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I never liked funerals and became especially queasy around open casket funerals. Most of my funeral experiences had been anything but good. My first personal funeral (Great-Gramma) as a four-year-old child frightened me at first. I watched people walk through the curtain to see the dead person and no one came back. I thought the ghost, zombie or whatever had grabbed and eaten them, until it was my turn. I was practically dragged through the curtains to the casket on the other side only to discover everyone was leaving through the back door. My second funeral (Aunt Bo) was much better. I was included in the whole process and realized it was quite peaceful (see my post “Funerals the Old Way? Still allowed anywhere?”). In my adult years, having been married to a preacher for a short time, I had rather somber and overly respectful ideas about funerals, and just did not like them.
But my second husband’s (the Ex) family changed that as they contributed to some unusual funeral experiences over the years. My first funeral with them was (Gramma). Being new to the family, I politely turned down the invitation to attend. I didn’t like the newer, stodgy, non-personal funerals. My feelings had always been, “I’d rather remember them as they were alive.” Several days after Gramma’s funeral, I arrived at a family birthday party and was handed photos someone was sharing. As I flipped through the photos, I commented on the beautiful garden of flowers and wondered whose wedding was portrayed. Surprise! It was not wedding photos, but rather Gramma’s funeral photos. I was appalled and a little grossed out. Funeral photos, including the open casket for those who missed it (like me!) – wow, and surprise!
My second experience with them was not much better. Again, I skipped the funeral and open casket, followed by a cremation viewing. Yah – viewing! I attended only the gathering at the daughter’s home afterwards. But I didn’t get to skip the gruesome details. At this gathering, everyone was talking the deceased, my Ex’s Aunt, who had been found dead after rigor mortis had set in. This created a problem since her body was in a room accessed by a special home improvement, modified spiral staircase, with a very small hole in ceiling. Her daughter wanted the body brought down immediately and not via windows where neighbors could see. After much discussion and attempts to persuade the daughter to wait 24-36 hours, and an announcement that the death was natural not criminal, and some hysterics on the daughter’s part for them to hurry up, it was decided that with the daughter’s permission the limbs would be bent and partially cut or hacked to get the Aunt through the hole and down the staircase. *I thought I would faint* People at the gathering then began to recap the cremation viewing in which family was permitted to watch the body burn through a window in the cremation oven. Some commented that fat people snap, crackle, pop, while the thin ones just shrivel like dried leaves or jerky. *I thought I would upchuck* Again, I was mortified, appalled and grossed out that people would even talk about such things and especially at the home of the daughter immediately after the funeral. I decided to sneak out very quickly, and went to the kitchen to pay my respects to the daughter so I could leave. There were several people ahead of me. While waiting, I picked up a beautiful wood box with gold plaques on the side, which were beautifully engraved with the Aunt’s name and dates. Wow, I thought, what a beautiful and expensive personal engraved memory gift! Just as I was thinking it was a bit heavy and wondering what was inside, the daughter addressed me, “Oh. You found my mother.” I was just beginning to extend my hand to hold hers while juggling the weighty box, when I realized I was holding her mother’s ashes in this beautiful URN (not memory box aaawkkk) – which “gawd help me” slipped out of my hand and hit the floor. The side seam on the box split open and the ashes spewed to the ground. Horror or horrors! I mortified myself! I dropped to my knees almost crying, began babbling and stuttering, and said the stupidest things, “Oh my gawd, I spilled your mother. I’ll put her back. Do we have a broom? Oh, no, we can’t broom her. I’ll blow her soft. I mean, I’ll finger her in …” By this point, the daughter was in hysterics (laughing not crying), as was the whole family as we all knelt and scooped Auntie back into the box and bagged it up tight for repairs. * I was sick to my stomach for days and washed my hands over and over like a mad man*
My next experience involved a quirky but loving friend. I phoned to ask her out for coffee on a holiday morning. She asked what the date was, and when I answered she said wait, and sat the phone down. I could hear her opening a door in the background and then singing “Happy Birthday” to her dad. A few minutes later she picked the phone back up. “Today’s dad’s birthday I almost forgot. I had to run to the closet and sing Happy Birthday to him. I do it every year.” I thought I heard her wrong, laughed and said, “You keep your dad in the closet?” She laughed back, “Yah, he’s dead.” That was followed by silence. I gently asked, “You keep your dead dad in the closet?” She says, “Yah, he’s cremated, and it’s my turn to have him. My sister will come over later and sing for him. By the way, can he come to coffee with us? We usually take him with us on birthdays and holidays.” Another long silence. “Sure, I guess,” I answered, and her dad went with us for coffee. Funny, but I felt like this was rather healthy despite the craziness of it. I was beginning to mellow *grin.*
