Just a few of Funeral Nation’s bronzed conceits.
I promised you an acerbic dissertation on American funeral culture, but I can’t deliver. I just spent two interminable weeks immersed in the production of my late father’s last hurrah, and now that it’s finally over, the last thing I feel like doing is rehashing the whole gaudy spectacle. Suffice it to say, spinster aunts and Presbyterian funerals don’t mix. We aunts don’t have the temperament. We can’t strike the proper tone. It’s a deficiency caused by a seepage of melancholic bile into the obstreperal lobe, resulting in a tendency to react to tragedy by cracking wise.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, the grief-stricken are a pretty tough crowd. My sense of comic timing is simply too sophisticated for the average bereaved family member to appreciate. Take, for example, the regrettable episode wherein my mom woke me up at 3 in the morning to tell me that my father, at home under round-the-clock hospice care as he gradually and heartbreakingly shriveled his way to dusty death, was no more.
“I suppose there’s no chance,” I answered, “that he’s faked his own death?”
Naturally I followed this up with “I wonder when his secret second family in Jersey will surface?”
Crickets chirped. OK, so it wasn’t A material, but like I said, it was 3 in the morning. Jesus.
But perhaps you won’t mind if I recount the Funeral Parlor Affair. This absurd interlude caused me to erupt in an inappropriate fit of coping-mechanism hilarity of a magnitude rarely seen outside the planet Obstreperon.*
For lo, and it did come to pass that the sibling and I were obliged to saunter along to the Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park to pick up the patriarch’s ashes. For some reason — maybe because we’re not a couple of swooning Victorians — we’d expected to stroll in, palm the urn, and buzz along home.
“Got our urn?”
“Here ya go!”
“Thanks. See ya next time!”
But no. The consummate weirdness with which modern American death-angst imbues the mortuary biz turned what should have been a 5-minute transaction into a Gothic theatrical production that dragged on for half an hour.
Mere words cannot describe the surreality precipitated by an errand like this; a week ago the old man and I had been shooting the shit about this and that, and now Tidy and I were wheeling up to the parlor in his car, which he would never drive again, to take possession of his incinerated corpse. Whoa. Heavy, right?
Well, be she spinster aunt or no, I dare anybody to keep a straight face who darkens the stoop of the Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park. You wouldn’t believe this joint. It was like the set designers from Twin Peaks and Napoleon Dynamite had fused with Elvis Presley’s interior decorator and been reborn as Liberace’s angst-ridden evil twin, who then suffered a psychotic break, and bought up the world’s supply of harvest gold flocked wallpaper, brass upholstery tacks, and fake oak paneling, and ate it all with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and then puked it up all over the living room from Sartre’s No Exit. And holy shit, the palpable hush in there! I mean, it’s not like you don’t expect some kind of palpable hush to accompany these sepulchral scenarios, but a palpable hush that is simultaneously unctuous, clammy and surpassingly phony? That bears down on you like one of those superfatted, soul-sucking cloud entities from Star Trek? And leaves an oily film on your skin? Dag! It was like walking into an alternate universe where the earth is made of compressed gloom and you breathe an atmosphere of gaseous avocado green crushed velvet.
But how? Was the lobby of Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park one of those portals into the 13th dimension that you’re always reading about?
Needless to say, this remarkable tableau, combined with my having seen, on the way in, a headstone engraved with the inherently comical name “Pink,” naturally ignited in my hapless throat the purgatorial fires of a full-blown guffaw.
But nothing in my education or upbringing could have prepared me for our encounter with the Funeral Director. I almost spontaneously combusted when this specimen materialized out of the Stygian mist. The dude was the ne plus ultra, the transcendental essence, the Platonic ideal of funeral directors. He was still. He was shadowy. He was bloodless. He was creepy. He wore an ill-fitting suit made of larceny and doom.
It was then that I solved the puzzle of the aforementioned palpable hush’s mysterious origins: it was from this murky personage that the mortuary’s mighty torrents of pulsating lugubriosity emanated. The F.D. was a veritable powerhouse of tranquility.
With a toadying wave of his hand, this Charon-in-a-cheap-suit ushered us through a series of fake-oak-paneled rooms until we arrived at a final door. He bade us enter and floated in after us. It seemed impossible, but the green velvet gravitas in this cryptish little chamber was at least 17 times what it had been before we’d embarked on our little trek through these dispassionate circles of hell. I was delirious with mirth, possibly because the funeral director’s insatiable serenity was sucking all the oxygen out of the air, but also because I was dumbfounded that this suffocating, synthetic one-stop grief-shop, with its cut-rate dramaturgy and hackneyed trappings, could be considered by any sane person to be an appropriate response to death. But the best was yet to come.
With an obsequious flourish, the funeral director gestured toward a lone, velvet-draped pedestal, illuminated dramatically with a single celestial spotlight, upon which stood a plain wooden box the size of a Riverside Shakespeare. Whereupon he partially dematerialized and silently repaired to the shadows.
At first we regarded this kitschy still life uncomprehendingly, but it wasn’t long before Tidy and I — mental giants that we are — grasped that the box contained our late father’s remains.** We then exchanged two wordless*** glances. The first expressed our mutual disbelief that the laws of physics could even permit the existence of so thoroughgoing and melodramatic a cliché as the scene now unfolding before us. The second addressed more practical matters: what the fuck were we expected to do now? Weep openly? Throw ourselves on the mercy of a vengeful god? Stuff the box into a backpack and beat a hasty retreat?
We received no guidance whatsoever from the funeral director, who clearly was resigned to hover noiselessly in the background until hell froze over.
Luckily, since by this time I was pretty much convulsing with inappropriate and therefore painfully stifled laughter, I perceived at the foot of the pedestal a canvas tote bag the dimensions of which coincided roughly with those of the box. Printed on it were the words “Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes,” but the way the bag was folded, what I read was “Dingy Memorial Fun.” Enough was enough. That “bwaaaahaaah!” you heard echoing through the streets last Tuesday? Me.
Yeah, I know. I guess you had to be there.
Anyway, at this awkward juncture Tidy took action. She dropped our father into the bag and kicked me in the foot. We scrammed. Out in the lobby, I pulled on the glass doors when I should have pushed. For a sickening moment it seemed as though the gravitational pull of the funeral director’s awesome serenity would prevent our escape, but after some comedic fumbling we managed to break on through to the other side.
I dropped Pop into the back seat of his convertible, Tidy put the pedal to the metal, and we roared off down Northwest Highway, sucking in huge, wonderful gulps of the sweet, sunny, polluted Dallas air. Weirdly enough, once we busted out of that bizarro limbo world, I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
* A little bird tells me that I’m on the inside track for Fit of the Year Award at the 2008 Obstreperon Hammys
** “Of course,” my mother later remarked with disgust, “you never really know, do you?”
*** To this day I maintain that I didn’t say “Are you fucking kidding me?” out loud; Tidy disagrees.