The Fun-eral: A history.
“Ok, boys and girls… Today we are going to learn about a ritualistic ceremony for the dead our ancestors practiced. They were called funerals.”
The children whisper, “Funeral?” “What is that?”
“Say it with me children, ‘fyoon(ə)rəl’.”
“Fewnerall,” the class says in unison.
“Very good. Now a funeral is this old pronunciation and old style ritual for what you all know today as a fUn-eral.”
“You mean those really fun parties?”
“Yes, exactly Timmy.”
“But why did they say it so funny?”
“Alright. First, the word itself. Funeral comes from the Latin word funeralia, from funus or funer- which means death or corpse.”
“Why are they so into the dead part of it?”
“Excellent question! Lets start with a bit of history first, yes?”
“Yes! Yes!” they say.
“Well, Neanderthals are speculated to have adorned and buried their dead. Their cognitive abilities are somewhat discredited. So to what extent they were honoring and really pondering the concept of death, we do not know. There are safety and hygiene issues associated with such behavior. If there are predatory animals around, you do not want them coming around to pick at your Uncle Phil. Fast-forward a few tens of thousands of years to another salient point of interest on our funeral timeline, the Egyptians.”
“Oh! They’re they ones who pulled brains out of their noses!”
“That’s right Mary. They did more than that. They developed what is called embalming. Has anyone ever heard of the practice of embalming?”
“Isn’t that when they suck out all of your juices and put in other stuff?”
“Basically. But does anyone know why they did this?”
“Well, boys and girls, the goal of this removing and injecting of juices, as you’d say Mary, is to preserve the body.”
“For what?” asks Jane.
“That is a great question, Jane. I am sure many of you are wondering this… When someone dies, we all want them back. We want them to stay here with us.”
“But they’re dead. Do they want them like that?”
“Excellent point, Jane. Well, the Egyptians believed there was life after death, so obviously they’d need their bodies.”
“It may seem a bit silly, but it was quite common and taken as the norm at the time. Cultures have different ways of performing a funeral. For now, we will focus on American culture-Let’s fast-forward a bit more to just a few generations ago, meaning your great-grandparents, grandparents, maybe even some of your parents remember these funeral ceremonies…”
The students sit silently.
“Funerals were not a one day event. Bodies would be around for days, even weeks sometimes.”
“Yes. Yes. There were usually three parts to a funeral: visitation-sometimes called the wake-, the funeral itself, and the burial.”
“Wouldn’t it start to smell!?”
“In some cases, yes it would. This is why they would perform embalmings. All the ‘juices’ they suck out and replace with preserving chemicals are to keep the body less, well, corpse like.”
“That sounds like a big waste of time! I don’t want someone pumping full of chemicals!”
“Me either, Timmy. Now after all of that, they would lay the person in a very elaborate, many times expensive box called a coffin.”
“Come on… Why would they do that?”
“Again this idea of preserving their loved ones.”
“But that isn’t them anymore!”
“Correct, John, but alas… Grief is a strange thing that makes you do strange things. Many time you don’t know what to do, so you go with the custom.”
“Ok, fine. So they have a dead guy in their house…”
“Well, not always in their house. As time went on, people started businesses that would do all of this stuff for you! They were called ‘funeral homes’. They’d pick the body up, clean it, embalm it, put it in its best clothes, and all other plans for the multiple day event. People who knew the person would first come to a viewing, where they would, well, view the body.”
“What! Why would anyone want to do that? That sounds like it would sad!”
“Thank you for pointing that out, Jane. Here is what I have been waiting to tell you all… Funeral were in fact quite different from what we know today as fun-erals. They were very, very sad gatherings where people came together to usually sit quietly in the room with the dead body and cry.”
The class looks distressed and in disbelief when one hand in the back raises with trepidation.
“Why were… I mean… Why did people only see a dead body?
“What do you mean?”
“Well… There was a life, too. And it’s not in the body…”
“Oh, dear Becca. You have cut to the heart of this… Yes, class. Did everyone hear that? There was a life. And, hopefully, it was a great, fun life to be celebrated. This is what we now do today.”
“When did it change?”
“Well, dear Becca… I believe that is your story to tell.”
October 21st, 2011: A day that has no witty title...
The day he exits. No graceful bow, no wink at the audience. No last hooray. Just the silent exit of a person exhausted from the ravages of cancer. This was a long-drawn-out exit. Months. Months of events my fingers don’t have the strength to type at this moment. But now, it’s over.
No-It’s not over yet. You still have to go through with the funeral.
Oh my god, no. I can’t. I can’t do that.
You said the same thing about the last few months, but you did, and you will, and you have to.
I can’t stand in a front of a pew with a line of people waiting their turn to express their sorrows and condolences. I can’t!
You will get through this. What is it about the funeral you feel you can’t do?
The whole process… And I DO NOT want to see my dad covered in make up in a casket. I can’t. He looked bad enough in the end. He would stare in the mirror at himself silently. Tia took the mirror down. He wouldn’t have wanted people to remember him like that… I just can’t see him like that. I CAN’T.
You could, but you don’t have to.
But that’s how it is. That’s the way it’s going to go. In those horrible funeral homes… And what are we going to do? Bury him? Where? In Rio Grande? Why? Ahh… I can’t do this. I know I can’t do that.
You don’t have to.
What else could I do?
Anything you want.
Don’t be ridiculous.
Well, I mean anything you think he would want.
