I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.
I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”
As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?
After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.
As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone
– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne