The minute you enter, you are struck silent.
The room at the funeral home is fully packed with people and flowers. At least a hundred people are there, and twenty or so floral arrangements are stacked alongside the room's walls, making you feel simultaneously claustrophobic and dizzy. You think about ducking out of the line you're in for fresh air; the room's floral scent is heavier than the fragrance department at Macy's. But, you know you can't back out. You're there to view the open casket, even if it kills you.
Thing is, it's not just any casket. It's your friend Joey's casket. Yeah, Joey. Not Grease Joey, but Maltese Joey, the guy in his knit cap, who ordered Coors Light with an Absolut vodka shot with so much trademark regularity that sometimes, words weren't necessary to greet him with at all. Just showing Joey that you noticed him walk in and could have his drinks ready within seconds sufficed.
Except, there he is, in the casket. His casket.
You can't believe Joey's lying in his coffin; ever since you learned of his cardiac arrest in his sleep, you prayed the news was wrong. Even now, you wonder if he'll rise from the casket and inform everyone he was just fucking around. But, he doesn't stir when you kiss him on the cheek; you have no other option but to accept that he won't move.
As you continue to look at Joey, Catholic prayers come pouring out of your lips, words you are surprised to remember. At Our Father, you notice his beige suit, and while stuttering over Hail Mary, you think the makeup on his cheeks looks funny. Right then, recalling the second half of Hail Mary doesn't seem important because what you remember is that Joey was pale—lily white, Casper-like, and so light that the black hair forming his usual goatee on his chin made his skin look even more ghostly. Yet there he is in front of you, his face covered in some kind of pancake foundation and a little blush; for once, the snow butt white guy you knew in life looks normal in death.
But, you decide not to say so to Joey's nearby parents. Instead, you figure out the rest of Hail Mary, finish your Glory Be, and throw in a Hail Holy Queen. After you cross yourself to conclude your prayers, you turn to Joey's parents; his mother is a tiny, petite woman, while his dad reminds you of Paul Sorvino and speaks with a gruff New York Italian baritone. You introduce yourself to both, noting that Joey physically resembled his mother and sounded like a softer-spoken version of his dad.
Initially, you start to say you're sorry, but choke back the words. You restrain the apology about to fly out of your mouth because you know that if you speak it out loud, it will be accompanied by tears running down your face; you don't want to cry in front of the brick wall of a man who most likely feels collapsed, someone who will continue mourning to pick up pieces and make sense of his son's death long after your tears have dried. So, you choose a different tack. You choose praise.
You tell Joey's father that his son was always courteous, someone who left a good tip at the bar, and a guy who made you laugh. The older man's face looks relieved to have a lighter-hearted exchange, and his downcast eyes momentarily light up when you describe his son as a droll, witty dude. You slightly wish you hadn't interjected idiot Ninja Turtle slang into your conversation. Doh.
But, Joey's dad doesn't notice you internally kicking yourself at a possible faux pas, and seems momentarily tickled out of mourning with your casual choice of word. He thanks you for your remarks, then says that he never thought Joey would know so many people, a wide number strangers that obviously include you, your co-workers, a truckload of friends and even more acquaintances. He shakes your hand with a bear's grip to conclude your conversation, then readies himself for the next well-wisher.
You then turn to Lori, Joey's significant other, the girl who fell asleep thinking she would be able to wake him up for work the next morning. Remorse floods your heart, for she wasn't just Joey's girl, but yours too, someone you fell out with over a guy whose name isn't even worth breathing. In your eye, the once boisterous-looking girl is mysteriously more svelte; part of you wants to tell her that she looks great, but you bite back the remark because you're not at a country club. Nor do you want to compliment any grief-related anorexia.
You shove aside the "coulda, woulda, shoulda's" littering your brain to offer her your condolences, and also volunteer to make her dinner sometime if she needs it. When she mentions eggplant parmesan, you nod and agree to make it, even though you haven't got the first clue of how to do so. You are happy that bygones are bygones, but saddened that Joey's death is the occasion where you could finally bury your hatchet.
You notice that there is no one else for you to speak to, so you take this as your cue. You step away from the family, Lori, the flowers, the casket. You walk away and make your way downstairs to meet your friends for a cigarette on the sidewalk. You feel relieved that the ordeal is over.
Except it's not.
You take pulls of nicotine that will undoubtedly send you to a funeral home eventually, and realize that you don't feel complete. Sure, you said your prayers, but given that Kevin Smith wows you more than Catholicism does, you feel like you spoke obsolete words. Sure, you said a few nice things to Joey's dad and patched things up with Lori, but you didn't talk to Joey. You didn't say goodbye to him. So when you notice a few newly-arrived friends about to pay their respects to Joey, you join them for a second round and line up again.
This time around, you don't notice the overpowering floral assault in the room. You don't see Joey's dad, Lori, or the rest of his family members. You don't take stock of Joey's suit or his skin tone. This time, it's just you and Joey.
