There is an untamable mystical force which courses within my veins that impels me to utter words generally recognized as inappropriate at the most inopportune moments. Such utterances (yes, multiple occasions of social ineptitude) occurred last Thursday at the viewing of my grandmother-in-law.
To set the stage, there were two periods of time on Thursday where friends and family could come to pay their last respects: 2-4pm and 6-8pm. In the intervening time, our family went out to eat at a local Italian restaurant. An elderly gentleman employed by the funeral home opened the door for us as we returned at 5:45pm, a full fifteen minutes before the viewing was to resume. Fully fed and momentarily forgetful of the gravity of the present occasion, I whispered to the man holding the door, “Is Grandma still here?”
To which the man deftly replied, cupping his free hand to his ear, “What?!”
Unflappable, I determined to have my joke heard and appreciated. “Is Grandma still here?!” I replied in my loudest inside voice. “She hasn’t gotten up and left yet, has she?” I asked loudly, hoping to make crystal clear the fact that I was playing the funny man.
“What?!” he shouted more loudly than the first time. I braced to repeat myself a second time but looked from the man’s flummoxed visage to the rear of the facility where a group of three mourners had already gathered near Grandma’s body a quarter hour before visitation was to officially begin. They stood staring at me, mouths gaping, clearly aghast at my ill-conceived attempt at levity.
My (even louder) recovery effort was unsuccessful: “I said, ‘Is it still cold outside?!’” I looked around to see if I had fooled any of the mourners. I had not; they stood before me in suspended animation, their faces betraying disbelief. The man at the door looked at me like I had just asked the dumbest possible question and replied, “Yes, it’s still cold outside.”
I walked inside and toward the three ladies who had heard my insensitive confabulation with the gentleman at the entrance, hoping to smooth over my insensitivity with more sensitive funeral-appropriate conversation. They had been talking amongst themselves, awaiting the arrival of the receiving line. As I approached them, the ladies politely feigned forgetfulness and acted as though I had never asked about Grandma’s whereabouts. They tearfully introduced themselves to me.
Mid-introduction, one of the trio said to the other two, “I just can’t stop crying.”
One of the other two replied with helpful advice: “Tilt your head back. That helps me control the tears.”
Not missing a beat, I immediately quipped, “Nah, that’s just for nosebleeds.” I waited for the laughter; there was none. Jaws dropped again. I could see the three minds working in unison, wondering, “Who is this guy? Is he actually related?” My wife’s embarrassed and apologetic smile confirmed that I was indeed related (thanks to her agreement to be bound to me in holy matrimony, if not wedded bliss). I politely excused myself. I had inflicted enough psychological damage on these poor souls. If I could not control the words coming out of my mouth, the least I could do was distribute them more broadly across the wider spectrum of attendees so as not to cause maximal insult to any single person or family.
I am not the only one, however, to have spoken in a manner unbefitting of a funeral parlor. Earlier in the day, during the first session, a pair of pleasant older ladies arrived to pay their final respects. One of the ladies (the more lucid of the two) introduced the other (the older—and peppier—of the two—she was 87) to Grandma’s family members. “…and this is her son-in-law,” the lucid lady said to the peppy lady, gesturing toward my father-in-law.
The peppy lady’s eyes lit up, and she thrust her cane in the air as she shuffled closer to my father-in-law. “You’re the son-in-law!?” she exclaimed in awe.
“Yes. I’m—” he began.
“Why,” she interrupted, overcome by the figure towering in front of her (her four-foot-something frame was dwarfed by his six feet and change), “you’ve lost your hair!”
He was stunned—he had in fact lost his hair some time ago. He seemed not to know how to reply. Frankly, even I, quick-witted blogger, would have been speechless.
“That’s okay!” she promptly shouted, demonstratively. “I like men without hair.” She paused, raised her cane in the air again, and blurted, “Heck! I like men!” Instantly, the once melancholy crowd surrounding the son-in-law and the 87-year-old man-ophile burst into raucous laughter. Lucid Lady politely ushered Peppy Lady to another corner of the funeral home not yet tainted by the sounds of her advances on younger men.
The viewing hours drew to a close, and as Grandma’s family prepared to leave, a couple slipped inside. “Are you here for the visitation?” the funeral director asked the bundled man and woman.
“No,” the man replied, deadpan. “We’re just coming in from the cold.” There was a long, awkward pause, after which the man clarified, “I was joking. We’re here for the viewing.”
The joke, it turned out, was on him. The funeral director did not laugh. “I’m sorry, sir, the viewing hours are over,” he replied, also deadpan. Another awkward silence transpired between the two. “But that’s ok. You can visit with the family for a few moments.”
After these final visitors had left, the funeral director sat on the parlor couch and waited patiently for our family to gather our belongings. I sat in a chair next to him. Out of morbid curiosity, I asked him, “How does one decide to become a funeral director?” He explained that he had known that this was what he wanted to do with his life ever since he was in the third grade. Also in the third grade, he added, he had determined that he would marry his grade school sweetheart. He accomplished both of his goals: he’s now a funeral director married to his third-grade girlfriend for thirty-plus years.
He mentioned that in addition to the funeral business, he had also always wanted to go into the restaurant industry. “Couldn’t you combine the two?” I asked, reviving the spark of humor I had unsuccessfully initiated earlier in the day.
“No,” he answered. If he knew I was joking, he didn’t let on.
“You know, you could have the dining room over there by the…” I gestured toward the room next to the main viewing area, my voice trailing off into the distance.
“No, that wouldn’t work. You can’t combine the two.” He set me straight.
“Sure, okay,” I conceded.
Rest in peace, Grandma (1928-2008).