My latest experience was again with my Ex’s family. An Uncle died and the son was holding the funeral followed by a wake. This time I was obligated (trapped) into going. I tried to sit in the back, all dressed in my somber, respectful, black, knee length dress and high heels, but we were scurried to the front pew since we were immediate family. Of course, it’s open casket. And it seems the Uncle and his son were avid hunters and drinkers. The Uncle was a falling down alcoholic, tolerated and loved by the family. I felt it somewhat inappropriate to send him off with a boozy wake, but I was still learning that stodgy wasn’t the best attitude for funerals. The Uncle was lying peacefully in his open coffin just feet away, half covered by a real bearskin, a beer propped in each hand, and another beside him with a straw to his mouth. Family members strolled past, each with a can of beer, stopping to take few swigs and dropping the remainder of the can inside the casket along with a personal note they tucked in his hand. The children had “root beers.” I found the notes sweet and the beer repulsive, but then again, I was learning to leave stodgy behind. After the funeral, we all did the procession to the cemetery for the burial. The ground was damp at the cemetery, for “easier digging” we were told. *shutter* I was the only one wearing stupid respectful high heels, which sank all the way in with each step. There was a lovely ceremony, no preacher, just the family saying remembrances – some funny, some sad, and some sweet. Then we all gathered closer to watch the lowering of the casket. Big stop! It seems the hole was not quite large enough. The casket jammed in the top. We all stood by for a few moments, and then his son stepped forward and stomped the top ends of the casket trying to get it to squeeze in. “I guess the sides need squared a bit more,” he said. Several of the larger men pulled the casket back up and set it to the side. Two of them grabbed campfire shovels from their trucks and began “squaring” the corners a bit more. Again – me – appalled! And a bit amused! While the men were working on the hole, every one chatted. This brought up the time I dropped the Aunt’s urn. *cringe* I wanted to crawl into the hole with the Uncle. Other less delightful accounts were shared, like the time Uncle was found at the stop sign, passed out in the driver’s seat of the car, with one foot on the brake and the other on the gas, as the car was in full rev. Finally, there is a consensus that the hole might be large enough now, and we gathered again. They lowered the casket half way down and again it sticks. This time the son jumps into the hole on top of the casket and jumps up and down until it clears the obstruction and hits bottom – which causes him to fall on his ass on top of it. With the help of family, he climbs out, and he and the 14-year-old grandson give it the final touch by throwing the bearskin down on top of the casket – just prior to the harder casket cover being lowered. But one of the bear paws flips up. At this point I have to say, this family is the live and learn type, so no one has really explained any of the funeral experiences or protocols to the many children present. It’s learned as you go along. The son turns to the grandson, places his hand on his shoulder, giving him a gentle nudge and says, “Jump down there and straighten that paw, okay?” The look on the grandson’s face was priceless – like dad was throwing him into a pit of killer zombies - horrified, scared, and not going to happen. The grandson stepped back stiffly, eyes huge, shaking his head no, and we all laughed so hard we cried. A funeral of smiles. The wake which followed was shockingly nice. I had never experienced this type of good bye. We ate and drank and cried and laughed and spent several rounds of drinks toasting the sad, macabre, funny and touching family experiences with their deceased Uncle.
I learned from these experiences that the right type of funeral is whatever the family wants. It’s not appalling or gross or disrespectful in any way. It’s just right! It serves the family best when the service and good byes belong totally to them. I’ve changed. Funerals aren’t so bad after all. My mother and father will pass soon. Both are ill. Cremations have been chosen with their blessing. *grin* One will snap, crackle, pop, and the other will whither like a leaf. I plan to have my mother’s and father’s ashes squeezed into two separate diamonds, laser engraved to pass on to family, with some ash kept on the side from each for memory urns, and little held in memory jewelry vials. I’m the current keeper of the family ashes for all the family members and that honored position will one day pass down to the next genealogy nut who volunteers it. No takers – yet! *grin*
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