(From September 2013)
One unusual aspect of my mom’s funeral was that the funeral home my sister used defined the utility of the word “pallbearer” literally. As the brief graveside service ended, the funeral director called upon the pallbearers to lift the casket with straps and put my mom and her casket into the dug grave. Many people were shocked or surprised by this. It caught me off guard, even though I had seen the grave the night before and as the service started: there was no platform or lifter, which seems to be almost a requirement by today’s standard.
My sister chose the funeral home that mom had found that would allow her to be buried at a greatly reduced price. It was tremendously less expensive. Up until very recently, I had thought that mom was still going to be cremated. Part of mom’s growing reluctance for cremation was a result of one of my aunts talking to her about her particular beliefs about burial and cremation. To be honest, I wanted mom to be cremated – and not only because I hate the entire concept of burial as we do it today. I kept telling my sister that since she was the one who stepped up to care for mom as she was dying of cancer, it would ultimately be her decision. I’ve written before about how appreciative I am of my sister’s recent efforts:
Before I forget, too: mom was late for her own visitation. The hearse and her body had went to the wrong place. Another admission: my wife and passed the hearse on the roadside on the way to the Lutheran church. My wife conjectured that it probably was mom in that hearse on the roadside. I stupidly said, “There are 100s of hearses in Monroe County.” This is the point where I eat a plate of crow for being absolutely, totally wrong. (It had in fact been mom’s hearse…)
Not to pour salt on anyone’s feelings, but mom had told me repeatedly that she didn’t want a viewing. She got one, though. I do not know how to say it with decorum or in good taste as there is a strong taboo against saying it – but mom looked terrible in the open casket. I’ll spare you the details and you should use your imagination. But even as I saw her hair above the rim of the coffin, I knew that it was going to be bad. I don’t blame the funeral service or my sister. Mom’s appearance in many ways was a slap-to-the-face reminder about how literal death is and how viewings can be. With a closed casket, maybe we could have been “spared” the shock of it. But why should we want to be spared? Cancer is a destroyer. Mom died a hard death and making a herculean effort to “restore” her is almost blasphemy to me. For those in attendance with beliefs in the afterlife, it should not matter, for if the body is truly just a vessel, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether ANY restoration was done. I know I sound like an old stooge, going on about the artificial facade of most funerals. Whatever helps the family. But I can only react and comment as myself. I wish mom had been cremated and if not, that she had been buried without being exposed again to the world. But at least those parts were more honest than many I’ve witnessed. As tough-minded as I am, I think I might be haunted for a while, thinking of how startling mom’s appearance was.
5 of my sister’s 6 boys and my nephew Quinlan lowered my mom into the grave. The oldest boy had to step aside, as he almost slipped in. I tried to get over to the grave before they went sideways with the coffin but by then one of the boys had stepped hard on the edge and righted it as they lowered it into the ground. I forgot to mention that mom’s coffin didn’t have a liner or vault. Many people think that these are required for burials in Arkansas. They aren’t – nor should they be. Mom’s coffin went directly into the ground. It didn’t have a special seal or gasket, either.
I told them all that I was glad they got to participate directly with the burial. I explained to them that while I don’t believe in burial, I truly believe that burial should have nothing extra involved. It should be just the wrapped body going into the ground – and not because of the needless money involved, but rather to acknowledge that death is real, personal and meaningful in its own right. Much of our processions seem to distance us from our connection to death and the ground. Maybe the pallbearers thought I was crazy for thinking it was all a good thing – but I do – and it was.
Among other things affecting my mom’s passing was the incredible delta heat. It was 100 degrees on the day she was buried. Despite being well into September, both the heat and humidity were at record levels. Everything was baked and even the cologne and perfume applied earlier in the morning had burned into a different, strong smell from the sun.
The church service was very hot, too. The country church didn’t have the cooling capacity for so many people, especially during record heat outside. Mom’s inside service ended around noon, just about the time the sun started to angrily beat down everything in its way.As in further punishment, my wife had to step into another room and leave me alone for most of the service, as the heat was about to kill her. Before I forget to mention it, I had a mild case of heat exhaustion the day before, on Sunday. I don’t know how close I came to serious injury but I knew afterwards that it had been a close call. I felt horrible for my wife, as I knew she was going to feel guilty for not being there with me.
Sundown the night before, my wife and I had driven the circuit out to and including Upper Cemetery in Rich, Monroe County, Arkansas. The heat was declining, but still over 90. As we drove through the cemetery to the swamp’s edge, the bugs were hitting the car with surprising force. Even as we parked and stopped, the bugs continued to hit the windows, top and doors hard enough to thud. I compare it to walking through a sheet of falling skittles. I jumped out of the car, dozens of bugs, flies, mosquitoes and dragon flies hitting me. I went over to lift the plywood off of the grave recently dug for my mom’s coffin. I wanted to linger and stare at the headstones, but the insects were starting to use me as a landing pad, even though I had only been out of the car for a few moments. I’ve always loved cemeteries and at sunset, they evolve into something magical. At Upper Cemetery at sundown, the ebbing sun hits the swamps and trees in a startling pattern. It is at that moment that I can sometimes feel the line of ancestors behind me, signalling to inhale deeply the richness of the swamp.