Have you ever wished you had a camera at a funeral?
My father’s uncle, Larry, died last week, peacefully in his sleep at the age of 87. I’m glad somebody in my family got to go like that; it’s not usually the way things work for my people. My parents were unable to make the trip for the funeral, but Tuesday night, after work, I headed to my sister’s house, crashed for a few hours and then went to the service Wednesday morning.
You have to understand my family in order to understand the way we do funerals. There are a few key words:
Completely inappropriate in almost every possible way
Alright, so that last item was several words unto itself. But they’re probably the most key keywords.
So somehow we all managed to arrive at the church at the exact same time, coming at each other in all different directions to centralize in the parking lot. Within seconds, at least five people were standing in the middle of that lot, in mourning clothes, eating soft pretzels. This is Philadelphia’s version of breakfast. And the pretzels were warm, so it qualifies as gourmet.
Generally speaking, when we all get together for funerals, we start reminiscing about other family members’ funerals. This gathering was no different, and before long we were waxing nostalgic for that time in 1994 when my father’s cousin Diana was killed in a car accident. Diana was Uncle Larry’s daughter. She was… um… not small. My father, his two brothers, two of their male cousins and three other grown men were pallbearers. None of them are small men, but between Diana’s size and their limited ability to move when they were all in place, they struggled to get the casket where it needed to go. In fact, they almost dropped her once. My youngest uncle, Joe, recounted his reaction when everyone arrived for Diana’s burial Mass.
“I wasn’t playin’ around,” he told us Wednesday morning as he held part of a pretzel. When he’d sized up Diana’s coffin, he had known enough about physics to voice a preferred position in the honored cadre of men. “I pointed at that casket, I said, ‘I call middle,'” he laughed.
His cousin’s husband, Carl, cracked up. “You ass,” he said. “You stuck me on an end!” (Carl, being an in-law, is of a somewhat less bullish build.)
“Damn right I did!” Uncle Joe crowed, polishing off the last of his breakfast.
“You missed the night before, at the viewing,” I told Carl. “Uncle Joe and my dad, standing at the back of the funeral home next to each other, staring at Diana, talking out the sides of their mouths to each other: ‘How we gonna do this?'”
Uncle Joe broke up again with laughter. Choking on carbs, he painted a clearer picture. “We didn’t think they’d even be able to close the casket.”
Carl rolled his eyes and nodded with a groan as if to say, “I hear ya.”
“And then,” I said, “I was up kneeling on the prie-dieu with Dad, and he bumped her arm. All he saw was, her arm moved. And he opened one eye at me–” I gave the proper look, one eye wide, the other closed, the beginnings of terror evident– “I had to tell him, ‘Dad, you bumped her. You bumped her arm.’ Dad goes” — I dropped my voice low and quiet, sotto voce, and barely moved my lips — “‘Are you sure?'” Back to my normal voice, I finished. “I said, ‘Yes, Dad, you bumped her arm. What, you think she’s moving?'”
Howling from Uncle Joe and my dad’s oldest brother, Jim. It wasn’t just because my dad wasn’t there to defend himself. He would have been mocked if he were there, too. But he also would have been joining in.
“Remember Aunt Beth standing outside?” Sister 1 asked me. Did I. Because Diana had been killed in a car accident, certain modifications had to be made at the funeral home. No one would have known that if it weren’t for Aunt Beth standing outside, telling everyone as they walked in for the viewing, “Don’t touch her head. Don’t touch her head.” To some people who couldn’t help but throw a curious look her way, she drew an oval around her forehead with her finger and broadly mouthed “wax” with a grimace.
(You’re welcome for that image. I’ll spare you the story I got to hear later about an Italian guy whose mother, in her dramatic sorrow, lifted his head up off the casket’s pillow. You don’t want to know.)
After twenty minutes of eating and clowning around in the parking lot while our dearly departed uncle lay in blessed repose inside, we decided we should probably act like grown-ups and go in. The funeral director had brought Uncle Larry over from the funeral home for a final calling hour before the Mass began. Greeting scattered relatives as we passed by them, we worked our way to the back of the church where the casket stood, open. But before you get to the body, you have to peruse the obligatory photo collage.
Uncle Larry had some outfits.
