Monday, February 13, 2012

My Funeral, Unplugged

My grandmother was a Dalton and my mother was a Clifford. I grew up surrounded by Kelleys and Morans and Meahans and Costellos. With this sort of ethnic background, it stands to reason that I’ve already given considerable thought to planning my funeral.

Funeral planning calls for the perfect Irish Stew of self-pity, maudlin focus on the negative and, of course, a big, loud party. My Mom’s friend Mrs. Koboldt (nee Mary Margaret Meahan) used to extract the same promise from her friends every time she’d had a few highballs: “Everyone has to drive separately from the church to the cemetery. I want a cortege so long that it’s backing out the gates and onto the street.” That someone would give this much thought to creating a traffic jam, even after death, offers just a glimpse into the interior life, such as it is, of the people I come from.

It’s a tradition that goes back a long way. My grandfather, Walter Aloysius Clifford, had a sister, Nanna, who had worked, in her youth, as a professional mourner. Back in the days when bodies were laid out in the back parlor of a shotgun flat, Nanna’s job was to sit with the deceased while everyone else sat in the kitchen for the wake. Nanna’s frequent sobs and moans were the perfect reason to offer yet another toast to the dearly departed, and everyone left the sad occasion feeling happy, usually very happy.

Last year, I went to way too many funerals to allow for denial of my own encroaching years (here’s another blog about one of them). When you start to bury your contemporaries, you’re getting old. But I used to love to go to funerals when I was a child. My mother was the youngest in her family, so lots of old Irish aunties were always being laid out for three-night visitations (the Irish believe that too much of anything is just about right).

I saw a lot of dead, embalmed bodies in my childhood, and learned that discussion of the “natural and peaceful” look of the corpse was perfectly acceptable conversation. The funeral parlors in which these shindigs were held achieved a level of elegance – fresh paint, fresh flowers and carpet instead of linoleum – that I never saw in my own home. I remember ladies’ rooms with fainting couches, cousins I got to see only at funerals, and uncles who gave me quarters to buy sodas from the Coke machine in the basement. What’s not to like?

I had a long stretch there, between childhood and last year, in which I went to very few funerals. So entering into the world of mourning again, after being away so long, was quite a shock. I suppose I should have expected it in an age where weddings have taken on the nature of long-running Broadway shows, but funerals have become glossy, technological Life Shows! After experiencing a few of these events recently, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a trend I welcome for myself -- not the table after table of artifacts and photographs, and certainly not the ubiquitous continuous loop PowerPoint of Happier Times.

When a beautiful and brave friend recently died, I was surprised to find myself receiving a telephone call from a woman who gave me a display assignment. I was to gather photos from an annual event in which the deceased and I had been regular participants. “30” x 40” foamcore,” she had told me crisply. “I’ve got the costume she wore at the opening night play, so see if you can find a dress form.”

Suddenly, I felt as if it were 1990 and I was working on the flip charts for the big Chevy presentation in Detroit. Or, worse, that tomorrow was the Science Fair and I hadn’t even conducted my first experiment. I sent out frantic messages to friends, trolling for photos, and visited Office Max for my presentation board.

As I pulled my display together, I felt a decided mix of emotions. On the one hand, this woman was an incredible source of light and love to anyone who ever met her. Paintings should be painted for her, poems written. I felt that my Science Fair offering, while well-meaning, was selling her a little short.

I wondered what she would have wanted. The funeral was the Saturday before Christmas, and I was leaving the following day for 17 days in China. I had a few other things I could have been doing besides wrestling with the double-stick tape. I could easily imagine my friend saying, “Really, don’t bother, just attend to your ‘to do’ list, and think a nice thought of me when you get a chance on that long flight.” But she deserved a memorial that was brimming over with intention and care, and I understood the desire by those who were planning it to create something tangible, and to ask the people who had benefitted from the joy of this woman’s friendship to contribute a tiny tribute, however homely and ineffective the effort.

When I arrived at the memorial service on Saturday night, toting my display, I found the proper easel and stood back, taking in the contributions from all the other people who had gathered their memories of this dear lady, all within the confines of thirty by forty inches. I understood the message, loud and clear: She mattered. She mattered enough for me to dig through the photo album, for you to make a trip to Office Max. She was worth a little hassle with the double-stick tape.

We pass through this world so quickly, and our departure, often, has the impact of a hand removed from a bucket of water. I can’t fault anyone for wanting to show that their beloved has left something lasting behind. I remember a sermon once where the congregation was asked to raise our hands if we knew our grandparent’s names. Then we raised our hands if we remembered the names of our great-grandparents. By the time the speaker got to great-great-great-grandparents, no hands were raised. “How quickly we are forgotten,” he said.

But still. Because I’ve worked in corporations most of my adult life, I think I’m just not the right person for the Life Show! experience. Those easels have held too many logos and scope charts and Venn diagrams of the latest thing we’ve been trying to sell somebody, for me to ever feel anything but itchy in their presence. I’ve had enough disasters with PowerPoint formatting, lenses, projectors and screens to forever fix that particular program in my mind as an Instrument of Torture, not a vehicle for happy memories. And, however therapeutic the simple act of creating a memorial board might be, I want my friends to take their time having a bubble bath before my service, and to spend time at my funeral lapping up champagne and gossiping relentlessly about the 20-year-old cabana boy with whom my body was found.

So, it’s official: I never, in life or death, want to be responsible for the creation of one more PowerPoint. Just take another glass of champers from the tray that’s being passed by that twinkly out-of-work actor, and relax for five minutes. When you think about it, raise your glass to me, and know that we’ll be seeing each other again, soon enough.

1 comment:

  1. “I can’t fault anyone for wanting to show that their beloved has left something lasting behind.” – That was a very interesting statement. But I think it speaks of how much we value our relatives and loved ones who passed away. Many times, we would want something tangible to remember them by – happy and vibrant. We want to encapsulate their smiling and happy faces and remember how they spent their meaningful lives with us.
    [Margo Loveless]