Sunday, April 3, 2011

Always Go to the Funeral (with Bonus Fashion Tips)

Olivia thought that her purple nail polish might be too cheerful, and wondered if she had time to switch to a more mournful shade. Mary Katherine emerged from her bedroom in a black wrap dress and pumps she’d gotten at the secondhand store, accessorized with a black-veiled headband that gave her the air of a billionaire's widow at the reading of the will. “How do we look?” they wanted to know. “Like good friends,” I said, picking up my car keys and getting our show on the road.

Mary Katherine’s school pal had lost her grandfather over spring break. When Meg had called to cancel a sleepover and mall date they’d planned, and Mary told me the reason, I let her know that we’d be visiting the funeral home soon. When she wanted to know why, I intoned one of the cardinal rules I’ve picked up in the past few years: Always go to the funeral.  

Deirdre Sullivan’s essay for the This I Believe project, which I first heard on NPR in 2005, had a lasting impact on the way I try to live my life. In that essay, Sullivan said, “Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that. ‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

Sullivan’s rhetoric gave me some needed backbone, and I urged the girls forward as if it would be impossible for us not to go. So, on a Thursday afternoon during spring break, we were rustling around in the back of our closets, looking for our best black clothes. The girls were worried about the dress code, as if there would be a Funeral Bouncer who would inspect them for non-black items and toss them out onto 50th street. I felt myself treading carefully around this topic, aiming to instill an understanding of Dressing Appropriately while not being one of those people who believe that a proper wardrobe is the one sure sign of moral superiority. I have, in my life, observed incredible kindness by people who got all their fashion advice from Jaclyn Smith at Wal-Mart, and unrelenting, lockjaw cruelty by the twinset and pearls crowd. But still, this was a funeral, and I owed them some advice.

I tried this:  “Here’s the thing -- I saw someone at Olivia’s grandmother’s visitation wearing shorts and garden clogs, girls, so don’t get too worried about this. I guess my advice is – if you have something nice and dark to wear, that’s great, but we shouldn’t let our clothes keep us from going, and we really shouldn’t judge what other people are wearing. Some of the nastiest people I’ve ever known have the most correct wardrobes, and that garden clog guy probably really loved O’s grandma. You never know.”

That seemed to mollify them, and we headed out. Once in the car, their fashion decisions now irrevocable, the girls began to worry about the next part of this adventure in grief and consolation. Always looking for her lines, Mary asked, “What do we say?” Always seeking to maintain some semblance of control, Olivia asked, “What exactly will happen and when?” I threw suggestions over my shoulder and into the backseat, the way I had been doing for years. Keeping my eyes on the road meant that I never saw the eyerolls or sad shrugs that accompanied my words, which was probably best. “Keep it simple,” I said. "Try something like -- 'I’m sorry about your grandpa; how are you doing?'"

Once there, we wandered past the curated Life Show that has now become the modern funeral – easeled collages of photos, memorabilia laid out on a table, big-screen tv with continuous loop PowerPoint. The girls found Meg and said the right words, which were graciously received. Meg suggested that she introduce them to all her cousins, and they headed off. I talked to Meg’s parents until the girls showed up. Her dad, who had just lost his father after a long illness, received huge bonus points from Mary Katherine when he praised her veiled headband. “Perfect for a funeral,” he told her appreciatively. “I know, right?” she squealed with tweeny abandon, forgetting about the reason for the getup and just savoring the accessory perfection.

I had promised “20 minutes max,” so we made our way to the door. Mary, whose vision has recently been sharpened by a surge of estrogen, had only one thought when we left the funeral home:  “That place was full of cute boys!” she squealed. She seems to see them everywhere these days, like Ray Milland and the DT bats in Lost Weekend. Meg’s cousins, it turns out, had included a hefty proportion of cute boys, cleaned up for the occasion. In Mary’s mind, funerals now ranked with the mall for CBAs (Cute Boy Alerts).

We headed into Uptown, the girls rearranging their ensembles with other accessories they’d brought along. Mary Katherine’s Grieving Heiress turned into Desperately Seeking Susan around Lake Calhoun, and Olivia’s Somber Friend became Urban Hipster in the Calhoun Square parking lot.

Later that night, I bought them grilled cheese and burgers at the Uptown Cafeteria, and they split a malt. Their tiny bit of duty now completed, they giggled over their cotton candy and compared notes on the cousins. I thought about all the meals I’d shared with these two, and all the laughs we’d had together.  I hoped they’d have a friendship that would last for years. Perhaps someday they’d be together at my funeral. With any luck, they’d tell stories and share laughs at my champagne-soaked wake afterward, attended by the 20-year-old pool boy with whom my body had been found.

“Let’s toast,” I said, before we left, raising my mug of coffee to their chocolate malt glasses. “To good friends.”

Here’s Deirdre Sullivan's 2005 essay: Always Go to the Funeral

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