Talk of the Town - Death takes a detour March 18 2004

But the elegy lingers on

My parents have reached a point in life where they omit the chitchat most people engage in before getting to the main topic.

Hence Dad, calling to say, “We’re going to be cremated.”

I know it’s hot in Florida, but come on.

Eventually, my father made it clear: This was not a case of global warming gone wild. Cremation will only happen after he and Mom pass on.

He cited several reasons for burning over burial: low cost, no fuss, less emotional toll on the survivors. He paraphrased Genesis: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” And if that wasn’t enough: “You won’t have to pay for a hearse!”

Pop is a man of eclectic enthusiasms.

This particular one surprised me, because he is also a traditionalist. Living with him was like having a 40-year head start on “The O’Reilly Factor” — a one-man Fox Network even in a liberal age. He stubbornly continued to wear narrow ties throughout the 1970s, an era that saw cravats wider than a Cheech and Chong joint.

I always figured him for the standard two-day Catholic viewing and wake, ecclesiastical midpoint between Judaic/Islamic in-ground-by-sundown and the more elastic view taken by certain fervid fundamentalists, who look at the dead so long you think they’re going for full resurrection.

But the cremation thing makes sense. Because my parents are the kind of people who don’t want to bother anyone. I’ve long been convinced that when one of them passes on, the survivor won’t tell me.

“Where’s Dad, Ma?”

“He went to the supermarket, Dear.”

“For three months?”

Mom and Pop have made it clear: They don’t want any post-mortem viewing. I still remember going to my first at age 14, after Aunt Harriet took a nap one Sunday afternoon in August and didn’t wake up.

Until then, my parents hadn’t taken me to funerals, and I didn’t have a fully formed idea as to what went on in a funeral parlor. But I had my suspicions.

“What are we going to do there?” I wondered from the back seat of Dad’s Plymouth Fury III, a company car closely resembling police cruisers of the day, a fact that caused Pop no end of pleasure as other motorists scuttled out of his way.

“Pay our respects to your aunt.”


“You go up to the casket and say a little prayer.”

Actually, I’d guessed this much. What I really wanted to know was: “Will it be open?”

My parents conferred about this, weighing the merits of Harriet being on view. And they jointly decided that yes, the casket — a word funeral directors prefer over the harsher “coffin” — would probably be open.

Open? Wait a minute. I had never seen a dead person before, and was in no hurry to expand my horizons.

Actually, poor Harriet looked quite lovely laid out. Only 52, she’d been in the hands of a good funerary cosmetician and hadn’t suffered at all prior to the nap. A massive myocardial infarction, the medical examiner said. All told, not a bad way to go.

Only after you’ve been to open-casket wakes of people who suffered through long illness do you come to realize how truly barbaric the practice is. So my first viewing could have been a lot worse.

None of which prevented Teen Me from almost passing out as I neared the bier. Uncle Bernie, widower and chief mourner, was there, and in pretty bad shape. Forty-eight hours earlier, he and Harriet had been picking out carpet for a new home. Now he’d just gotten done choosing a burial plot for his wife.

Meanwhile, relatives who hadn’t seen each other since the last funeral commented on the passage of time ...

“Everyone’s gotten so old,” said Aunt Bea, looking around the room with amazement.

“Have you looked in a mirror lately?” piped up someone in her field of view.

And on the deceased ...

“She looks well!”

Considering the circumstances.

Meanwhile, the mix of Irish-German relations was variegated by the inexplicable presence of two little old Italian ladies, clad head to toe in black, who made the rounds of every wake in the funeral parlor.

They were, in turn, upstaged by the elegantly turned out police chaplain — Bernie was a former patrolman — there to lead us in the “Our Father.” My father gave me a discreet thwack on the back of the head when I, oblivious to protocol, failed to rise at the clergyman’s entrance.

Next day was the funeral. It was 1973, the summer of the Watergate hearings, and the priest at Harriet’s church service managed to work some cautionary tale about executive power into the rites for a housewife who never stonewalled anybody.

An inappropriate oratorical conceit, to be sure. But one with a beneficial side effect. Because I knew Uncle Bernie, a rock-ribbed Republican, would be all right when he memorably muttered in reply:

“I didn’t come here for a sermon.”

Glen Slattery is on view in Alpharetta.