(My German friend wrote a wonderful comment on one of my blog postings and it jarred a memory for me…)
Funerals are, well, they are funerals. Something very odd happens when the living intersects with the dead. It is a very odd invite list. At this intersection the rules of engagement can be in conflict. We laugh with joyful memories, we cry at our loss.
For some people, their religion steps in and clears up the muddled mess with ceremony, tradition, and an additional cost of dying. Sometimes two or more sacred ceremonies are combined for the sendoff.
My mother had many cousins, but one of my favorites was a joyful man who enjoyed beer, women, hard work in the outdoors, and had an absolute devotion to his family. He had money, but he wouldn’t spend it on fancy cars or home improvement projects. He lived in a small town outside of Yosemite National Park where he spent his youth living in a Native American (Indian) village along with my mother and many others.. My wonderful great grandmother was his wonderful grandmother. (I’ll blog about her later.)
As often happens, this favorite cousin died. His graveyard ceremony was a mixture of Miwok (his tribe) and Catholic burial traditions. The cemetery was 50 yards from his house which does make dying a little more convenient. The cemetery is old with bare dirt and small trees on an arid hillside. It is also right in the middle of the so-called California Mother Lode, a rich deposit of gold that ended up not being kind to the original inhabitants, the Miwoks.
Being a very popular, ‘favorite son’ of the area, many people were standing on that hillside for the grave site ceremony. The old people were in cheap, plastic chairs sitting about 5 feet from the casket. Miwok passages songs were sung and the priest followed his script. The pallbearers stood at attention in their denim jeans and cowboy boots. The time came to lower the casket into the just dug out ground. It was lowered with some contraption that had two straps around the casket to slowly lower our cousin to his final resting place. It was a very nice ceremony until…
… one of the straps broke and the casket suddenly jumped up and tilted, like the Titanic sinking into the ocean, with my cousin’s casket going headfirst into the hole. For the first time in my life, I heard what a collective gasp sounded like. It was like everyone sucked in all the available air into their lungs. I can only describe it as the opposite sound of the wind. The old people’s eyes got huge, but they didn’t seem to move, even keeping their heads still…a combination of shock and stoicism.
Well, the next thing that happened, and it happen very quickly, was that the pallbearers all jumped into the grave to try to level the casket out with their arms, shoulders, legs…whatever. Soon there were at least six boots sticking up in the air as if their wearers were doing handstands. The boots almost looked like flowers at the graveyard, all different styles and colors.
I was standing about ten yards away, by my myself, and at my great grandmother’s grave site. I thought, “Shit, you don’t see this everyday.” I even considered taking out my smartphone and taking a picture, but decided perhaps I shouldn’t. Now I kind of wish I had. Fortunately, someone had taken the time before the ceremony to make sure the casket lid was secured..or this story would have included the deceased tumbling out of his new dwelling.
The boys in the grave got everything fixed and climbed out covered with fresh dirt and the ceremony continued with nobody acknowledging what had just taken place. We put rose petals on the lowered casket and walked back through the graveyard to my cousin’s nearby house for food and conversation. Still, nobody said a thing as we snaked our way around the graveyard. I was walking next to my 90 year-old grandmother, who loved her nephew as a son. This grandmother was not your prototypical grandmother. She still loved to get drunk and she cussed like a sailor. She was also very, very smart. I finally said to her as we were still making our way down the graveyard hill, “Well, that was something.” My grandmother replied, ” I am sure he was saying, what the hell’s going on up there? I am headfirst here! Can’t you do anything right?” I asked her, “What do you think he would have done if he was here?” She replied, “He would have laughed his fucking ass off.” And, with that, we started laughing our asses off as we headed for the afterparty.
Five years later, I once again was at that same cemetery with the same priest and the same people except for one… it was time for my grandmother’s graveyard service. Toward the end of it, the kindly priest slid over and quietly asked me if I wanted to lower the casket while everyone was present or do it after we all left (back to my same cousin’s house for the afterparty)? I said, “Father, I’ve seen what can happen. Maybe we should have everyone leave first.” He nodded that wise nod of holy men as if to say, “Good answer,my son.”