Within moments, you are awash in Joey memories. There's the time he underestimated your pool skills till you started kicking his ass, an afternoon when he purposely suggested blowjob penalties during your key shots. There's also the night he pestered you over whether or not you thought he was manfully endowed while you were working, as well as a collection of accurate dirty jokes he made about your dates and natural disasters. You're slightly appalled that most of your memories look like they were written by Judd Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers; you feel weird thinking about all of Joey's raunchy funny stuff when you're supposed to be mourning.
You remember your friend Jen telling you that you annoyed Joey on occasion, so you first apologize for pissing him off. But, you also remember that annoyances rolled off Joey's back and he didn't sweat the small stuff, so you stop with the "I'm sorry's." You don't want your last conversation with Joey to be an apology monologue, especially when neither of you ever behaved sadly towards one another, or ever really needed to be sorry.
So, you choose a different tack. You recall every dirtbag moment that ever made you laugh out loud, and draw from them instead of brushing them aside for propriety's sake. You speak from your heart, and not the Pavlovian litany of prayers you can recite at a moment's notice. You thank Joey for gracing your life.
As you tell him so, gratitude hits you like a tsunami, a collective happiness for every laugh, smart-assed remark, and dodgy proposal he ever gave you. You likewise feel thankful that he spoke to you with upfront honesty, and never presented himself to you as a white, shiny hero. Your eyes well up with tears, but this time you don't mind, because you feel light after you speak, and understand that you found the right things to say to Joey. You wonder if there is anything else you should add, but don't believe anything else is necessary. Other mourners wait to pay their respects, so you make one last wish for Joey: to have a safe journey to his next path. And, you say good-bye.
As you leave the casket, you feel better. You are glad you had one last time with Joey, and feel like you paid your respects appropriately. Just as you think so, a familiar New York baritone interrupts your thoughts; Joey's dad stands in front of you with a bemused expression. As you figure out he's been watching your second appearance at his son's casket, he arches an eyebrow and ball-busts you over still hanging around the casket in the same manner Tony Soprano made fun of his boys. You hear the humor dancing in his booming voice when he remarks you're still here.
With nothing else to say, you smile back.
An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.14.08 @ 9:48a
Not too many people have ever done this, but, Alex, you made me laugh at a funeral. I'd have liked to have known Joey, too, and maybe you should pursue a friendship with his father who seems he might be the tree Joey himself didn't fall too far from.
5.14.08 @ 12:46p
I discovered once at a funeral that there's no correct response to "Thank you for coming." I nearly said, "Thank you for having me," but luckily caught myself. Also, "You're welcome" and especially "My pleasure" seem a bit ... out of place.
5.14.08 @ 1:44p
Heh, Sandra, that's the thing- I didn't expect myself to laugh at Joey's wake, but I did. In hindsight, I'm not surprised, but at the time, I certainly didn't expect to. When I think about Joey's dad going, "You're still here?", I crack up, and can't help thinking that this guy needed the humor at the time.
Adam, I figure the best thing to say to "Thank you for coming," is "No need to thank me."
5.14.08 @ 9:37p
Great article, Alex. While Joeys death is devastating to everyone, it is very important to remember the good times of him. Don't apologize for pissing him off, that was very hard to do, even i had trouble, lol. I am very glad we made amends, but where is my eggplant? Love ya girl and thanks for everything.
5.15.08 @ 1:04a
Hey Lori, glad to see you here. Your eggplant parm will be available as soon as I figure out how to make it without burning it.
5.16.08 @ 7:19a
Alex, this is really beautiful.
5.16.08 @ 6:39p
Thanks Tracey :-)
5.19.08 @ 6:15p
I'm always late reading and commenting on things around here. I need to make it a habit to visit here daily, but I just want to say that this piece is beautiful.
I've been to one funeral; that of my boss's daughter who committed suicide, and though I never met the girl, I had a good friendship with her mother. I was sweating what to say or do (I was 23 at the time, so completely unprepared and immature). When I finally did see her, I just started bawling. Hard. I think I was crying harder than Debra herself.
Point is... you speak and respond at a funeral the way you feel... there is no preparation, or exactly right way to express your condolences, unless you just came to the funeral out of blind courtesy. You went to Joey's funeral with feeling, and that is very evident in this beautiful piece, and obvious to Joey and those left behind.
5.20.08 @ 5:54p
Wow Reem. Being at a wake from a natural death is tragic enough, but being in the presence of a self-inflicted death somehow feels a couple degrees worse. I can only imagine how parents feel at the death of a child, and I hope your friend has recovered as well as she can from her daughter's suicide.
And, at a funeral, I think the only prerequisite is to not speak of the deceased's passing too bluntly or baldly. Generally speak with a little tact, and all goes well.
Thanks for the props, too :-)