In one photo, he and his late wife, Aunt Gennie, were wearing matching clothes. His shirt and her dress were both excruciatingly loud orange and brown patterns. They were reclining on a twin bed. The color that had faded from the photo – which I’m putting at a good 45 years old – did little to dampen the visual assault. Below that photo were two snapshots of Uncle Larry seemingly surrounded by snow. It was piled well above his head. He wore a fur-lined hat, with the front of the hat folded up so the lining showed. He was hunkered down and appeared to be in winter military dress, which would put this photogenic moment in the era of World War II. In his left arm, he cradled, of all things, a black and white cat.
“How the hell did he find a cat in all that snow?” Carl asked, but I was already on to a family dinner photo – you know, the ones where everyone gathers at one end of the table – which not only featured Uncle Larry in a hugely plaid button-down shirt, but also a far hairier version of Carl in a tight and fuzzy v-neck.
“This is a flattering shot of you, Carl,” I directed his attention to the mustachioed, long-haired guy who had morphed into a present-day man shaved bald in every place north of his shoulders.
“Yeah, those were my porn star days,” Carl quipped.
“Oh my God, what the hell is that?!” came from Carl’s left. Another cousin, and she was pointing at a photo in the upper right corner of the poster board. It was Uncle Larry, shirtless (please God, only shirtless), in a red, heart-shaped tub full of bubbles. Some of them were piled on top of his bald head. (Uncle Larry never did have hair. The only picture I’ve ever seen in which he had hair was the one taken of him, my grandmother and their youngest sister when Uncle Larry was probably four.)
At first I wondered why Aunt Gennie wasn’t in that bubbly tub shot (which I guessed had been taken in the Poconos), but then again, I was glad; Lord only knows what would have been going on in that picture, and this was church, after all. Cackling from the “mourners” in the back notwithstanding.
Directly below that photo was a shot of dear old bald and portly Uncle Larry in his best tux. By which I mean his only tux. I believe the event was his late daughter Sara’s wedding sometime in the latter part of the ’70s. (Yes, Uncle Larry and Aunt Gennie lost both of their daughters young; Sara had severe diabetes and died in 2001 when she was about 50). The tux featured a shirt so ruffled down the front that it looked more like a costume. The ruffles were edged in black piping.
My dad’s youngest sister, Anne, is the executor of the estate and power of attorney. She tells me that Uncle Larry wanted to be buried in that tux. Which means he still had it. She had told me on the phone shortly after his death that she and Uncle Jim were looking at two suit options, one of which had been purchased in 1956 and the other of which had been purchased in 1957. She wisely nixed the tux and had the funeral home put Uncle Larry in one of those black, loose-knit suits.
After I knelt at my great-uncle’s casket, said a prayer for his peaceful rest and took a good look at him (They never get the mouth right, I mused with disdain. People always say, “Oh, he looks so good!” but they never get the mouth right.), my eyes roamed over the sprays of flowers around him.
And then I saw it.
Uncle Larry spent every Sunday for the last decade in Atlantic City at the casinos. He’d ride a bus down, collect $20 in quarters from the tour company, eat the meal they fed him and play the slots all day. When I see seniors squandering away hours and prescription co-payment money sitting in front of a ca-chinging, blinging, dinging machine in a vast, windowless room with mirrored walls and hideously patterned carpet meant to make you forget what day or time it is, it makes me really sad. But Uncle Larry loved it. He did not miss a Sunday. And he did not care if someone in the family was being Christened, or making their First Communion, or having some other sort of party. There were no exceptions. If it was Sunday, Larry was in AC playing the slots. Invite him anyway if you want, but he ain’t comin’.
Days before the funeral, the florist had asked Aunt Anne, and Uncle Larry’s only grandchild, Patrick, if they wanted anything special. Jokingly, Patrick had asked, “Got a slot machine?”
And behold, I present unto thee…
Yes. I took a picture at a funeral. I mean, somebody had to.
I left the body out. You’re welcome for that, too. If you’d like the layout (no pun intended), this gem of a floral creation was at the immediate foot of Uncle Larry’s casket.
My mouth dropped when I saw this thing and I looked at Aunt Anne.
“No.” I said flatly.
“Oh yeah,” she said, nodding. “Yep. It is.”
I looked at it more closely, taking in the details: the 7-7-7 on the roll, the spillover of floral silver coins coming through the mouth at the bottom of the machine. The only thing that would have made it better (and by “better” I mean “more horrifyingly, deliciously inappropriate”) would have been a swirling light on top and sound effects, and maybe a rig-up that made it sound off and spit out more floral silver coins every time Uncle Larry’s name was mentioned.
