There is something about planning a funeral that reduces everyone to their former rank in the family hierarchy, no matter how accomplished or successful they’ve become. When my dad passed away earlier this month, I immediately assumed my position on the lowest rung of the family ladder.
My three brothers and I immediately squared off and started arguing five minutes after my dad died. The first fight was over the choice of potatoes for my dad’s post-funeral luncheon. My dad had always been very frugal, so after finding $1,200 hidden in his sock drawer, my younger brother, Romberg, and I headed over to the nicest restaurant in town.
We immediately selected the most expensive things on the menu – prime rib, chicken Wellington, green bean almondine, chocolate mousse and twice-baked potatoes. The catering manager let us go right ahead, failing to inform either of us that the restaurant had a special discount menu for funerals, which included such typical cheap-ass selections as Salisbury steak.
My father had pre-paid for his and my mother’s funerals. Every time we drove by the place, he would point it out saying, “That’s where our funeral are being held.” When we arrived at the funeral home, my brother Garfield was there waiting for us. All we had to do was fill in the blanks. (I highly recommend pre-paid funerals.)
God forbid that my brother Garfield should not be the center of attention. He was already distraught and hysterical when we arrived, even though he had openly despised my father when he was alive for raising him badly or some shit like that. As a recovering alcoholic, Garfield has gone through the 12-step program like a million times over the past 20 years, although I don't recall him ever apologizing to me for being a misogynist.
Romberg and I asked the funeral director if the home could provide a vodka fountain, my father’s favorite beverage. Then we both thought it would be funny if we could play the theme song from “M*A*S*H” as people filed by his casket at the end of the funeral service.
During the last years of his life, my dad was obsessed with the TV series “M*A*S*H.” He loved those whacky doctors Hawkeye, Trapper John, BJ Honeycutt and Henry Blake. The show came on in Chicago every afternoon at 4 o’clock. The station would air four episodes in a row, and my father would set his VCR so he could watch it in the evenings. (“There’s nothing but crap on at night,” he would remind us again and again.)
The day before he died, he was enraged when I couldn’t find “M*A*S*H” on the television set in his hospital room, which only carried six Espanol channels and a Jesus station. “C’mon, I’m missing it,” he screamed. When I informed him that I didn’t think the channel was available in the hospital, he yelled, “I’m never staying at this goddamn hotel again!”
Given the murky details of my dad’s death, which was more or less suicide by alcohol poisoning, Garfield put his foot down and told us he thought the song was in bad taste. “It’s about suicide for Christ’s sake,” he said, breaking into another round of gut-wrenching sobs.
I suggested “The Navy Hymn,” which was played at President Kennedy’s funeral. I wanted my dad’s funeral to be as Kennedy-esque as possible, and drove to like six Border’s the next day before I finally found the CD.
The funeral director asked us if we would be holding a luncheon after the funeral. Romberg and I proudly told him how we had already made arrangements and of our menu selections that would clog the arteries of an elephant. It was then that the funeral director informed us of the pre-arranged, discounted, funeral luncheon menu that the home had worked out with the restaurant. “Really, I’m surprised they didn’t tell you about it,” he said.
Garfield demanded to see the funeral menu. It didn’t have any of the items that Romberg and I had selected. For Christ’s sake, we might as well have invited everyone back to my dad’s house and microwaved some Healthy Choice dinners because that’s how cheap it was.
My father was 80 years old, so we weren’t expecting a huge crowd at the funeral (although more than a hundred came to the wake, including several neighbors from his retirement community who immediately went downstairs and ate all the finger sandwiches).
“We already ordered the lunch,” I told Garfield.
Garfield wanted us to change it, so we got into a huge argument in the funeral director’s office.
“I want the oven-roasted potatoes,” he said.
“Those taste like shit,” I shot back.
Finally the funeral director calmly said, “Guys, c’mon.”
We ended up sticking with the original menu. Then we began fighting over the photos we wanted displayed in the room. My dad had given me a whole box of his childhood photos a few months before he died. There were pictures that we had never seen before. I wanted to put together some foam boards with old family photos.
“It’s going to look like a fifth-grade science project,” Garfield said.
“Who died and made you the queen,” I asked.
It was a really mean thing to say, because Garfield is gay and has been in the closet for most of his adult life, even though we all know about it. My father never cared that Garfield was gay because he just wanted him to be happy. Within the first five minutes of our meeting with the funeral director, Garfield mentioned that he was a gay, recovering alcoholic. Like the guy really needed to know that.
Our oldest brother, Frazier, was flying in from out of state the next evening. Frazier had missed most of the fun of caring for our elderly parents, until I rued the day that I didn’t get the hell out of Chicago 30 years ago while I still had the chance. Instead, I stuck it out as an adult caregiver, which has pretty much been my job for the last couple of years.
Frazier was all bouncy and energetic. The rest of us were exhausted from fighting with my dad’s worthless piece of shit doctor, who I fired after he yelled at me in the hospital, and making funeral arrangements. He tried to take over everything, and I wondered where the hell he was when we were driving 30 miles to my parents’ house during blizzards or cleaning my mother’s poo when she started going down the tubes from Parkinson’s.
Frazier thought we shouldn’t tell my mother, who lives in a nursing home and has dementia, that my father died. Even though my mother doesn’t recognize us anymore and sleeps most of the day, the three of us thought we should tell her at some point that my dad had passed away.
Then we started arguing about what to put into my dad’s casket. My dad had like 30 television remotes, so we decided to put one of them into the coffin, along with his U.S.S. Rockbridge hat, his windbreaker, and picture of him and my mother. I wanted to include a pair of my father’s lineman’s pliers. Garfield told me that the pliers would make the casket too heavy.
For the rest of the week, two or three of us would get together and talk about another sibling behind his or her back. We’d complain about each other, then break off into new pairs or groups and complain about the one we were just with. I’m sure they were calling me a sociopathic bitch behind my back.
I was up until three o’clock in the morning putting the foam boards together the night before my father's wake. Other than my grandmothers, it was the first funeral that I was semi responsible for arranging. I gathered all my dad’s favorite CDs, including his Dean Martin and Gene Autry records, to play during the wake.
Usually I’m the last person to show up at family functions. I try to time my arrival until about three minutes before Thanksgiving dinner is served, because I have to get really stoned before I can be with my family. But on the day of my father's wake, I showed up at the funeral home about 45 minutes early. I couldn’t believe I was the first person there.
The funeral director asked me if I wanted to wait until my brothers came. I said hell, no. I put all my stuff down, told him to put Gene Autry on the stereo, and then went over to the open casket. I thought I would freak out seeing my father dead, but it was really okay. He looked really peaceful, like he had fallen asleep in his La-Z Boy recliner watching “M*A*S*H.” I shed a few tears, then turned back to the funeral director and told him I needed every easel they had for the foam boards.
I was moving vases and shit off the tables and organ so we could put up the framed photos that we had taken from my dad’s house, in addition to the foam boards. By the time we got all the pictures and artifacts displayed, the room looked like one of those Princess Diana shrines. It looked great.
Tons of people came to the wake. I saw cousins that I hadn’t seen since the last funeral. Something about death makes you really hungry, and I ate about 20 finger sandwiches and cookies dowstairs in the basement of the funeral home. People seemed to enjoy the foam boards. My boyfriend looked at the pictures of me from ten years ago and commented on how thin I was.
“That’s it, you’re going to Curves,” he told me.
People commented that it was one of the nicest wakes they had ever been too. After the wake, we went over to Romberg’s house and ate more finger sandwiches. The next morning, I told my boyfriend that he didn't have to come to the funeral because there would be too much going on dealing with my family. He seemed relieved.
