Three Stevedores and Never-ending Funerals

Olive (Mo) and Harley (Dee Dee) Semple
______________________________________


WHEN I WAS 10, Mo, my grandmother, started dragging me to viewings and funerals.
I dreaded going, especially when I couldn’t figure out why I was there.
Like knowing the corpse would have been helpful, but I rarely did. I was too young to care about elderly dead people I didn’t know.
Did she flip through the obits every day to troll for juicy prospects, ones that would most likely serve a major spread afterwards?
The truth is, she attended every funeral at St. Boniface, whether or not she knew the deceased – I suppose she regarded every parishioner as family, no matter personal connection.
And then there was that peripheral connection – the cousin of an acquaintance was a good enough excuse to mourn, even if the person was (gasp!) a Protestant.
She once dragged me to a viewing of a grossly overweight man, dead at 40-something from Diabetes complications.
“If you don’t stop eating like three stevedores, that could be you,” Mo whispered, nodding to the casket, twice the size of a normal one.
This cautionary tale harbored in that casket was not enough to stop me from eating like those mythical stevedores – once the service was over, I soldiered on at the smorgasbord table, heaping my plate high.
While I hated the funerals, my thoughts always turned to food, the expected repast for bowing down before the dead: stranger, friend, or foe. We always did seem to eat well, my reward for paying last respects. I still associate thin ham salad sandwiches on square white bread, potato chips tasting like bacon grease, and stale white cake with butter cream icing with the honored dead.
Then there’s a special kind of coffee, brewed in giant urns, that is uniquely funeral, offering up an aroma that wafts upward from the church basement to the pews and wrapping itself around the mourners – a reminder and a beckoning back to everyday life.
I mention “foes” because even if Mo disliked the deceased, she would show up anyway, just to view the body and cluck about its appearance:
“Oh, she looks so good. Too bad she was so mean in life.”
“No wonder she’s dead; I told her she needed to lose some weight. Now look at her.”
“Oooh, she’s so thin. I wonder what diet she was on? I should try it.”
Hint: It’s called the “cancer diet.”
Funerals were bad enough, but the viewings were the worst. You had to kneel before the body and say prayers to help speed the dearly departed’s soul to heaven.
Attention all Catholic souls! Detour to Purgatory!
I must’ve earned an eternity of Indulgences for hundreds of withered corpses I viewed and honored, albeit unwillingly.
There was no getting out of it.
After my inevitable protests, Mo would shake her head and say, “If you don’t obey, they’ll have to pay someone to attend your funeral.”
I would clench my fists and allow her to lead me away to the funeral home and the church.
Once, we went to the viewing of a baby who had died when his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, strangling him. As I kneeled before his small wicker coffin, I couldn’t believe he was dead – he was beautiful, a perfectly formed cherub with rosy cheeks, maybe just asleep – I reached out and touched his hand.
Still and cold.
It wasn’t the coldness that struck me so hard, but the absence of energy – the lack of life force running through his veins.
I jumped up and ran out of the funeral home, Mo running close behind me to drag me back.
I remember nothing else about that viewing and funeral.
Getting dragged to funerals continued throughout my early to mid-teens, and, then, one day, I stood up to Mo and said I was no longer going to funerals of strangers.
Dee Dee, my grandfather, backed me up.
I was spared from then on.
Now I realize she was at an age when her friends were beginning to drop dead. And, while she had a few foes – mostly because she lacked a social filter – she also had many friends who appreciated her forthrightness.
Perhaps she didn’t want to face her own mortality alone.
Perhaps the funeral ritual itself was a reminder that she was still alive and enjoyed good health, until one day she wouldn’t.
Mo recruited cousin Bird, 10 years my junior, to take my place beside her.
As far as I know, Bird accompanied her on her quest to pay respects to the dead until the day Mo herself died.
Mo’s death occurred in October 1987, shortly after the stock market crashed and before the digital age took hold – almost to declare her freedom from a world that was becoming too complicated for her sensibilities.
I was with her when she died – as I rushed into her hospital room, she was taking her last gasping breaths. I think she knew I was there, perhaps admonishing me for my inebriation – I am ashamed to say that I was tipsy at the time, too messed up to deal with her impending death without an alcohol filter.
At her funeral, the pews were almost filled – not quite as much as when my grandfather died 13 years earlier. Many of the people who had attended his funeral were, themselves, gone.
I looked around the church for any unfamiliar children offering up their Indulgences for the withered woman in the casket.
I saw none.
Part of me still wishes I could have hired unwilling children, accompanied by their hungry and curious grandmothers, to fill in pews – Mo deserved nothing less.
This funeral held deep meaning for me, of course, but for others, life went on as usual.
Children played in the street, young fathers and mothers worked, retired people went on cruises – how could this happen when my Mo lay dead in her casket?
An affront.
But no matter how we feel, life goes on, and, eventually, so do we.
For once, I cared nothing about the awaiting repast of ham salad sandwiches and other funeral foods.
In fact, I don’t even remember eating it.
I’m sure a few relatives and friends – including children – heaped their plates high and ate like three stevedores.
It’s my family, after all.
From her place in the hereafter, Mo most likely shook her head, wagged her finger, and said, “tsk, tsk” –
Admonishing mourners digging their own graves with a fork….
In her honor.

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