Daydreaming at a Funeral
I reached in my pocket and pulled out my Ipod. With a click, slight twirl and another click I replayed the song — Mustache Man (Wasted), my current sonic obsession. I considered a few additional clicks and whirls to put the song on ‘repeat’, but I didn’t want to commit.
I wasn’t really sure what the song was about — I didn’t really get what it had to do with a mustachioed man. It was a Cake song and was probably nonsense anyway, but it was catchy and I was especially drawn to the chorus.
The music pulsed through my cheap little earbuds as the late February air began to bite. I had only journeyed a half a block toward the church from my apartment but my cheeks already felt as if they’d been rolled in broken glass. The cold poured down the back of my neck too, where my scarf should have been.
I tried again to listen to the words of the song but my mind wandered away to the dilemma now before me — a giant pool of black water. It was too big to be a puddle, too small to be a named lake. Translucent chunks of ice huddled on the surface, the only sign of color other than a streak of dirty film, some kind of car fluid. At first glance I couldn’t tell how deep it was, only that it stretched well out into the street I needed to cross. I wondered when it had been warm enough since the blizzard to form this mini geologic marvel.
My first instinct was to go around it but I found himself in between two waist-high mounds of dirty snow and jagged ice. I wasn’t really standing on a street corner in Chicago so much as in a mountain pass. It was in that moment the chorus hit and I officially became sick of winter.
‘I have waaaasted sooo much time…” Cake’s lead singer sang with the background vocalists chiming in with three ‘so much, so much time…’.
I forgot being stranded for a moment and dedicated myself to the words.
I had swirled the volume up a little too high so I reached inside the pocket of my black trench coat to twirl it back down. Back at a proper listening level I again looked down at the black pool. It had a bottom of course and I hopefully extended my right leg, pushed off with my left and landed toe first into the middle. The water lapped over the front of my boot and rolled away in small waves, churning the ice chunks, smoothing their edges. Are these waterproof? With another little push I was now in the middle of the street and looked up and over to my left to see the light was green. I’d forgotten to look both ways. Or even one of the ways.
I hopped over a smaller puddle on the other side of the street.
“What if that had been it?” The headline would read: ‘Forty-year-old jumps out in front of car. Now dead.’
“Where would my funeral even be?” I thought as I continued down the icy sidewalk, towards Marie’s service.
I took my seat in a varnished oak pew two rows behind the last row of mourners. I was supposed to genuflect before I left the center aisle, but purposely did not. I sat there for a few moments and took it all in.
I was struck by how everything seemed so… heavy. I had walked by St. Michael’s hundreds of times and always admired it in the same way I did all the impressive churches in Europe and Mexico. It took up a good quarter of the block and there was nothing light or movable or flexible about the outside of the building. Even the white stone angels that guarded the upper perimeter of the brick structure were devoid of any beauty and joy. Even so I was surprised that inside it felt like a stone vault buried deep inside a mountain.
I sat there under all of that heaviness and looked up, high up, to the windows just below the dome. It occurred to me that they wouldn’t even let the light in freely. It all had to pass through material they had deeply manipulated and tried to make pretty
The mass was already underway and Marie’s casket lay beneath a white cloth on a wheeled gurney in front of the altar. I saw John, a bartender friend, sitting in the front row and guessed he was a pallbearer. There were some big, mob-looking guys sitting next Marie’s two daughters in the second row. Behind them was the white-haired cocktail waitress I used to mistake for Marie when I first moved to Chicago. Back a few rows were some other people I recognized from the neighborhood. It could easily have been 4 a.m. at Marie’s Riptide, a block from the church. Only now instead of Marie sitting at her spot at the end of the bar, illegally chain smoking and sipping on a shot glass of Jaegermeister, she lay (professionally) embalmed in a wooden box in a catholic church.
It had been several years since my grandfather’s funeral — the last time I’d sat through a catholic mass — but all of the words came back to me. How many times had I sat through that same service when I was younger? How much time had been wasted being indoctrinated? No, actually, that time had been stolen, not wasted, I thought. I vowed to revisit the idea in a future daydream.
I listened with new ears, though, ears that had been graced by thousands of songs and other voices over the years. The priest was reading a story from the Book of Matthew, the one about ‘what you do unto others, you do unto me’. I was almost hopeful. ‘maybe these guys do get it, we’re all interconnected’. Until the priest wrapped up the story with ‘if you do this you’ll be blessed with eternal life, if not then eternal damnation’. I could see it, the kernel of commonality with other religions and with true human nature. But it was buried under two millennia of dogma, shoveled on word-by-word by priests like this one. All of the oppressive heaviness around me was not just physical.
