mood Death and the Family

by Jill Hill

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

If a loved one has been recently lost, don’t read this. Get the hell out there and find them. (How does one lose a loved one? Doesn’t that take a special sort of forgetfulness?)

Normally, when people say they have lost a loved one they mean someone has died. The other euphemisms, such as ” passed away” or “passed” are even more bothersome. “Passed” sounds like a kidney stone or bowel movement is involved. Either one is much more frightening than what has actually happened. Someone has died.

Not that all euphemisms are bad. I especially like the Western one – “went tits up.” There are certain types of people the expression fits. A guy I knew in high school got insanely drunk and high on coke, moved his furniture out of his trailer, stacked all the old newspapers in a closet, poured gasoline on the stack of papers, sat on top, and struck a match. Before his last bit of lunacy, he regularly wandered the Arco desert to dig for the Mormon Golden Plates. Angels had told him in cocaine blurred-visions to dig for the plates. That guy went tits up.

Unlike my classmate, my family is not altogether crazy and pretty blunt. We say “died” or in the case of my uncle, “There is no good way to say this. Uncle Don shot himself.” Now Uncle Don was 82, and whatever possessed him to shoot himself in front of a restaurant on an Indian reservation is beyond my imagination, insight, and understanding.

What concerned my aunt and parents as we drove to the funeral was the viewing.

“Do you think they’ll have an open coffin?”

“They had one when Gwen’s boy shot himself.”

“They can do miracles anymore.”

Then we all went silent and wondered if the mortician had been able to make dead Uncle Don look good enough to have an open casket, which means we were really wondering if he blew off his face. I have attended two funerals a year since I was in seventh grade and I have only attended one closed casket funeral – lingering cancer. For some unfathomable reason, Mormons like to see the dead. They want to make sure the dead look good and have a peaceful expression. It fills a need that leans more toward affection for the dead person than morbid fascination. I hope.

Uncle Don wanted to be cremated, and there was about as much a chance of that happening as beer being served at the after-funeral-luncheon. Cremation is the sort of thing a person might do in California, not Idaho. Mormons bury the dead with their heads facing west – it is more an old pioneer custom having to do with first resurrection of the dead, rather than actual doctrine. Uncle Don never showed any interest in the church when alive, but the general feeling was that he was in heaven and could see the error of cremation. Besides, cremation wrecks havoc with the services and the viewing. A urn filled with ashes doesn’t have much of an impact on mourners. Nothing focuses the attention of funeral-goers like a shiny coffin covered with five hundred dollars worth of flowers. The viewing acts as a social mixer comparable to a cocktail party before an awards ceremony. It lets people talk and reconnect while still in the presence of the dead.

When I arrived, small groups of people were talking and laughing in close proximity to Uncle Don and sprays of flowers while others gathered at the casket like party guests at the buffet table. I went to the coffin and stood by an aunt, who was in the process of examining the corpse. Sadly, I thought Uncle Don looked the way he did at all of our extended family functions, pained as if he was being forced to sit through another family gathering that didn’t interest him. My aunt bent within inches of his face. She stood and said, “Isn’t wonderful what they can do. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to have an open coffin.”

Others offer comments.

“It looks like he died in his sleep.”

“So peaceful. Just look at that expression.”

“Have you ever seen roses that color?”

“Isn’t that the suit he wore to Sam’s wedding?”

“Are they going to leave his wedding band on? Doesn’t Sam or Ed want it?”

“Doesn’t he look natural?”

No. He doesn’t look natural. He looks dead and uncomfortable and oddly colored by the heavy make-up. And no one looks peaceful lying on white puffy satin, especially Uncle Don who was an outdoors man. He was in his good suit – the only one he owned – and bolo tie, and they had tried to put a smile on his face or at least lessen the frown he had worked on for 82 years. No matter how I looked at him, he looked dead. Not asleep, not passed away, or lost, but dead.

I contemplated where he shot himself. I wasn’t even convinced it had been a suicide. Uncle Don was notoriously unsafe with firearms. He shot off a couple of toes at fifty. I learned during the funeral that as a young boy he liked to stand on top of the haystack and take pot shots at his younger brother with a loaded twenty-two shot gun. He was not a careful man when it came to a loaded weapon.

Still, I had a macabre curiosity as to where the bullet entered, and then felt guilty for even entertaining such a sick idea. It bothered me. Although he did look determinedly dead, it didn’t appear as if he had died by a gunshot wound. Some of my relatives kissed his brow, but I could not bring myself to touch him. What possible good can come from kissing a dead person? And I was afraid of the thick make-up.

The services were short and no one went on about his good points. Uncle Don had been known as a “hard man,” meaning that he didn’t talk, or smile, or strain for polite conversation. I liked him well enough, but there was no love lost between him and his stepson and or even his son. However, if I had to rate the service I would have given it nine out of ten. It was short, and the musical numbers quite nice. The graveside service was highlighted by a military salute by World War II veterans. I thought the gun salute bordered on bad taste, and one old fellow almost tipped over firing his gun.

By this time, I had been standing in snow up to my ankles in black high heels for a half an hour, and my normal shallowness began to assert itself. I found myself worrying about my shoes getting ruined, and what would I wear to the reading I was giving the following month if they did get ruined – I didn’t have another pair that matched my reading dress. Caught in my shallow rut of thought, I likely looked pensive, because a cousin put his arm around me and gave me a consoling hug.

Finally, the last prayer was given and the person thoughtfully blessed the food that was waiting at the church. Everyone hurried out of the cemetery to lunch.

I was served roast turkey tough enough to convince me the bird died of old age. To accompany the meat was casserole commonly called “funeral potatoes” – a mixture of shredded potatoes, sour cream, cream of chicken soup and cheddar cheese. There was also an assortment of weirdly combined salads: a pink frothy thing made from cherry pie filling, Cool Whip, and pineapple chunks; uncooked Ramen noodles broken up and mixed with cabbage and dressing and cubed chicken and unfamiliar looking seeds; a concoction of fruit pudding and tapioca fondly referred to as frog-eye salad. Ten cakes were at the end of the buffet line. I gave up on the turkey, bypassed the casserole and salads, and took a piece of each type of cake. Then I went to a table and lined up the cake and began to eat. I thought, ‘This is wonderful cake, amazing cake, the best cake in the world.’ Each piece tasted better than the previous one, and as I sat with my last piece of cake after eating nine, not in the least bit nauseous, I thought how great is was to be alive – alive and eating cake.

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Jill Hill lives with some kids, some dogs, writes, and manages a restaurant where she tries out her new CD's. She listens to a variety of music, from Classical to Blues, but tries to stay away from most rap. In her words: "I am always on the look out for a new band or singer/songwriter that I will like. I like a CD that does not grow old and weary sounding, which mean I don't want buy a CD that can be found on the used CD sale table a month later. One of my favorite CD's is Neal Young's Everyone Knows this is Nowhere. My favorite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and my favorite novel of his Of Love and Other Demons. X-Files is about the only TV I watch. I do not watch sitcoms and do not like music inspired by sitcoms. I'd rather listen to a sampled rap version of the Jetsons theme song."