Jimmy died after ten days in a coma, which was long enough for him to lose half his body weight. His class ring dangled precariously, big enough for two of his now bony fingers. His car had been smashed flat by a toppling bread truck at a gravel country intersection. The only two vehicles within miles managed to hit each other. I had known him for two weeks. I was asked to be a pallbearer. I was sixteen and had never even been to a funeral.
The other time I was a pallbearer was for an old man I had only met once. Is this part of the Catholic tradition, to be borne by five close family members and one Random Dude? I learned once that it is a fundamental part of the Jewish Passover meal to include a stranger, so maybe.
I had been to a couple of Catholic weddings, which were fun: they had beautiful flip-down pads on the pews to kneel on, and so many opportunities to stand up and sit down that I skipped aerobics the next day.
The Catholic funeral service, however, scared the hell out of me, which I guess is one way of accomplishing their mission.
During a pause in the funeral service I glanced around to see what was up. Just a few feet behind me, creeping silently down the isle, were hooded people wielding huge swords, much like a dream I had as a kid except in the dream there was only one of them. I nearly leapt out of my seat. “Doesn’t anybody see this?!” my brain screamed. “Are we to just sit here and be slaughtered?” Nobody else scattered, and apparently I would rather die than stand out in a crowd, so I too stayed put. I was so shook up that I don’t remember the rest of the service at all.
As rehearsed, we pallbearers lifted the frail deceased in one smooth motion and hauled him out the front door as if he were a couch. We paused by the priest, who swung a tea strainer full of smoking incense around at the end of a chain, then flicked water from a wand onto the expensive honey-colored maple casket. My immediate reaction was inbred by my mother: “Whoa, hey—that’s going to leave a stain!” I was compelled to buff it dry to protect the finish but my hands were full. I reminded myself that a water spot was the least of this casket’s worries.
We approached the long, regal steps of St. Cecilia’s Cathedral. I was in front and had been instructed to raise up a bit while the guys in back lowered a bit, so that as we descended the guest of honor would remain level. But he was a small man in a big casket lined with slippery silk, and at the slightest kilter he suddenly slid to the front. All his weight shifted to me in a lunge and I heard what sounded like a melon hit the end of the casket. The back end reared up I was relieved we didn’t flip the whole thing over and spill it down the steps. I know the other pallbearers felt it, but no one said anything, and Random Dude wasn’t about to make the announcement.
I clung to the assumption that at some point before the burial someone would discreetly open the casket, grab him by the shoes and pull him straight. As they dangled his box over the final hole I leaned to a fellow bearer, grandson of the deceased. “Are they going to just leave him like that?” He shrugged. They lowered the casket with a machine that didn’t care at all which end was heavier, or that the freshly pressed suit inside was now waded up in a ball on one end.
Afterwards, more then ever before, I planned for myself a natural burial: no waste of fancy clothes or polished hardwood. Lay me—comfortably flat, please—in a hole in the country, and stick a cottonwood tree on top so I can continue to clatter in the wind. That’s how I buried my cat Libby, the hardest memory of which was seeing her pure, proud white coat get dirty. I imagine in Heaven the first thing she did was sit and groom herself. And I’m sure the first thing gramps did in Heaven was stand up, straighten out his twisted suit, shake his gnarly knuckles down at us and yell, “You stupid bastards!”