Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I Still Don't Believe It All Happened

I am not sure I can do justice to everything that happened at the funeral. But here is my report, humbly submitted. I have deleted a lot of the emotional content, obviously. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty, although why the guilty deserve my protection under the circumstances isn't so clear.

Read on...

The Funeral Mass

Friday morning, about fifty people, family and friends of my grandmother, were present for a funeral mass celebrated at Bethlehem House, the Catholic assisted living facility at which my grandmother spent the last few weeks of her life. Bethelehem House has a large population of retired priests, and one of them was available to say the mass. Father is 91, God bless him, and he was not too happy about several things we were doing, chief among them being that the family wished for the grandchildren to speak.

Father declared this to be a Protestant custom, and disapproved of it on those grounds. He also announced that in the past he had dealt with grandchildren speaking, and they had shown a tendency to go on for half an hour and more, and 'cry and snot' on the altar. Somehow, however, we managed to convince him that all the grandchildren are at least well into their twenties, and would be able to control themselves, and use Kleenex. Eventually he relented, to the extent that my aunt's son and daughter would be permitted two minutes, and one cousin from the other side of the family would get two more.

Things improved on the day of the funeral, since Father was (as who would not be) charmed by my cousin and her brother's fiancee. The mass proceeded beautifully, except for a few small mishaps with who was doing what reading, the fact that Father nearly fell over an extension cord (Father is 91, God bless him), and the fact that Father got to his feet purposefully, when one of my cousins ran slightly over his allotted two minutes, apparently with every intention of hooking him off the stage with a crozier if he didn't stop.

The chapel is lovely, with beautiful carved knotwork on the altar, and stained glass--very serene and pleasant--and my cousin had made a program for the funeral with an adorable picture of my grandmother as a little girl, taken in 1924. Listening to my cousins speak was wonderful--they told some stories I hadn't heard before, and it was beautiful and heartbreaking.

Interlude, with brownies
Afterward, my immediate family went to change, and my aunt and her family returned home, and discovered that the dog had eaten three pounds of brownies in their absence.

The dog is a Springer Spaniel, sweet, very friendly, very food-oriented, and was deeply attached to my grandmother. He's not used to being left home alone, and had taken the opportunity to console himself by finding a sealed tub of brownies purchased for the wake, unsealing it, and eating them down to the last chocolatey crumb.

Chocolate being toxic to dogs, my aunt's son was obliged to leave our grandmother's wake to drive the dog to the vet. They gave him (the dog, not my cousin) drugs, and he spent the next three hours throwing up. He was very indisposed and miserable when he came home, and my aunt was incredibly stressed.

The Inurnment (here's where it gets weird)
Internment? Interrment? It turns out the word for placing a funerary urn is 'inurnment'. You learn something new every day.

I should explain that we had very explicit instructions from my grandmother about her resting place. She wished to be cremated, and that her ashes should be placed above ground, since she was claustrophobic all her life. (Point out the obvious irrelevancy of this, and I will ignore you with disdain, much as she would have.)

It turns out that not all mausoleum niches are marble- or bronze-fronted, you can get one with a glass front, so one of those was chosen. She left my aunt with directions that she wanted a beautiful urn, so my aunt and cousin had very carefully, I was informed, chosen one they thought was very attractive, and also in colors my grandmother liked. Aunt and cousin have beautiful taste, so I was sure they would have picked out something exactly right.

The plan was that on Saturday morning, those immediate family members who could remain in town would meet at the cemetery, place the urn, pray together, and I would speak for a few minutes in place of a formal eulogy.

That was the plan, anyway.

Saturday morning, six immediate family members arrive at the Catholic cemetery in San Diego, and are met at the mausoleum by a man in what seems to be a janitor's uniform. We are ushered in, and shown that they have set up chairs in front of the niche my grandmother purchased, and there is a small table set up for the urn to rest on until we are ready to have it placed. Would we like the remains now? asks the mausoleum employee. Yes, we would. Should he bring them out? My aunt asks her brother, my father, to do so.

