I I I I I I I  

Scenes from a Funeral

I went to a funeral
Lord it made me happy
Seeing all those people
I ain't seen
Since the last time
Somebody died

-Lyle Lovett, "Since the Last Time"

My grandfather was not my mother's biological father. Her father died when she was an infant, leaving my grandmother with five children. My "Pawpaw" had also been married before and had two children.

My grandparents started dating when my mother was eight and she went on every date they ever had. A year later, when my grandparents decided to marry, my grandmother's mother opposed it. She said my grandfather was a wonderful man, but it would never work because there were too many "steps" between them. Despite the seven stepchildren between them, my grandparents were happily married for 45 years.

Most of their children had children of their own, and now we're all having babies. So far, my grandparents have eleven grandchildren, nineteen great grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. And now, for the first time in years, we're all together, in the tiny East Texas town where my mother grew up, for my grandfather's funeral.

The first event of the weekend is the visitation - open casket, of course. I'm a little worried about how my children will do, but they seem to take the momenti mori in stride. Later, I discover that all the kids were daring one another to go into the chapel and look at Pawpaw's body. I can't decide if this is healthy or if it's fodder for future therapy sessions.

In the midst of entertaining the children and meeting long lost relatives, I try to take a meditative moment to say goodbye to my grandfather. He doesn't look like himself. He looks, well, cadaverous. His formerly round, jovial face is drawn and thin. In his tasteful dark suit he looks like a butler in a Merchant/Ivory movie.

One of my uncles comes to get me, explaining that "my boy" is throwing up in front of the funeral home. After emptying his stomach, Drew seems fine, so we carry on.

Funerals are supposed to be somber, but when it's your only chance to catch up with family, it begins to feel like a party. The kids run around the foyer of the funeral home, wrestling with their second cousins. My first cousins and I tell each other the canonized stories from our childhoods - my grandfather's ghost stories, the time my cousin tripped my brother and he had to have stitches, the way we always got covered in mud catching crawdads and playing in the creek. It's a pleasant discovery that our childhood alliances are not as clearly drawn as they once were, and old animosities have finally been buried. As adults, we all like each other.

(continued at right)

The next morning my husband is worried that his suit - an olive green double breasted affair - is not serious enough. He frets that he won't make a good impression on my family and they'll think he's a bad husband. I remind him that my cousins' ex-husbands have set the bar exceedingly low and he brightens considerably. Nothing is more cheering than the thought that your stock has been boosted by someone else's poor performance.

The morning of the funeral, my brother and I sit with our cousins on the porch of my grandparent's house, in various stages of readiness, drinking coffee, smoking, and gossiping about the family. We have a sort of simultaneous realization that we're the grown-ups now. We add up all the substance abusers and mentally ill folks in the family - my biological grandfather, my grandmother, all four of my mother's biological siblings, many of the first cousins - and we make each other promise to intervene if we start acting crazy. We all confess to having addictive personalities and one up one another with our sad little stories of binges and depressive episodes. We laugh hysterically, because if you don't laugh you'll cry.

The family elders decree that we must all attend Sunday morning services at the Southern Baptist church where my grandparents were lifelong members. We take up three pews in the church - three generations of Williams, Birds, and Turpins. The hymns are old school gospel: "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" and "Washed in the Blood." For the grand finale, the invitational, we sing "The Fountain of Blood," "with every head bowed and every eye closed" (which makes it somewhat difficult for the non-Baptists to sing along). The preacher is an effusive, welcoming man who comments repeatedly on how many children there are in the family. I look down the pew during the good old fashioned fire and brimstone sermon and every one of them is fast asleep. My three-month-old snores gently against my chest, loud enough that people turn to see where the noise is coming from.

After the service, we attend a luncheon provided by the women of the church in the fellowship hall. Nothing but Southern comfort food as far as the eye can see - sandwiches, potato salad, deviled eggs, and oh the desserts! Chocolate pie, banana pudding, pralines, cheesecake with strawberry pie filling on top and four different kinds of cookies. My ne'er-do-well cousin stands behind me in the food line, talking about his band and not talking about his recent divorce, his cheap polyester suit reeking of pot smoke. One of my mother's stepbrothers has yet to make an appearance at any of the events, and there's lots of whispered speculation about where he might be. The soap opera vibe is compounded when my aunt is unexpectedly confronted with the son she hasn't seen in 45 years. Everyone lauds my husband because he irons his own clothes and plays with the kids.

We arrive at the funeral home and congregate in a back room. My uncle strolls in as if this was the plan all along. The children all begin to exhibit signs of melt-down, hooting during the minister's pre-funeral prayer and trying to escape as we file into the chapel. The nursing home choir sings "In the Garden." The Baptist minister preaches another hellfire sermon, entitled "Are You Ready to Go to Jesus?" with illustrations from my grandfather's life. My mother leans over and whispers, "I'm glad I asked him to keep it light." We all file by the open casket one more time. My daughter balks and a family friend takes her out. My son yells, loudly, "I want to see his body!"

The final event is the graveside service. By this point, we're all tired and thinking forward to our long drives home. We parents have given up trying to control the kids, and they play a boisterous game of tag in amongst the family graves. It occurs to me that chasing children is a very effective way to avoid dealing with your grief.

Before we hit the road, there's one last family dinner. I look around at these faces I've known all my life, at the family features repeated in various permutations across the generations, and think about the less visible, but equally persistent, family traits - the seeds of madness and addiction, the love of music, the narrative drive which converts all our sorrows into stories. This is our real family resemblance, our true legacy from my grandparents, and despite everything, we look pretty good.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


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