I could not stop gaping at the figure in the casket not moving. The most unsettling and uncomfortable moment in my entire life. When you’ve never been to a funeral in your entire life, either, things like "Cavemen" are no longer unsettling the way they were supposed to be before. This wasn’t Christmas Day of '79 when I was six and wouldn’t have thought anything of Grandpa Fred not waking up because he didn’t want to wake up. This is June 9, 2008, I'm 34 and gasping blankly because I can't think of anything else except somebody not waking up because they can't. I met my wife Angie's mom Carole no more than four times but they were four cool times. Enough that I would feel genuinely choked up when I viewed her again before the funeral. For one thing, she was real. If she didn’t like you she was not going to sugarcoat it. She would, in fact, wield her dislike for you straight to your face. If she liked you she wouldn't say "Oh, it is such a great pleasure to meet you!" but you'd know if she liked you. But she did her absolute best and raised a terrific daughter.
The visitation was the most innocent part. Four of us--Angie and I, her dad and his sister--huddled in front of the open casket and just talked like we were following a bottle with a message inside until it fell off the face of the earth and out of sight. The three of them reminisced about Carole's life. It didn't seem awkward to anybody but me that nobody was crying really hard yet. It almost seemed like we were trying for an impromptu Laurel and Hardy routine during our chuckling to get Carole to bust out laughing. OK, this is highly irregular; where are the friggin' tears? We're standing in front of an open casket and spinning yarns. It was AFTER the visitation, however, from whence the best yarns would and will be spun. Picture Christmas sweaters for English Mastiffs. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Angie and I clasped hands and walked slowly toward the sanctuary. Her tears weren't ready to burst out; it was as though they were stuck in traffic and running late. Sledgehammer palpitations of nervousness hammered out of my chest. Her Aunt Bev (the last surviving sister) had already been rubber cemented to her seat among the pews. I guess she was biding her time until Carole all of a sudden bolted upright and yelled at everyone present to leave because there wasn't going to be any damn funeral. Aunts, uncles and cousins in town from Alabama followed suit. Angie tells me she doesn't know why they came; they and her mom weren't exactly best buddies. Well, if nothing else, were there an occasion where a family could let bygones be bygones a funeral would be a good place to start, I guess.
"Amazing Grace" was played. Angie loves that song. The funeral home could've piped in a version by Alvin and the Chipmunks and she still would have cried. It may not have been the version she would most have wanted to hear--by The King, of course--but it was "Amazing Grace". 'Nuff said. After the song ended her dad patted her consolingly on the knee and I hugged her with an arm. She was about to burst into tears again...only these were ones into which one erupts when one is about to laugh so hard one is going to rupture one's own spinal cord. Here comes the preacher. Homely, face chipped and carved by age like a wooden picnic table after four decades or so of "Jack Loves Jill", he moseyed up to the podium and switched on the reading lamp. Adjusted the mic. Opened his Bible to the appropriate beginning passage. Fairly typical motions of preparation, right? Then the man spoke.
This man's voice was a near dead ringer for what you'd get if you combined Harold Camping and Don Imus reading the "void where prohibited" sweepstakes rules at the end of a radio commercial. Waaayyy too fast and inexcusably disingenuous. Family and friends don't need to sit and suffer through crap like that. My wife and I didn't need to, either, but that didn't stop us; Angie lost it. I quite wittingly joined in. There was no way in hell she'd have been able to hold back any longer. She was covering her mouth so everybody around us thought she was crying. This guy had obviously missed a critical lithium dose. Her dad patted her on the knee again in a show of 'empathy'. If they only knew. The preacher spoke again. Angie couldn't lean over to tell me her mom would've been laughing at this debacle, too, long enough before she again lapsed into hysterical laughter.
Then he began lecturing us on virtuous living by firm, unwavering obedience to our Lord and Savior with more Bible verses than we really needed to hear by that point. Don't strive after worldly possessions; pride is a degenerate sin; no one comes to the Father but by me--all delivered in that fine Southern tradition. I'm pretty sure the total chronicling of Carole's life amounted to a minute, minute and a half. We appreciate that you remembered who was supposed to be honored, Hoss Cartwright. FOCUS--you're presiding over a funeral, not guest-starring on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman". Save the preachy-preachy for Sunday morning. And you're not here to practice that speed reading course you had sent to you mail order. Not that what you were reading to us out of your Bible was particularly important. But thanks for slowin' it down, Foghorn.
Now that that was over, we slid into the limousine and followed the procession. We arrived and single-filed out of the limos to take our chairs alongside the casket after all of us guys laid it down for the workers to lower it the rest of the way. Uh oh...Angie's covering her face again. Guess who. He stood a foot or so to the left of the casket and started reading again. As if this day could not have possibly gotten any worse, to help us savor the merriment of it (like any of us could have been able to take any part of it seriously) was the fact a house had been built parallel to the cemetery and the owners had kept their dog outside. We didn't hear a word the preacher said. It was probably just as well--the dog's barking was more wisdom--but why the hell would you leave your dog outside while mourners were gathered around a casket at a cemetery? As Robin Williams said in "Good Morning, Vietnam", it staggers the imagination.
Hey, it could've been worse...I could have missed it. Maybe it was a disaster but I'm not going to miss another one just because this one derailed. How was your first funeral?
But it's completely true; Carole would have busted out laughing if she'd witnessed her own funeral. Rest in peace, Carole Jean.