Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We which are alive and remain

Edith’s funeral was held today. She died 37 days ago; three more days and, were she Greek Orthodox, they would be chanting the Trisagion (“thrice blessed”) prayers in her memory.

Edith’s epilogue was different; the drama began when she was being taken to the hospital morgue, where she remained another 10 days before anyone would claim her. Edith had been at odds with her only surviving brother, whose daughter, not on the best of terms with Edith herself, thought Edith’s friend, Steve, should bury her out of the proceeds of a small insurance policy on Edith’s life, of which Steve was named as beneficiary. Steve, who is disabled, on oxygen, and the survivor of a serious automobile accident from a few months ago, needed the money to tide him over until the other driver’s insurance settles. And in any case, Edith’s policy has not paid off.

Thus Edith, who in life was a very giving person, remained unclaimed in death, literally frozen until something should happen to resolve the standoff. Her two children were dead years ago, her surviving brother is himself not long for this world, the rest of her family was estranged from her, and her friends lacked funds or legal standing to proceed at all. I’m not sure who blinked first, but she was cremated last week, and I learned two days ago that a brief memorial service would be held today.

It was the first funeral I had ever attended that had to be postponed a half hour because the family was late, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Her long-time friend and neighbor, Tim, who lives across the street and made sure Edith wasn’t bothered by the local drug pushers, sat patiently with his daughter. Tiffany, for whom Edith cared when Tiffany was an infant, sat there alternately attending to her own one-year-old son and weeping disconsolately. Mary, Tiffany’s mother, who had been Edith’s friend until Edith caught Mary helping herself to small sums from Edith’s checking account, was heard to say that “Anyone who cain’t even put Miz Edith’s ashes in the ground and put a marker over her don’t deserve to be here.” Steve stayed away.

Several friends of Edith attended. Carol, a woman in her early 50s, told me she had known Edith since Carol herself was 16; she called her “Mom.” Carol’s own adult daughter is dead of leukemia, and Carol introduced her 9-year-old granddaughter. Two other ladies told me that they had visited Edith in the hospital and helped her find a wrestling match to watch on television the last night of her life; deathbed or not, Edith was not going to miss her favorite lifelong entertainment.

Someone played a recording of Elvis singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A young Baptist minister got up and gave a standard appeal: “If you know Jesus, you will meet Miss Edith in heaven, and if you don’t know Him, Miss Edith would want you to.” I don’t doubt his sincerity, but he had never met Edith and was young enough to be the son of most of the people there, so I suspect his words were more endured than heeded.

Funerals are always a mixed bag. I was fortunate that the first one I ever attended, when I was just 10 years old, of a 70-year-old great-great aunt whom I had never seen, was presided over by another minister of about 45 whose air of calm authority mixed with humane care, added warmth and reassurance to what could otherwise have been a frightening and unsettling experience for a small boy. He frankly admitted that he had not known the deceased but managed to make his listeners believe that she and her faith mattered to him personally.

The next funeral I attended, the following year, was quite different. The minister, considerably younger, also did not know the deceased, and his tone and manner, as he read the words of St. Paul, were rather cold, as though he were reciting a not altogether agreeable lesson by rote. At age 11, I remember thinking to myself, “He’s as cold as the air-conditioning in here. How different this is from last year!”

Then, there are ministers who believe they are clever and creative and preach something topical, on the order of “He crashed into the gates of heaven, just like the space shuttle” (I’m not kidding!) The same minister said “It’s beautiful to hear this music today, but just think what it will be like in heaven, when we get to hear Elvis all the time!” Ahem…even as some physicists speculate that there may be multiple universes, one is tempted to hope for alternate celestial realms!

Sometimes, the missteps come from the deceased themselves who, anticipating their own deaths, took the trouble to write out “inspiring” services of their own; e.g., “We have the husk with us, though the nut is gone” (again, I’m not making this up!)

A book of etiquette from 1836 describes funereal behavior with cynical realism; it recommends that the mourner compose his features into a semblance of grief while inevitably thinking of last night’s party or the current political primary. And I’ve heard that in at least one African country, perhaps the Côte D’Ivoire, funerals are very well attended for the simple reason that the young mourners find them to be promising venues to find new relationship partners!

Today’s service was meaningful because of the love shown by the several female friends of Edith who attended. One of them got up and read one of those poems you are practically bound to hear at a funeral, that goes something like

“I knew there would come a day
When you must go away
I grieve for you with love
Hoping to see you up above…”

It won’t win a prize, but before she read it, the woman blinked back the tears and said “Y’all bear with me while I try to get through this,” and what she felt for Edith was what we all shared, and that was all that mattered.

I got up afterward and said a few words, to the effect that Edith was rich in friends. The young minister had preached the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, with the rich man crying out afterward from his torment. I said Edith’s story reminded me rather of the instance when Jesus saw rich people contributing to the temple treasury and then an elderly widow putting in a single coin. “These all gave out of their abundance,” he said, “but she has given all she had.”

I slipped out during the closing prayer and drove around the corner to the apartment Steve moved into a week ago after Edith’s niece threatened to evict him from Edith’s house. We chatted in his open doorway; the reek of cigarette smoke coming from the place was at a level I have experienced only once before, years ago. He was philosophical about the whole thing and is still trying to get the insurance company to pay on the small policy. The company wants to see an obituary, which Edith’s family has not supplied.

I knew Edith when she was old and frail; I was surprised, in a way, to see that most of the photographs displayed next to the urn containing her ashes were of a stronger and more robust woman than I had known; one of them had her standing, arms akimbo, in a pose that challenged the onlooker, though with frank good humor. I think that if she could know what happened after her passing, she would snort in amusement and have a good chuckle.

© Michael Huggins, 2010. All rights reserved.

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