Fun, As In Fun-eral

Friends are keeling over like dominoes. Every time one dies I run to my mirror, hoping to find something that will confirm I'm still too vibrant to go into the fertilizer business.

The first time a friend died was a rude awakening. I was inconsolable. She had been a lifetime friend. My sorrow intensified as I pondered the fact that she was my peer, and I was way too young to be the same age as someone who died of old age.

Wasn't I?

Every time I'm faced with another funeral I get the same argument from my husband.

"I don't want to go," he says. "I didn't even know the guy who died. He was your friend."
"We don't go to funerals for the deceased," I say. "We go for the living."
"Well, I don't like funerals."
"Really? Most people love them."

I usually end up going alone.

I was in the funeral parlor seated alongside my newly widowed friend, Sheila. She and Stewart had what she described as a fairy-tale marriage. They never spent a night apart. That wheezing you hear is me, suffocating. Their 54-year marriage yielded eight children -- which is bound to happen if you never spend a night apart.

We were about six feet from the open casket. Guests walked up and offered condolences. People are often uncomfortable doing this, as one woman proved.

"I was so sorry to learn about Stewart's passing," she said. "I just looked at him and I have to say I've never seen him look so bad."

Seriously? The man was room temperature and she was surprised he didn't look well?

After funeral services we were invited back to Sheila's home to sit Shiva. During this time people drop by to pay respect, share warm stories about the deceased, and eat. Show me a Jewish event of any kind, and I'll show you the perfect venue and excuse to eat.

One young woman suffered from Foot-in-Mouth disease as she babbled on about the previous night's episode of The Simpsons. At the end of a lengthy spiel that had her laughing hysterically as she related details of the show, she turned to my grieving friend and asked, "Did you see The Simpsons last night?"

Loud silence.

I was relieved to learn that laughing at a funeral is not something only the mentally ill do. I was at my brother's gravesite. Wayne and I had been close. As part of the traditional Jewish service, I was handed a shovel, dug into the fresh mound of earth alongside his resting place and spilled the soil over his lowered casket. This represents the final act one can do for a loved one to see him off safely. It was the saddest moment of my life, but instead of crying I heard myself laugh. I was horrified. I was thinking about something that occurred at our mother's funeral four years earlier.

I'd worn a colorful, handcrafted silk shawl. Wayne sported an expensive designer tie. The rabbi approached us, recited a prayer, and with the speed and skill of Edward Scissorhands, he cut a small gash into my shawl and Wayne's tie. To assure that they couldn't possibly be repaired, he then tugged at each cut, which produced ragged, frayed edges. This act is called Kriah, and represents grief and anger over the loss of a loved one. Some rabbis choose to give mourners a torn black ribbon to pin over their hearts, but our rabbi favored destroying our garments beyond repair.

In the presence of countless puzzled mourners, Wayne and I looked blankly at each other and giggled. We later decided it was a kind of coping mechanism; the result of a buildup of our grief and stress.

* * *

My husband is 80-years-old, looks 60 and feels 50. He's physically and mentally active. While he makes long-term plans as though he's going to live forever, I keep checking my watch to see how many minutes I have left. And, while he plays golf, chops down trees and adds a porch onto our house, I'm in doctor's offices, operating rooms and physical therapy, which leaves little time or energy for the jitterbugging and skydiving I'd planned to do at this age.

The next time someone glibly says, You're only as old as you feel, I can't promise I won't smack him over the head with my cane. But, first I'll ask if he's talking about mentally or physically, because mentally, I'm in my 30s, but physically, I'm circling the drain.

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