This past weekend, I had about an hour and a half of uninterrupted television time. It’s Easter season and I was trying to get in that cheery, “mob kills a man who then comes back from the dead to save your soul” mood. I found myself settling on the critically-acclaimed HBO series, Six Feet Under. Yes, the same Six Feet Under that premiered in 2001. I know, I’m a bit of a late bloomer.
For those of you who DON’T know what the show is about (mom), it depicts the Fischer family, whose family business is running a funeral home. There is the overbearing wife and mother, Ruth. David, the neurotic, perfection seeking, closeted middle child. Claire, who is a late-teen/early twenty-something who’s only concern in life is getting high and living recklessly. Lastly, there’s Nate. He’s the eldest son, the one who escaped to Seattle and away from death. Alas, he didn’t get too far. Why? Oh, because (14-YEAR-LATE-SPOILER ALERT!), the patriarch of the family dies in a car accident and he now needs to run the business.
What was interesting to me as I watched was how much I could relate. It wasn’t that my family ran a funeral home. It was the sudden and tragic loss of the father, and what happens after that. I’ve written about this loss before, but more on funny stories of him when he was alive. I’ve never really written much about him dying and what happened after that.
While I watched the episode, I was flooded with the memories of thinking how absurd life is in the face of death. There’s a great scene when Claire gets the call from her brother. It’s Christmas day, and she’s supposed to be home with her family. Instead, she chose to go hang out at a friend’s house to smoke crystal meth for the first time. Suddenly, in an instant, everything changed. Instead of enjoying her high, she had to literally tell her friends, “Sorry, can’t stay. My dad got hit by a bus and now he’s dead.”
I totally related. (Well, except the high on crystal meth part). For me, I was at a party the night he died and had gotten home about 15 minutes before my mother called me. I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind. Nothing sobers you up more than getting that phone call late at night.
My dad died on May 18th, 2001. When I think back to that time, what I really remember is how confused I was. I recall thinking how strange it was that the following day was beautiful, sunny. It was the end of my junior year at college and I was already in the process of moving back home for the summer. One of my roommates was helping me because I was completely useless. We were driving on Route 95, steadily passing cars in traffic. I remember looking out the window and thinking, “How are people driving along, moving on with their lives?” I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept, that people were going about their lives. Didn’t they KNOW that my father died? How can that woman be laughing with her friends? Or that man, casually pumping gas, on his way to work? Didn’t they understand that this was all ridiculous? My processing abilities were gone. Nothing made sense. I had to focus on the trivial things because it was the only thing that grounded me. “What kind of dress should I wear to bury my father?” or “Should I get my nails done? I don’t want to have ugly nails when I’m BURYING MY FATHER.”
It was an out-of-body experience, like I was moving under water. I don’t remember crying much. My instinct was to get through it, move on, don’t dwell. If I thought about it, I would crash. I busied myself with the details of the funeral. Who was doing what? Where were we going after? Anything other than thinking about the loss my family endured.
There are a lot of details that go into a funeral. A LOT. You never think about it; why would you? You have to make so many decisions at a time when you don’t even know how to have a coherent thought. It’s expensive, time sensitive, sad and scary. And….also hilarious.
My family and were at the funeral home, picking out the casket and writing the obituary. We had covered all the important things, but needed to finalize a few details. One of those details was what kind of prayer cards we wanted for the wake. You may recall, my mother is a devout Roman Catholic, so there was definitely going to be a religion-heavy theme. My mother, two older brothers and I were all taken to the office of the funeral home to go over the options. I was at the end, sitting next to my middle brother. The funeral director was the nicest guy in the world; quiet, comforting. He explained that he had an album of cards that he would show us, and to pick out our favorites. Page after page, he pointed out the names of the cards and a brief synopsis.
“This is the Virgin Mary. The reading is of finding salvation in death.”
“St. Francis and a prayer for peace.”
“Head of Christ……..”
Jesus does not find this funny.
I lost it. I knew it was going to happen, but I hoped it wouldn’t. I could feel it coming out of me and there was no stopping it. I had the world’s worst case of church giggles. It was awful, and I knew my mother was going to kill me, but I couldn’t hold it in. Maybe it was that this man was kneeling in front of us, holding a photo album of cards with weird bible verses and saying, “Head of Christ”, like he was offering up a fine wine. Then, out of the corner of my tear-filled eye, I could see my brother cracking. Hard. The two of us are convulsing, laughing directly in his face. He’s continuing on…like a BOSS. It wasn’t long until my mother and other brother looked at the two of us and had to relent. The more I tried to apologize, the harder I laughed. Finally, the funeral director closed the book and gave us a few minutes to compose ourselves. I don’t remember what we picked out. I didn’t care.
It’s been 14 years, but feels like yesterday. I’ve learned a lot from my loss; it’s ok to feel sad, confused, and alone.
….and it’s also ok to laugh in a funeral director’s face.