Formal rituals surrounding death have always fascinated me. No – really…they do. I think it has something to do with being from an Irish family. We went to wakes. And wakes, and wakes and more wakes. As a child, I enjoyed a good wake. It was more like a party with a dead person up in front. No..really. Grandma held court in the back of the room. I ran around the parlor with my cousins, second cousins and any other kids who were dragged to the wake by their parents. There was always food…I personally gorged on cookies. The priest came…we prayed. The next day was the funeral and more food. No one seemed particularly sad…at the Irish wakes at any rate. The German side of the family was a little different. Less food. More first cousins..21 to be exact – similarly running around. Fewer wakes until we all got a little older. The German side had fewer elderly and extensions than the Irish side. So until I lost someone really close to me, I thought wakes were fun.
Cemeteries came hand in hand with wakes. I was born the same year my paternal grandfather (the Irish one) died. Consequently, we took lots of rides to the cemetery to visit the grave. That was ok too. Lots of mausoleums in the cemetery. I thought they were fascinating little churches and wondered if Mass was ever celebrated inside. The stain glass windows, and altars convinced me that they were miniature churches. Totally didn’t get the whole picture…but we went to the cemetery…almost every Sunday after Mass, then we went to Grandma’s house (the Irish one), where I gorged on cookies, ran around outside and played with my Irish cousins. Sundays were ok.
As I grew older, I started understanding a little more about the whole thing, and then the family stories started to surface. (I love family stories, don’t you?) The one about Grandpa’s grave was one of the best. First of all, my grandfather died in 1951. He was a retired Chicago park policeman with a large ego. He decided that he needed to buy my grandmother a wedding anniversary gift. He called my father, and told him that they needed to go somewhere…but wouldn’t say where. He also swore my dad to secrecy…Don’t tell Mom anything. So Dad told Mom he had to go somewhere with his father, but not to ask any questions…Mom’s response was something akin to, “Whatever.” Dad and my grandfather then travelled from the west side of Chicago to Queen of Heaven cemetery and purchased a SIX PLOT GRAVESITE (no lie) on time. After the purchase of the SIX PLOT GRAVESITE, they proceeded down the road to Troost Monuments, and put a deposit on an enormous grave marker in the shape of an Irish cross – this at the cost of $600. Again – this was in 1951. $600 probably would have been a reasonable amount of money to put down on a small house. My father was again sworn to secrecy. My grandfather’s plan was to surprise my grandmother in May with this rather unusual anniversary gift. Surprise, surprise, surprise…Grandpa dies in April. Great timing, Grandpa.
As time passed, more people were added to the SIX PLOT GRAVESITE. My grandma, of course….my dad – temporarily, (We moved him because mom did not want to be buried next to one of her sisters-in-law, and I had a fit when I saw that my dad’s other sister had “Lord, have mercy on their souls” carved on the marker without getting anyone’s permission.. It’s a little grim, don’t you think?), and finally my aunts. Currently the SIX PLOT GRAVESITE is awaiting my cousin’s cremains. That’s another one for the books. Currently my cousin Pat is residing in a box in a basement because his brothers are fighting over his ashes. (yuck!) One brother claims that it is not respectful to bury him on top of his mother’s remains, the other one wants Pat out of the basement. The third one tells ghost stories. Weird ghost stories, at that.
The Irish side has quirks…This does not leave Mom’s side off the hook. We lost grandma on the way up to Wisconsin to the cemetery. My grandmother was born in what is now Dousman, Wisconsin. Her grandfather and his brothers were early settlers of the area, and she was quite proud of her family’s history. Clearing the land, log cabins, cows…the whole pioneer bit. Needless to say, she wanted to be buried there. Because money was tight, the funeral director suggested that the cost of a hearse from Chicago’s north side to the middle of nowhere Wisconsin (Dousman had a population of 250, at the time) would be exorbitant. He suggested a cost-effective solution. He had rigged his son’s station wagon so that it could transport – need I say more? Anyway, funeral director’s son got lost somewhere going north on 294. In the meantime, we were assembled in a relative’s living room across the street from the church…sharing stories. The cousins were in the living room; the adults were in the kitchen. I was gorging on cookies. And we were all wondering where Grandma was.. It seems as though, the chauffeur had to stop and ask for directions. Whenever I wrap my brain around this scenario, I wonder what the conversation was like. How do you explain to a complete stranger that you are transporting somebody’s loved-one in a station wagon to a cemetery for burial…and you are lost? That had to be one of those Hallmark moments from hell.
As funerals, and cemeteries go, I suppose that if people started sharing these horse stories, we would all find something in the circumstances of them that could be poignantly amusing. As I’ve grown older and wiser and passed my gorging-on-cookies stage, I realize now that our rituals are important, that grieving takes time, and that humor – wherever it is found – helps heal the heart.