My father donated his body to medical science. He was interested in medicine, but I think he was more interested in shocking his sisters. It took almost three years before the medical school returned his ashes and, by the way, my brothers and I never got a word of thanks. As a fundraiser I find it appalling that such a significant and valuable donation would go unacknowledged; but I digress...
My brother Greg and I had decided to bury his ashes in the same plot as our mother. When the time came, we decided to do the deed during the family reunion. People would already be gathered, they could join us in memorializing him without making a special trip. Greg called Bryan several weeks prior to the reunion and told him the plan. Bryan’s response was “so, what do you want me to do about it?” Hard words were exchanged. We didn't know if he was coming or not.
I made it to the church on time Friday night. Bryan and his stepdaughter showed up shortly after I did. He didn't make a huge scene as I feared, but he was awkward and unpleasant and somewhat incoherent. I couldn't tell if he was high or just not-quite-right. Saturday was the busiest day of the reunion and Greg's birthday to boot, so we had planned to have a small, quiet moment at the cemetery on Sunday so as to not distract from the main event. When Bryan showed up on Friday he pointedly avoided me. Instead, he started buttonholing our ancient aunts and uncles, our distant cousins. I couldn't tell what he was talking about, but he was loud. I watched as his interlocutors went from puzzled to somewhat alarmed. I finally managed to maneuver him to a quieter corner and asked what he was upset about. It turned out that he was angry that we had planned the burial for Sunday instead of Saturday. He wouldn't come right out and say it, but it became clear that he didn't have enough money for two nights in the hotel. He wanted us to have the burial on Saturday so he could go home. If he had just asked if we could have the memorial on Saturday because he needed to get home, I would have said “of course” and that would have been the end of it. I didn't even need to know why, all he had to do was talk to me. But, that's not how he operated. He had to stir up a drama, he had to feed his self-fulfilling paranoia.
We moved the ceremony up a day and my theater training kicked in. I tracked down my cousin the undertaker, got him to deliver the ashes a day early, spoke to each of the family patriarchs and matriarchs to let them know what was going on. I spread the message that everyone was welcome but no-one was expected to attend. After all, it was supposed to be a fun family reunion, not a funeral. Once we got to the cemetery, I stage managed the event so that we were in and out in less than and hour. Greg taught me this song in the car on the way to the cemetery and we played it at the grave site:
It was a good choice. When we were done singing, we all took “three of four licks with the posthole digger” as my Uncle Boyd put it, and got Smitty planted next to my mama. Packed that red earth back on top of him, sang a chorus of Amazing Grace and got the hell out of there. Bryan left without saying goodbye. Greg and I drove back to the barbecue and listened to the old folks talk. Apparently, my grandfather’s people came from a place in Kentucky called The Land Between the Lakes. They may have been displaced when their valley was dammed and flooded.
That was the last time I saw Bryan.
I will end on a story about someone else’s dysfunctional family, told to me by my undertaker cousin during that strange weekend. There were terrible spring storms in Jonesboro that year and much flooding. Some local yahoos decided to go swimming in the ditches to ride the currents. You know where this story is going; a 19 year old boy got stuck in a culvert and drowned. Heartbreaking. My cousin works for the funeral home that handled the arrangements, so I blame this story on him.
The boy’s family were all “swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool” as my cousin put it. They had very little money and less sense. They wouldn’t even consider cremation, they wanted a full funeral with all the trimmings. The undertaker took pity and waived all his fees, but even at cost, a full funeral with a casket, visitation, transportation and a plot came to $3000. They didn’t have that kind of money. Instead, they made several large cardboard signs read “Broke. Need Donations for Funeral.” Members of the family stood with the signs at busy intersections and solicited spare change from passing motorists.
By then, the story had been picked up by the local newspaper and included a request for donations to cover funeral costs. The donations from the news article combined with the money they spare changed on the streets added up to several thousand dollars above and beyond the cost of the discounted funeral. Of course they didn’t offer to pay the full rate; they weren’t that stupid. There was much speculation at the funeral home about where the extra money would go. The next day, the whole family showed up for the funeral sporting matching tattoos in memory of the deceased.
The immediate family arrived in a beat up old pick up truck, pulled into the handicap space next to the front door and started tailgating, drinking cheap beer from the can and white liquor from Solo cups. When the visitation was over and they were assembling for the procession to the cemetery, the paterfamilias approached the undertaker with a question. He said that his brother, the deceased’s Uncle, was driving a brand new truck, much nicer than his own. Could Dad ride in Uncle’s truck in the place of honor directly behind the hearse instead of driving his old truck? Of course, says the undertaker. When the hearse pulled out, a half-ton, AAA tow truck pulled in behind it. Uncle’s shiny new rig was a wrecker. The family climbed aboard and off they all drove to the cemetery.
Now THAT’s a funeral.