I stared at the small woman in the casket. She was a stranger to me, and I only knew one of those people among me who mourned her death; my girlfriend, who I was in a failing relationship with. This was one of those instances where I deeply wanted to be there for her, as a sign of effort, of solidarity.
It was a small gathering, at a funeral home in New York State. I stood there in my pinstripe blazer, the one I’d purchased back when I first made the bonehead mistake of getting a credit card in my youth. The blazer and my black dress shirt, and my black jeans, and my beat-up dress shoes I wore to work which were covered in old milk and syrup, and held together (barely) by copious amounts of Shoe Goo.
This was basically my work uniform, yet I wore it here to this woman’s funeral. To other funerals before it. Whenever someone I knew saw me in it, they’d pay me a compliment. “Damn, you look sharp.” Friends call me ‘The Man In Black’ sometimes. Her family members, though, (at least there in New York) were dressed to the nines, wearing smart suits and polished shoes and ties and expensive jewelery. I didn’t quite fit in, but I didn’t much care. My girlfriend was slightly and silently embarrassed of the nicks in my shoes, the faded sharpness of my blazer – in comparison to those polished shoes and snappy threads of her family. I was silently angry because I worked hard for what I had and I was there, as a partner, to help bury this woman and to support her granddaughter. I felt like the dead woman would have appreciated my efforts and would probably not have cared about my shoes and the nicks I got in them from working hard and doing my job and living life.
The woman to be buried was a WWII veteran – even though she had “only” served in the United States Coast Guard. I stared at her black and white photos, and I noted to my girlfriend that her grandmother looked like she could be playing the part of Marvel’s Peggy Carter. My girlfriend nodded her head in silent agreement as she processed her emotions and held back tears.
My girlfriend’s grandmother was a pretty lady, but I didn’t know a thing about her history. When the funeral home staff asked me to, I gritted my teeth and I picked up her casket with clammy hands. I helped carry her to the hearse and we drove to the beautiful church where they made us take Communion, and some very talented folks in a booth above and behind us sang hymnals. The priest in charge tossed holy water on the lid of her casket and lit incense which he used to spread sweet-smoke to sanctify and purify her body. There were tears. There was appreciation. There was introspection.
And then when I again helped carry her casket to the hearse, and we followed it to the veteran’s burial ground, some old Coast Guard vets presented gifts atop her coffin. When they played Taps, I shed a tear. Camaraderie is beautiful. What the country is SUPPOSED to stand for…is beautiful. The sincerity and the feeling behind the salutes from these men to this dead woman were supremely touching. Two young members of the Coast Guard smartly folded the flag and presented it to the dead woman’s son. I selfishly thought about an ex-girlfriend who had joined the US Coast Guard, and I thought this was how her funeral was going to be in the future. I wouldn’t be there because we’ve forgotten each other and moved on.
And then, we sent this dead woman on one final ride in the hearse, lifting her coffin and sliding it into the back. I gave this woman I never knew, and never met, a mental wave goodbye and I wished her peace.
This whole woman’s life was in a box, and I helped carry that box to its final resting place. She was a mother, a grandmother. A veteran. Someone who laughed every day and someone who is remembered fondly. Someone far better than I, who lived her life and took the lumps as they came. I will try to do the same. Unfortunately, I lost my chance to keep being a part of her granddaughter’s life in a big way, but I imagine her at least tipping her service cap to me in appreciation for what we had.
One day, my own life will fit inside a box and it’ll be buried six feet under the earth. I hope the pallbearers all get a good look at me as my relatives and friends weep over my still form. I want them to grip the handles of my casket, to struggle with the weight of my coffin as they push me toward oblivion. I want them to think about ex-girlfriends or boyfriends. I want them to wonder “what next”. I want them to find inspiration in life, fear of death, and hope for a life well-lived. But I hope nobody frets about what anyone else is wearing, because I certainly won’t care.