The homily was next, the part where the priest gets to give a little speech about a topic of his choice. The catholic version of improv. I braced myself hoping it would not be like the one at my grandpa’s funeral. In that performance the priest was like ‘while we hope that Herbert is in heaven now, we have to acknowledge that he may be in purgatory and still needs our prayers’. I couldn’t believe the audacity of the priest to say that 10 feet from grandmother, who had supervised Herbert’s medical purgatory on earth the previous 10 years. And I could not believe my grandmother just sat there, devoid of outrage. I was apoplectic. But just sat there too.
But fuck if it wasn’t the same. Purgatory. Marie may not be in heaven. You all know Marie, what her business was, how she spent her nights. She has a chance, though. She believed. Her funeral is here. In an official church. So she has a chance. She can still get to live with the almighty super creator guy who is so powerful that he can’t even really be comprehended by the human mind. The almighty super creator guy set up a little way station, don’t you know, for everyone who believed for the most part but had strayed in some way. For those who still needed some punishment. They have to hang out there while the minions of the almighty super creator guy torment the survivors of the deceased with the idea that their loved one hadn’t quite stopped suffering.
But wait there’s more. Pray. Pray for Marie. Arrange to have a mass said for Marie. That will help. It will help Marie out with the almighty super creator guy. And if she is some how, some way in heaven now, well she’ll multiply those prayers as blessings and shower them back down on you all. And really, it doesn’t cost that much to have a mass said for Marie. Or for anyone else.
I refused to kneel when it came time for the next act. I just sat there legs crossed, slumped to my right, left arm outstretched along back of the pew. I glared at the priest as he consecrated the host and wine, even though I was duly impressed by his extra diligence in performing these duties. He’d no doubt performed those same motions and said those same words thousands of times in his long and heavy career. Then I remembered the priest believed to his very core that he was actually turning the white wafer and cheap wine into real flesh and real blood.
The chorus popped back in my head: ‘I have waaasted sooo much time…’
I mustered a little empathy for the priest and held it for a minute or two, right up until he said the word ‘savior’ during one of the consecration spells. It was the way he emphasized it. As if he was directing that word to the defiant, non-kneelers, non-genuflectors, non-sign-of-the-crossing people in the church. Jesus. The savior. No other way. Jesus. Or. Hell. Not even purgatory for you.
A few moments later, the priest said that the catholics were welcome to take communion. The non-catholics could come up to the altar if they wanted to be blessed, but were not allowed to partake. I somehow found room for more outrage. Jesus never excluded anybody. That wasn’t Marie’s style either.
When the chosen started shuffling toward the altar, I fell into daydream.
The priest is standing in the back of the church, cold grey air spilling in from the open 15-foot high wooden doors, the kind that could guard a castle. I am the last one in the procession behind Marie’s casket and the priest speaks to me.
“Hello, I haven’t seen you here before. Are you a friend of the deceased?” he said with a friendly ease that catches me off guard.
“Umm, not really. I met her once. A friend of mine was close to her though. I wanted to be a good neighbor. I live a few blocks away.” I shudder at giving up the extra information.
“Ah well, I’m sure your friend is glad you came. You didn’t seem to be too happy to be in the house of the lord.”
I pause and think about what to say. I look for the right words, the compassionate words, the ones not born of anger. Then I looked at the priest, who stands there tall with his hands clasping a book across his lower waist. His eyes are burning with arrogance, tinged with defiance. It feels like he is jealously guarding this fortress he entered decades ago but had never, ever, left.
I look him directly in the eye.
“I don’t believe. I don’t believe…the story, the myth you guys preach,” I hear myself say.
The priest’s chest expands under his white robe. A sigh. I looked again at his face. It has hardened. Before the priest could speak I continued:
“And I can’t believe you would talk about purgatory in front of all of her family.” The words were fully mine and my tone was spot on — firm, strong, but devoid of the type of anger that lets the enemy know they’ve changed you.
The priest look at me, his expression has changed a little, but not his attitude. He has decided not to argue. He just offers a fake smile and lets me float off to hell.
A recorded bell blasted out of the loudspeakers and snapped me back to reality.
The ceremony moved quickly from there. When it ended a procession moved down the center aisle to exit the church. I kept my head pointed downward until Marie’s casket passed. I looked up only when my peripheral vision told me the priest had moved closer. His head was bowed slightly and he kept his eyes lowered. I searched for a connection, some confirmation that I had been seen and my passive aggressive protests had been registered. He moved by never leaving his cocoon of heavy solemnity.