God… He would hate all of that funeral crap too…
You’ve got it…
Keep going with it…
I had decided a few days before his actual death to visit six different funeral homes within a 45 minutes radius. I should note I religiously watched the HBO show Six Feet Under. I knew a thing or two about funeral homes. Two of the six did not come out to greet me in the ‘lobby’ area. Rude. They looked at me so oddly when I said I was planning my Dad’s funeral. I left quickly. Three of the remaining four felt very rehearsed (Huh- would you look at that, re‘ hearse’d.) and uninterested in the weird requested I was making.
“Can we customize the prayer cards?”
“No, sorry ma’am. They come preprinted with Jesus or Mary.”
“Yeah, no. This is about my Dad. Can we bring alcohol? We can play any music, right?”
“Um, yes. I believe so.”
“Are all the rooms this color?”
I leave. I try Kreiger. An old, very old family old business. They... They were kind.
He was an older man who seemed experienced. He was understanding. He didn't act surprised or bothered by my strange questions. His voice was soothing. I wanted them to take care of my father.
The only problem was the venue itself. There was a common theme in all of these ‘salons’. They are all baby colors. Baby pink or baby blue in this case. It was also too small. It can't be here... But I knew we would have to deal with a funeral home for the “processing” of the body since there are laws about bury someone just anywhere in anyway... I chose them.
I have a different idea for funeral itself....
“Mom, sit down. We need to talk about what we are going to do as far as arrangements go.”
Shit, she’s already choking up. My chest tightens.
“But, I have an idea… Just hear me out.”
She is exhausted and looks skeptical.
“Just hear me out… What if… I know it sounds crazy, but what if instead… We have a party at a really nice, classy restaurant bar downtown?”
I can’t remember her initial response, but I’m sure it was a very exhausted shock. I talk for a few minutes. I have never worked so hard to sell something. She is still silent.
“Please just let me handle the funeral. I promise it will be good.”
“Can we do that? What are people going to say?” she asks.
“Mom, Dad just died. You are his wife and I am his daughter. We can do whatever we want to achieve what he would have wanted. The hell with what people say. They aren’t the ones living this right now. It will be good, Mom. Just trust me…”
In reality she would not be able to plan a funeral. I think she knew that. Somehow she reluctantly bestows me with the control. I leave the house with a goal. I big one.
I find a venue, The Alhambra. I meet with a manager. I can tell I am making them a bit uncomfortable but they seem determined to accommodate me. My significant other at the time knew the chef who was all for the idea. We talk numbers, food, drinks, etc. He finally, reluctantly asks,
"Um, is there going to be a, um... b-"
"A body?" I interrupt to make him feel less uncomfortable. "No, he's being cremated. It will just be a box. No body."
He looks relieved. Good to go. My mom meets me later to try various dishes. They are all delicious but tasteless to the reward system for my mother right now. I am on a strange autopilot. Deal it done. The party is scheduled for October 31st, 2011. Yes, Halloween. It just so happens to work out that way.
There was intense scrutiny from the family for our plans. I spend the next few days deflecting and acquire the other necessary components. Design and have printed custom prayer cards. Dig through hundreds of pictures from my Dad’s birth to the present. Chose the best ones, have them scanned and printed. Frame fifty to sit on each table to be taken by the guests. Purchase hundreds of candles. Gather all of my dad’s favorite things. Go through all of his music and fill six hours worth on a USB. Buy a microphone for everyone to tell stories on once we are drunk. A projector to show the scanned pictures. Gold doilies. Spray paint 15 Klennex boxes gold. I even go to my old catholic school and run into my old principal. She hated me. But in this circumstance I like to imagine her even more awkward awkwardness was actually a bit of compassion and sympathy.
On the day of the party my significant other, best friend, and I arrive at the venue with two full vehicles.
I am horrified. The outside is covered in cheap Halloween decorations. They have not cleaned up from the weekend. They are not answering the door. It is 2:00pm. We have around 2.5 hours. Fuck it. I start climbing the large iron fence that spider webs and skeletons are hung from and hack away with my knife. My crew follows. The cleaning crew arrives and lets us in. Once inside, I give the orders.
“Make sure there is one doily, one photo, one candle, and make sure there aren’t two candles the same color next to each other, and spread the prayer cards in a fan!”
What good friends I have. Hours later we rush out. I instruct the crew to arrange another flowers that might be delivered from the funeral home. (They ended up doing the cremation, announcement, flower receivers, and support for the funeral. They also, to our knowledge… Never charged us...) We rush home to get ready. I put on my best suit, the same suit I wore when I was a pallbearer in my grandma’s funeral. To finish it, I don Dad's black felt fedora.
Church. Some of that standing in a pew with people hugging me. I survive.
Then, to the event. I take my Dad’s ashes which are in a beautiful square mesquite wood box. I run into the venue to place him on his pedestal. Then I run and change into the nicest black dress I own. I put back on the fedora. I’m ready.
Hundreds of people filled the space. Hundreds of people who adored my father, who had beautiful fond memories that many of them drunkenly shared. The night was filled with tears, laughter, memories, mourning, joy, and the type of connection few expect from a funeral. Because you don’t really get that at a funeral.
You get that at a fun-eral.
I hope one day, the quirky dialogue at the beginning of this story becomes a reality. There are different ways to do things. Do what they would have wanted. What they would have enjoyed. When in my most intense feelings of doubt, I would turn to my significant other and ask, “Am I doing the right thing? Everyone is so angry… Is this wrong?” It was his answer that convinced me.
“If there is a heaven and your Dad was walking through the gates, he would be walking into this party.”
This is to you, Dad. You made this. You made me. And I hope I have made you proud.
I love you.