By John Thomas Tuft
Funeral directors have mastered the art of hovering. And plastering their names, in days gone by, on the back of Little League uniforms. In the wrinkles of memory, the spirits of our ancestors roamed the earth, spoke through the storms, whispered on the wind, and nourished the ground under our feet. Yet, we tell ourselves that we know better now. Instead of burying them with food and gold for the journey, we commit them to the ground with embalming fluids inside a locked metal box. Their memories are not our own, yet we carry many of their fears and worries forward as a shield, admired even, much as a funeral director hovers in the background admiring how good the dead body looks in its repose. Many of us are so thoroughly surprised at the notion that our lives end, that our bodies are designed to wear out, wither and fade.
Funerals are stories in and of themselves. We devote an enormous amount of energy to our image, often more than to our reality, exacerbated by today’s fixation, and craved like drug fixes, on social media. Today’s statue “controversies” seem more devoted to a desire to maintain our image of these stone and metal representations of ancestor myths than to the realities of the lives being lived around us. The stories that we are weaving in our living day by day may never be enshrined in marble or gold, but, by god, we demand, give me a decent funeral. Letting the world know I was here, reminding my family that I existed in the way that I am ‘laid to rest’ with somber hovering is oddly disquieting.
I performed a funeral service once in the dead of winter, icy winds blowing outside the walls of the stone chapel at the cemetery. The funeral director had contacted me because no one else would do it and, well, I had a reputation. The person who had inhabited the body had been a reprobate, a known abuser, run out of town and forgotten. The lone attendee was a distant niece, alone in the front, rows and rows of empty seats behind her. And the funeral director…hovering. What was I doing? Committing another human bean, a fellow traveler on a spinning blue marble, to the vast space between all matter where we hope we hear the whispers of the divine story. And offering the warmth of one candle to a woman seeking comfort.
At my own father’s funeral, I was too besotted with morphine, fentanyl and valium to remember anything other than that we told stories. Stories about our experiences with him got through the haze in my brain. My father in law, Big John Wayne Wertz, used to greet me every time I came through his door with, “John Boy! How’s it hangin’?” (hey, it was Pittsburgh, mid 1980s) A few years after his death after a mighty struggle with lung cancer and the awful effects of hypoxia on his brain, I had a dream in which I was walking in his yard and came to a garden. There he worked, looking young and fit, just like the combat engineer pictured in faded photos from his time in New Guinea, blasting runways out of the coral of the Pacific Islands. And he gently instructed me on how to care for the green shoots. When I recounted the dream to his wife, we fell into each others’ arms, in tears. That’s a funeral.
I have stood beside the casket of a four year old child, struck by a car when he ran out into the street, his shattered parents hovering at the casket, taking turns snapping photos of themselves saying goodbye. And helping to peel the mother off the casket as it was closed, then lowered into the ground, as she whimpered, “He’s all alone. He will be so cold. Should I put in another blanket?” Human hearts do break. The funeral for when she took her own life was a room of shattered souls seeking solace in ancient story that hovers over us all.
As for me, let the flames consume all of my scars, inside and out. Take my ashes to my favorite spot on the shores of Lake Erie, west of the city before you reach the border with Ohio. It will be a sunny summer day, the waves crashing below the bluff, a stiff breeze coming in across the waters. If any funeral directors show up to hover, make sure they get some of the hot dogs with chili and cheese, onions and slaw if they must. Root beer floats, Corona beer, makes no nevermind, will quench their thirst. And make sure they get one of the kites. Kites for everyone. And as you unfurl the kites into that wind, scatter my ashes high and far, with a shout of “Preacher Boy, how is it hangin’?” And tell stories. Lots of stories. Not mine. Yours.
Words are magic and, writers are wizards.