There are some things one must do in life because it is the right thing to do. Attending funerals is one of them irregardless of whether you do or do not believe in God, strange death rituals, embalming versus cremation, or the time it will take from your busy schedule. I have been to more memorials, funerals, or celebrations of life than I care to recount, even from a young age. Each time the experience had its own tinge, differing cast of characters, and effect on me.
Recently, I attended a memorial for my cousin Wyatt whom I hadn't seen in years, knew about his chronic health issues, but didn't know his health was failing. We had many shared experiences, the kind of relationship where you don't connect for years but when you do it's like time never moved. I am actually closer and had kept more in touch with his brother Matt who was the main reason I attended the memorial service despite not feeling well myself, the timing (on my younger son's birthday and nine days before Christmas), plus the chilly weather.
My older son drove out to Farmingdale, Long Island as we were all meeting first at the funeral home. Passing signs for places where I once went as a child brought back an odd montage of memories: horseback riding lessons in Bethpage, my aunt and uncle's house of fighting in Commack, Hauppauge another house where spaghetti was thrown. The sun was dazzling; the roads bumpy but empty so early on a Saturday morning like all the people had disappeared.
Arriving at the funeral home, my son held my arm walking across the thin sheet of ice on the parking lot. As the door was opened, my sense of smell was assaulted by so many scents I felt slightly queasy. We were escorted to a room where suddenly everyone was hugging and introducing themselves, as if we could ever forget. We were given laminated cards with my cousin's birth and death dates, a quote about not weeping which made me weep anyway while on the other side a bright blue sky with blinding sun, much like the day.
I went downstairs to use the Ladies Room but wandered into a room where people were seated in a circle, drinking decaf coffee and discussing nightmares and restless legs syndrome. Closing the door softly, I tried another unmarked door filled with flowers, both real and silk. Third door was the Ladies Room, another attack on the senses with diffusers and air fresheners, funeral parlor lip balm in a crystal bowl for the taking. Good thing there were also small packets of funeral parlor tissues because I couldn't stop sneezing.
Upstairs, everyone was getting in their cars to drive 20 minutes to the cemetery where two of my grandparents were buried as well as three babies my mother lost over 60 years ago. The cemetery was worse than an airport terminal plus there were at least four other funerals happening so we got a bit confused but made it to the small chapel where a short service was to be held.
As we entered, Matt's wife handed each of us a red rose. We sat like it was a wedding, some people on one side, some people on the other. My cousin stood up by his brother's coffin and thanked us for coming. Rather abruptly, a door behind him opened with an older man appearing, wearing a large cross over a short sleeved black shirt, black pants, black shoes.
"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." He intoned, kissing the cross around his neck then glancing up at us with a hint of annoyance. I mistakenly thought he was someone my cousin knew but later found out there was no connection at all. What followed was by far the oddest service I've ever been to, starting with the vague feeling the guy was an actor. His Brooklyn accent was familiar, the prayers were familiar, but his delivery, emphasis, and mood were way off.
At one point, when our response was "Lord Have Mercy", he stopped and glared at the people on my side of the chapel. He berated us for not saying it with meaning then went off on some tangent about if we didn't pray for the dead, when it was our turn, they wouldn't pray for us and we wouldn't go to Heaven. He also threw in some comment about my dead cousin having to wait to get into Heaven. All of this with angry eyebrows, hand gestures, and increased agitation.
I bowed my head, not in shame nor sadness but to hide my laughter. I glanced around; the faces I could see were dumbstruck. It was like we were in some strange Scorsese movie scene and the Deacon was former Mafia or possibly current. He wound down his rant saying he didn't care if we went to church or believed in God then went back to the usual script. My cousin stood up afterwards and shrugged his shoulders, saying, "That was.. unique."
After he spoke about his brother, he asked if anyone else wanted to say anything. As I could see he was close to losing it, I said something as well about brothers and family. We all filed up to the casket to place a rose then hugged more and headed off to an Italian restaurant for lunch. Seated, there were only eleven of us and for whatever reason, The Last Supper came to mind.