Not Born Yesterday

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A Death in the Family

Are Funerals for the Dead or the Living?

Every year, on the anniversary of my only sibling's death, I think once again about her funeral. Like most people, I hate funerals but generally attend out of a sense of obligation -- not to the dead, but to the living. In my opinion, the dead would never notice my absence, but friends and family of the deceased would.

Her son sent me her obituary, with a note begging me to come to the funeral. I hadn't seen either of them in fifteen years, and now that it was too late to rectify the situation with my sister -- a falling-out within the family that led to our long estrangement -- it seemed almost hypocritical to go to her funeral. Besides, I rationalized, it was too far. In order to be at the church by 10:00 a.m. on a weekday, I would have to leave at 7:00 and fight Bay Area commute traffic for 70 miles across several bridges and freeways. No one in his right mind would do that!

Then a wise, kind friend convinced me that if I did not seize this last opportunity to put an end to the old argument, I would regret it for the rest of my life. And so, weighed down with gloom and guilt, I ordered two dozen white roses made into a bouquet to take with me, and started off at the crack of dawn.

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It turned out to be a strange, if not bizarre, experience.

Every culture has its own set of rites and rituals for sending its deceased into the next world, or wherever they are going. Being buried in the ground is not the way I want my remains disposed of, but my sister was terrified of fire, and so would not hear of being cremated. I don't want a funeral, either, nor a stodgy memorial service. The so-called "Celebration of Life" appeals to me, especially with lots of food and wine. You know, the good old Irish Wake sort of thing.

My sister had converted to Catholicism, and her husband had been something high up in the Knights of Columbus, so the funeral was held in the main Catholic Church in the East Bay community where they lived.

As harrowing as it was, getting there was only half the battle. I had allowed a good three hours for the drive, but got lost several times, and arrived at the church in a frenzy, after the doors were closed. The priest, and (I was shocked to see) the casket, had not gone in yet. Approaching the coffin, I thought how ironic and sad that my sister and I, who had once been so close, should be meeting again only after one of us was dead. Just a few feet -- and a whole world -- separated us now. I was there, but she was somewhere in the hereafter.

I wasn't sure what to do with the flowers I was holding. The priest told me to lay them on the altar, and opened the door to let me go in alone. Another shock. The cavernous church was filled with mourners, and all eyes were turned toward me. What they saw was a woman dressed entirely in black: black dress, coat, stockings, shoes. And in stark contrast, a spray of white roses over her arm.

I was suddenly reminded of that old ghost story, "The Woman in Black."

To make matters worse, no one seemed to know who I was. Even my nephew didn't recognize me with white hair. As I started down the long center aisle, which appeared to get longer with every step, there were murmurs and whispers in the pews; neighbor asking neighbor "Who is that?" I had another moment of panic when I reached the altar. Was I supposed to kneel as I laid the flowers down? Not being Catholic, I had no idea. What I did was simply bow my head for a moment before turning around and slipping into the nearest seat.

On the way home I laughed out loud, thinking of the absurd spectacle I had made of myself as the mysterious Woman in Black, and how my sister would have loved it! She had a great sense of humor, as well as a flair for the dramatic.

So, in the final analysis, are funerals for the living? Or the dead? For both, I think. And I will always be grateful to that wise, kind friend who convinced me that if I did not attend my sister's funeral, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

 

E. E. Smith is a playwright and book author. Her new series of murder mysteries debuted in 2013. The first is titled Death by Misadventure. 

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