84. Funerals by George

84. Funerals by George

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Funerals by George

Beer is the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.

~Homer Simpson

I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to write this. On its face, it seems disrespectful. I mean, isn’t telling a funny story about our stepfather’s funeral in the poorest of taste? How could I find anything remotely humorous about what should be a solemn event?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that our final respects to “Poppy” weren’t contrived or phony. Rather, they were our loving goodbyes to one of the family. Indeed, it’s the way I’d want to go.

Our mother, having grown tired of living with a man who resembled Ralph Kramden, acted like Archie Bunker, and possessed the social skills of Fred Flintstone, divorced our father and brought Walter—he only became known as “Poppy” once we had kids of our own—into our lives when we were children.

It still amazes me that she somehow managed to convince this relatively young man (in his mid-30s), that living with five kids was really not much worse than getting a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands.

So it went through thick, thin, and adolescence until, even after the untimely death of our mother, it was Walter to whom we turned as head of the family.

Even though he remarried a few years later (what do you call a woman who marries your stepfather once your mother dies, a step-stepmother?), he was still the magnet that held us together.

He took us to ballgames, gave us advice, provided an anchor through tough times, and was a father to five kids when he didn’t have to be. He may have thought onion dip with chips was high cuisine and Howard Stern was Masterpiece Theater, but he was our model for what it took to be a grown-up.

When he succumbed to cancer several years ago, we were overwhelmed with grief at the loss of someone who had guided us into adulthood. Our heartache was further increased by the knowledge that our own children wouldn’t get to know him as we had.

As funeral preparations went into frenzied high gear, we didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the person we had lost. During the two-day viewing, my brothers, sister, and I took our proper places in the front row of the funeral home—the only place where being in the front row is not a good thing—and paid our respects to all who came to pay their respects.

We sat still, quiet as mummies, while mourners shuffled by the open casket. When they finished, they turned to us, murmuring “I’m sorry,” “He looks so natural,” (one of the stupidest sayings known to man), or some other such uncomfortable platitude.

Needless to say, it was rough. Enduring the parade of mourners while solemnly staring at someone who looked nowhere near natural took its toll.

The second night was a little different. Although prepared to be good soldiers throughout the duration, our solemn façades began to break down after the arrival of one of my brother’s old girlfriends.

I’ve always admired her for showing up. She didn’t come to see my brother; she came to say goodbye to a man she respected. This, of course, didn’t stop the smirks from me and my other brothers and sister.

Through it all, though, we maintained a somewhat reverential demeanor.

Until another brother’s old girlfriend walked through the door. More smirks. Then, when one of my old girlfriends arrived—with a nose ring that looked downright painful—smirks became giggles.

Giggles became whispered jokes. And whispered jokes became throwing our voices at the casket when elderly relatives walked up to it. This—to us, anyway—was the very best in funeral home comedy.

As bad as our performances were at the “home,” they were nothing compared to the actual funeral itself.

Starting off with a service at the Episcopalian church, we ended up at the biggest cemetery in town. Once there, I was reminded about that old joke about cemetery fences: nobody can break out and nobody wants to break in.

A military funeral, because he was in the Marines, the service was very dignified and steeped in an appropriate level of sadness. At the playing of “Taps,” there was hardly a dry eye.

At its conclusion, everyone but the immediate family withdrew to a cold cuts, beer, and coffee fest at the Elks Lodge. I’ve always wondered what is about funerals that stokes a mad craving for doughnuts, pigs in a blanket, and boiled ham on little rolls.

My brothers, my sister, our spouses, and I stared silently at the casket as it sat suspended over the open vault. Festooned with an abundance of floral garlands, its mute presence reminded us of the loss we’d suffered.

It was then I felt guilty over our hi-jinks from the previous night.

As we began to move toward our cars, we heard an almost imperceptible “psst!” Quickly scanning the cemetery, I didn’t see anything or anyone. Still looking, we heard it again and spotted a head peering around a tree.

We watched a friend we knew from high school, George, step into view, holding a 30-pack of Budweiser.

“Everybody gone?”

When we told him we were the only ones left, he came over to the site and placed the case of beer on the ground. “Well, here you are,” he said.

Seeing we had no clue what he was talking about, he explained, “When Walter knew he was going to die, he told me to get a case of beer and go to his gravesite and hide. Then,” he went on, “when everybody but the kids left, he told me to come on out and let you have a beer on him.”

Stunned, we stared at George, the beer, and the grave. Nobody said a word for a few minutes. Then—I don’t remember who—one of us stepped up and grabbed a can. The rest immediately followed.

Popping our tops, we raised our cans to Poppy in toast.

Before we drank, though, my brother said, “Wait!” Grabbing a can and opening it, he set it on top of the casket and said, “Well, here you go, cheaper than you can get at Yankee Stadium.”

With that, we all had a beer to the memory of our father. Needless to say, we finished that case and, despite the these-people-are-nuts looks from the cemetery workers, stayed until the casket was finally lowered into the ground.

It may have been a strange way to act at a funeral, but we knew that was the way Poppy would have preferred it.

Why else would he have had the presence of mind to contract the services of Funerals by George?

~Kenneth C. Lynch

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