The funeral went well. My dad wasn’t religious, so we had the home arrange for a retired Catholic priest to preside over the service, even though we aren’t Catholic. The priest had a round head like a beach ball, and a gin blossom nose. He was used to being called in to do funeral services for the unchurched.
The entire service lasted about 15 minutes. My best friend came and all I could think about was smoking a joint afterward. The priest did a brilliant job adlibbing the service. I thought about writing something for him to read about my father, but frankly, I’d rather share my private thoughts with perfect strangers on a blog than with my family.
The priest was sharing some of his favorite bible passages while I was staring at a snapshot of my dad when he was three years old, dressed in a sailor suit. Just as he mentioned how the dead could become present merely by mentioning their names or remembering them, the picture I had been staring at floated off the foam board and landed on the floor.
I looked over at my sister-in-law. She also saw the picture come off the board, and we both looked at each other, like “he’s here with us.” It was something my dad would have done, and I can just imagine him flicking his finger and knocking the picture off. It was very comforting, like a little signal that he was sending to me, his “favorite daughter.”
The funeral ended with “The Navy Hymn.” It was very beautiful and Garfield broke into loud, choking sobs. He was wailing and practically crawling into the casket with my dad. My best friend, who is a professional actress, remarked afterward that the whole spectacle struck her as being somewhat phony.
One of my father’s most endearing qualities was his loathing of the Republican Party. He particularly disliked the current president. On the wall of his garage, we found a picture of Bush that he had cut out from the newspaper. He had drawn a Hitler mustache and a Swastika on Bush’s forehead, and had written “Oil Company Boss” and “President Rectum” on it.
Romberg had arranged for two sailors in their dress whites to be at the cemetery. They folded the flag while the funeral director played a tinny recording of “Taps.” It was actually quite good. They presented the flag to Romberg "on behalf of the president of the United States and the Secretary of Defense." My dad would have shit. He hated Bush, and I could practically hear him yelling, "Jag him off with a handful of broken glass," which he told bank tellers and grocery store clerks on a regular basis. I like to think that the sailors were thanking my father on behalf of Harry S Truman, my dad's favorite president when he was mustered out of the navy.
We headed over to the restaurant. My friend Karol and I were the only ones who ordered drinks. We ordered huge bloody Mary’s loaded with vodka, since we weren't allowed to have a vodka fountain. Garfield didn’t say anything about the twice-baked potatoes. It was my brothers’ turn to gang up on me after the luncheon. We had decided to go to the nursing home to tell my poor dementiated mother that my father had died.
Frazier was yelling at me that I had better bring the foam boards back to my dad’s house before we headed over to the nursing home. Instead, Karol whisked me to the nursing home which was a beehive of activity. My mother was remarkably awake and somewhat lucid when Karol and I arrived. I sat with her and waited for my brothers to arrive. Finally they showed up. I pretended that I misunderstood their plans, and we all gathered around her bedside.
Frazier started screaming in her face, “DAD IS DEAD.” At first my mother misunderstood him. She thought he was telling her that Carol Burnett had died. We hung around for awhile, explaining to her how we had taken care of the funeral, and that it was okay for her to go, that she didn’t need to hang around in her shell of a body anymore, that our father was waiting for her in heaven, handsome in his navy uniform. She mumbled that he “was with my mother.” Then we all left, en masse.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Karol was waiting in the lobby in for me. We went to her house and smoke a joint, then headed over to a Mexican restaurant where I proceeded to get bombed on Marguiritas.
I wish I could say that I felt more grief than relief over my father’s passing. After my initial hyperventilation when I thought I was having a heart attack hearing of his death, I felt incredibly relieved. In early May, I had taken him to an all-day neurological psychiatric evaluation at Northwestern Hospital, where he had been diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so his future was dim.
I’m glad that his suffering is over. He would have hated losing even more of his independence being cooped up in an assisted living faclity wearing an ankle bracelet so he couldn't sneak out and buy booze, having to watch Spanish-language television.