All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
I sat in the lobby of the hotel, the cold air escaping the sliding glass doors and wending its way around my bare legs. I twisted to look behind me at the fish in the tank, their mermaid’s skin glinting like gold in the warm light of the ceiling lamps.
Trying to avoid looking at the large, red-sweatered woman in the corner of the lobby who kept staring at me (not unkindly but with disturbing frequency), my eyes drifted to my dress. I had worn it to a school recital before in the sixth grade, with the same black patent leather heels. It still fit me two years later. I liked the way the swirling yellow roses burst from the black background – like stars in the darkest of nights. Perhaps such a dress might be frowned upon at a funeral, but I didn’t really care. Why frown at stars?
It was a while before I noticed that the rental car had pulled up, for my eyes were straying to the eastern mountains that loomed, dusty and proud, on the horizon. I walked out into the cold San Franciscan air at last, dropped the bags in the trunk, and got in.
There was some confusion regarding the first stage of the funeral. I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but my mom and dad were talking about a “good experience” for my little brother and me, my dad said he’d stay at home for the first part, and my aunt’s friend was nearly left behind due to an incident involving my twin toddler cousins and a Band-Aid.
We pulled up to the funeral home. The sign read “Duggan’s,” a name that struck me as far too whimsical for such an establishment. My aunt placed her cold hand at my back as we went in. The carpet was thick like the silence that saturated the air.
We entered what looked like a small chapel; at the other end was an open coffin, and in it I could see my grandfather’s face, serene and still, outlined against the velvet. It frightened me the first time I glanced at it, and I turned away.
I looked at the faces around me. My brother and I were the only children there, and all the others were grown-ups, most of them distant relatives. I nearly burst into ridiculous laughter at how much they all resembled my grandfather, even the women. I was introduced to people I had no recollection of, yet they all claimed to remember me. The grown-ups cast pitying glances at us children. A vague gentleman, Filipino like my grandfather and his best friend, seemed to somehow be confused between my younger brother and me, despite our four years’ age difference and obvious difference in gender.
At last my brother and I sat with my mother in a pew towards the front. People were going up to the coffin, but I didn’t want to. One of my grandfather’s friends placed a tennis ball gently in his hands, and I nearly felt like bursting into laughter again, for he had loved tennis and he would have laughed too, with his deep, throaty, coughing voice.
A man from the funeral home came up and started talking. I didn’t listen much – you could tell it was from a script, you could tell he had never known my grandfather. My eyes strayed about the room. Above the coffin was a wooden cross that seemed to be throwing shadows of angel’s wings onto the wall behind it, and I wondered if that was an intentional trick of the light. The ceiling was the same boring tan as the walls, though something in it glittered like stars, and I thought again of my dress.
Why do people wear black to funerals? Perhaps the person they lost would not have wanted them to be sad. Why do people cry at death? Better to cry if those they lost had lived. My grandfather had suffered, and death had ended his suffering. Better to cry if he were still alive and still in pain.
At the end, we were asked to rise and, before the pallbearers came, I found myself in line to the coffin, my mother beside me. Finally, it was our turn, and I could not avoid it any longer. I looked at my grandfather in the silence. He might have been sleeping.
Why did I not cry then? Surely it was socially unacceptable not to. I should have been sad, and I was, but it was a strange, disconnected kind of sadness, as though he were only on the other side of a thick glass. In my own mind, the man who lay before me was not my grandfather, but only the body of my grandfather. It was as though this were his empty shell, and he himself were somewhere else, perhaps only in the next room. And an empty shell isn’t sad – didn’t the Little Prince say that?
I pressed my lips to my fingers and then to his cheek, and it was waxy and cold and the feel of it haunted me for the rest of the day. The pallbearers with their gloves and pink carnations placed the lid on the coffin. I wondered if my grandfather liked carnations.
As we walked out of the room, one of the women began singing a slow, sad hymn. I could not recognize the words, though, and I only heard the thick sweetness of her voice. It was truly a lovely voice, though for a third time I felt like laughing, for there was no music and the whole thing felt odd and spontaneous and surreal, like a dream.
From the funeral home, we went to a chapel, high-ceilinged and airy, where lamps hung like strange spiked fruits, like glass stars from iron chains. My dad was there this time, and my cousins and uncle and grandmother and a few family friends. I read aloud from Lamentations because the priest needed someone to do it and nobody else wanted to. The microphone was faulty, and the bitter, sad words echoed in the cold. The passage was the exact opposite of what I would have told a roomful of mourners. They told me I did a great job reading it.
The priest had a thick Spanish accent, and I could hardly understand what he was saying. He wore jeans under his cassock and took unusually long sips of the Communion wine. It wasn’t clear to me whether he was trying to scare us or comfort us. The golden angels on the walls bowed their heads in deference. I’m not Catholic.
Finally we drove in long white hearses to the graveyard. I felt like laughing again, and this time so did everyone else: my grandmother, usually so shy, was flirting with the hearse-driver. I distinctly heard him say, “lots of explosions” followed by the phrase “and I was just twelve.”
“Oh, how horrible!” my grandmother enthused.
She was, like myself, not outwardly saddened at her husband’s death. It seemed as though she were merely going along with things as they came. Yet there was a difference between us. My grandmother took comfort in the last chapter of the Bible. Yet my comfort was some nameless reassurance that now my grandfather would never hurt again, some knowing that happiness would bloom from this in some way, like yellow roses blossoming on my dress, borne of nothing.
We reached the plot, where others of my grandmother’s family lay. My grandfather had been a Navy man, and the officers in uniforms shot invisible holes in the sky. My grandmother received an American flag, folded up in a triangle. The man who gave it to her had tears in his eyes, and his hands in their fine white gloves were clenched and shaking, yet somehow his voice was strong and did not tremble. He looked too young to have known my grandfather in the Navy, so I couldn’t understand why he was so sad. It’s all right, I thought to him. It isn’t a sad thing, death. It’s only an empty shell…there are stars even in the darkest of nights.
But I bowed my head and folded my hands, in case the others should see I was not crying and be indignant…
I felt like laughing a final time when the old officer’s speech segued smoothly from patriotism and honour to a recitation of driving directions to the restaurant we’d be meeting at for lunch. We drove past Joe DiMaggio’s grave on the way there. At the restaurant, the woman across from me in the grey sweater giggled and talked about things of no consequence. Next to me, my little cousin practiced balancing packages of butter and knocking them over with his spoon. We from the funeral were the only people there.
Over at the other table, my Great-Aunt Valerie and her brother were apparently having a good-tempered quarrel over who should host my family when we came to Ireland that May. A decision was eventually reached to hold a party. Funerals aren’t so sad, if you’re planning parties at them.
My aunt and cousins “raced” my brother, my uncle, and my uncle’s girlfriend back to my grandparents’ house. The children and their mother won, and one of my four-year-old cousins ran up to the window of our car and pressed her little nose against it, leaving quotation marks frosted on the glass when she pulled away. A day that holds sadness always holds other things, too.
And after all, to die is nothing more than an awfully big adventure – didn’t Peter Pan say that? How foolish I must be, taking advice from little boys who never grew up…
But there’s nothing sad about an empty shell. Nothing lives forever, and nothing goes away forever either. I don’t want people to wear black to my funeral. I want them to try and find something to laugh or wonder at in the world, even through tears.
I don’t want them to cry, because it isn’t a sad thing, death.
And there are stars even in the darkest of nights.