So my father goes off, and he comes out of their office, carefully carrying something small. Not an urn. It's a plastic box, dark brown, with a stick-on label stuck on it.

My aunt takes one look. "It's not her," she says. Calmly. Flatly.

We all freeze, and wonder what this means--has my aunt's grief reached a breaking point? Does she have second sight, and is able to determine psychically that these are someone else's remains? What is going on here? I am baffled because I have been repeatedly told we ordered a beautiful urn. My father, it turns out, had similar concerns, but thought that possibly the plastic container went into the urn. We examine the stick-on label. "It has her name," my father points out. We stare at one another blankly.

After some babble back and forth between all of us, my aunt explains that they requested that the mortuary place the remains in the urn they selected. This is not the urn they selected, obviously. This is not a container suitable for placement. What is going on? At our suggestion, the mausoleum man eventually goes into the office and calls the mortuary.

The group of us sit in our folding chairs in the aisle of the mausoleum and wonder what happens next. My aunt has begun to weep. My father is reassuring her that we will get this sorted out, and place the urn tomorrow, or Monday, if need be. All of us are uncomfortable, to say the least. My mother passes out kleenex.

Mausoleum man comes back and tells us that the mortuary got the urn delivered after they delivered the ashes to the mausoleum, but someone has gotten in their car with it, and is coming over. If we can wait twenty minutes, half an hour, they'll be right here, and transfer the remains to the urn, and we'll be good to go. Can we wait?

Well, we're not going anywhere. We spend twenty-five minutes on a self-guided tour of the mausoleum.

The mausoleum is actually very pretty, as mausoleums go. There is a lot of religious art, clearly donated by families over the years, and reflecting the ethnic diversity of the local Catholic community. There are inscriptions in English, Spanish, Italian, Irish and German, and statues and paintings in all kinds of styles.

The urn, when it finally did arrive, was indeed very beautiful. And, thank God, the man from the funeral home who brought it did seem to understand that they had messed up, and was apologetic and warm and hugged and shook hands all around.

Mausoleum man made sure we were back at our niche, and settled us down. He also wanted to assure himself that my aunt had a check for him, which she explained she did. At the time, it struck me as tacky, but we were just so darn relieved...

We had, after all this, a beautiful small family service. My father gave a drash about saints, and we prayed together, and I spoke for a few minutes about my grandmother's courage. We said goodbye.

We spent a very long time working on placing the name-plate exactly perfectly on the urn, and then my father placed it with mausoleum man's help. Turned out mausoleum man needs a witness to the inurnment (not sure what we are), so he goes off and finds another man, also in janitor costume, who stands by silently. He asks twice more about the check, finally insisting on being handed it before finishing attaching the ornamental screws that hold the glass in place.

I must say, that as stressed as we were, my grandmother would have loved the whole thing, and is doubtless retelling the story now, perhaps to Francis of Assisi, patron of the animals she loved so much.

And after...
I'm sad, but ritual makes it easier. I cried the night of the funeral, finally properly cried. I suppose I will be crying again, and again (I am now), but it will get easier. I'll stand for Kaddish, and it will get easier. I'll go the mass being said this Sunday at my father's parish church, and it will get easier.

The grandmother who taught me to take pride in my Irish heritage, and to protect animals, to travel wherever you want to go and to ignore the cost when you're doing the right thing is gone. My children will only know their great-grandmother through stories. I learned more of those stories recently.

I miss her. I know I'll be telling all her stories all my life.


Eliyahu said...

may your memories be a blessing to you. your grandmother obviously was a wonderful blessing to you. please consider writing your stories of her, as they come to you, for your children. may G_d comfort you.

Barefoot Jewess said...

What a lovely story. And it makes me miss my granny z"l, who died over 20 years ago yet it feels like yesterday.

May you be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.