“Oh, I wish I had my camera,” I said. “Is that wrong?”
“Hell, no!” Aunt Anne replied, pointing at a cousin. “He took a picture. Do you have your phone? Post it on Facebook and tag me in it.”
I dug my phone (which I had respectfully turned off) out of my purse and snapped the shot. If my mother had been there, she would have chidingly said my name and tsked her tongue.
But my mother wasn’t there.
Neener neener neener.
The casket also featured one of those mesh-backed ball caps with the name of Uncle Larry’s favorite gambling establishment emblazoned on the front above a bill that had never been bent. I’d seen that red, white and blue cap perched on Uncle Larry’s head many times, hitting far above his brow so that the mesh left his bald head air-conditioned. The hat now lay at his feet, along with old framed photos of him with Aunt Gennie, Diana, Sara, Sara’s late husband Tom (Agent Orange vaccine, Vietnam: Hep C and then liver cancer) and Patrick.
Taken as a whole, the display was just stunning. As my family often says, “All class. Lower-middle, but all class.”
The Mass proceeded as it usually does, and those of us with parts to read did well, including my father’s cousin Margaret, who was terrified that when she got to the word “hoary” in her reading from the Book of Wisdom, Aunt Beth would make her laugh. Even Aunt Beth herself, who is not at all fond of speaking in front of groups, did well with the second reading. Sister 1 and I handled the Intercessions (non-Catholics: this is the “we pray to the Lord/Lord hear our prayer” part). Nobody tripped or fell or slipped and banged their head on the casket, which is an improvement over some other family eternal send-offs.
We cried when Uncle Jim did the eulogy and mentioned after all the laughs that Uncle Larry didn’t warm up to goodbye kisses at parties until very late in life, and only once is on record as having picked up a child for that purpose. It was my nephew, and my sister had captured the moment with her camera. It was one of the photos on the poster board in the back of the church. We cried again when the funeral director and his assistants removed the traditional white drape from the casket and replaced it with an American flag to signify Uncle Larry’s service in World War II. We sang “How Great Thou Art.” We filed out.
And, standing at the back of the hearse as the funeral director firmly but solemnly told my cousins and uncles how to put Uncle Larry’s casket into the back of the vehicle, someone cracked, “Aw hell, just put him on the truck.”
Uncle Larry had been an over-the-road trucker. Apparently, this is exactly what he himself would have said, because several people nodded and agreed that’s what he’d want.
I had to leave straight from Mass and drive back home to go to work, so I missed the procession to the cemetery, but Patrick posted photos on Facebook later. (Yes. Photos on Facebook of his grandfather’s funeral procession, taken from the vehicle behind the hearse.) He really only took two, and it was so he could show everyone what led the funeral procession: a big, shiny red rig.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s things like this that tell us who our loved ones really were when we send them on to their final resting place. I have no doubt that there were a lot of honest, hard-working, blue-collar people who saw that rig leading that procession and thought, “There goes a hard-working man. May he rest in peace.” And I’m grateful for that. But considering that my grandfather was buried with two Navy sailors flanking his grave and a gun salute from the police department of which he’d been a member for 25 years, this big rig and slot machine stuff was… well…
Tacky, okay? There, I said it. Incredibly, stuff-I-thought-only–other-families-did tacky.
But it was Uncle Larry. Uncle Larry, who wanted to be buried in the ruffly tuxedo shirt from 1978. Uncle Larry, who was known by name to every casino employee in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Uncle Larry, who pushed his false teeth out at the young kids until Aunt Gennie yelled at him to stop.
You may not be surprised at this point to learn that Uncle Larry was the one guy in the family who actually used to tell people to pull his finger.
Uncle Larry, may flights of angels wing thee to thy rest, and may you have one hell of a reunion party up there with your sister, your brothers-in-law, your parents, your wife, your daughters and your son-in-law. Down here, we’ll miss your crooked smile and your curmudgeonly grunts that stood in for greetings. We’ll miss your laugh and the way you could sit in the same spot with your arms folded for hours.
But never again will we buy a slot machine floral arrangement.
Because that thing is hideous and wrong.
And I have the picture to prove it.
Sadly, the lovely featured image is not from Uncle Larry’s funeral. It’s from gordonandthewhale.com.