the door nearly shuts tight this time. I turn the ignition and the wipers come to life, but too fast for what has now become a drizzle. I look at the small crack on the windshield and give out a little sigh. I stop and think about my mother-in-law, who a year ago traveled from Michigan to Miami to be with me for my mother’s funeral, just as she was with me for my brother’s funeral five years earlier, his casket the size of a shoe box, holding the remainder of his remains. She stood quiet in the back both times, putting as much metal around me as she could. The wipers give the tempo for each frame of memory.

I exit the cemetery, the sleet now melting on the pavement. I drive past my buried friends, and then out through the big stones. And I turn the wipers down to setting number two.

II. The Opening of the Edyth DeGaeta Memorial Garden; or, The Deposit

“Oh, no.” Typically, these are not the words one wants to hear from one’s funeral director –especially if he is squatting behind you, a yard away, and you are fully aware he is, at the very point of his exclamation, beginning to empty cremains into a hole. Without looking back, and still proceeding with the committal service, I am tying a few facts together: first, the funeral director has told me prior to the service that he had never before worked with cremation remains. Second, the “Oh, no” itself has been said under the young funeral director’s breath and is therefore a signal to me that whatever it is, is more serious than a full-throated “Oh, no.” Thirdly, there is a stiff wind, gusting up to thirty-five or perhaps forty miles per hour. Hmm . . .

As I gather these facts in my head, I take a moment from reading the liturgy to look up at the mourners and take their collective temperature. I notice they are not looking down at their feet, their usual solemn attitude. But neither are they looking up at me, but past me, focusing on something over my left shoulder, moving away NNE at a fairly high rate of speed. The mourners look like a synchronized crowd, following the movement of a golf ball driven expertly off a tee. I gather from their amazed expressions they are focusing on the object of the “Oh, no” happening behind me.

Thinking no one will notice, I discreetly turn my head to see what is happening. I look down and discover my funeral director colleague is more or less covered with, let’s say, ten percent of Netty MacClaren: in his hair, up his nose, in his mouth, on his black suit. Perhaps another fifteen percent
of Netty has found herself in her designated spot; and the rest of her is headed in the direction of the Peapack-Gladstone Bank, where Netty was a customer for many years. The bank is about two blocks away, as the crow flies, or in this case, as Nettie flies.

Netty had expressed her concern over her finances any number of times when I visited her at her home, wondering if she would outlive her savings, mostly earned by being a nanny to the wealthy families living up on Sheep Hill. For my part, I told her that at least she could feel good about her bank, and especially the Trust Department, in this case deservedly named. The soot comprising the lighter parts of Netty probably needed one last check-in at the bank, or perhaps she needed to go down there to express her gratitude.

As her monetary condition was well known to us, we felt good when she was given a scholarship from the DeGaeta family to have her ashes interred at the Edyth DeGaeta Memorial Garden, though the church would have to pay for the plaque. Netty had the honor of being the very first person to break ground at the newly constructed Garden; and now she will also have the honor of being the first to break wind, giving just a hint of festivity to the proceedings. Grand openings are so often punctuated with the releasing of balloons or even of doves; but in this case it was Netty herself, or the greater part thereof, who was lifted high aloft as on eagles’ wings.

Thom Fiet is pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church of Hyde Park in upstate New York.