Jerry Della Femina
WHEN FUNERALS USED TO BE FUN
I’m going to too many funerals these days.
I dread reading the obituary section in the New York Times and yet it’s the first page I obsessively turn to every day.
I met Mike Lawlor and Bob Tore, two great Art Directors, when we where in our twenties and we were all convinced we were going to live forever.
For Mike and Bob, “forever” lasted until this past summer.
My friends are turning into my memories.
When I was a kid, living near Avenue U in the Italian section of Brooklyn, the only time I saw my entire extended family was either at a wedding or a funeral.
Funerals were the culmination of our greatest fears. We were all so close. We only had each other. A three-day funeral produced a lifetime of tears, but then after the tears came the stories about the deceased, and in time the stories produced warm thoughts and, finally, laughter.
One of my favorite funerals was the funeral of my former wife Barbara’s grandfather, Ambrosio. In Greek the meaning of Ambrosio (Ambrosios) is “immortal.” Immortal is, in this case, the wrong word because there was Ambrosio, dead as a doornail, lying in a casket in a Brooklyn funeral home.
Now, Ambrosio was a legend in the family. He was a not a nice man. He was a wife abuser, a world-class womanizer who would disappear for days at a time with his latest floozy. His long-suffering wife had the last laugh. On the day the family was first led in by the undertaker to see him lying in an open casket she looked down at him with a little smile on her face and said, in a loud voice, “Ambrosio, at last I know where you are.”
At his wake a woman (maybe an old girlfriend) whom nobody seemed to know came walking down the aisle of the room where the corpse was laid out, screaming, “AMBROSIO! AMBROSIO! AMBROSIO!” Then she reached the coffin, looked at him and in a loud voice shouted, “LOOK AT HIM ... LOOK AT HIM ... HE LOOKS SO GOOD ... HE LOOKS LIKE HE CAN GET UP AND WALK.” Sitting next to my wife, I remember saying in a voice that might have been a bit too loud, “Lady, if he gets up and walks I’m going to race you and him out the door.”
Funerals were tough in my old neighborhood. We were a neighborhood of limited vocabularies and limited emotions.
When the going got tough we mumbled and smoked.
There was a lot of cigarette smoking: Mourners would arrive, pay their respects to the family, sit in one of those hard folding funeral parlor chairs mumbling to each other as long as they could stand it and then go outside and smoke as many cigarettes as they could.
A wake was three days and there was always an open casket. Three days staring at an open casket is a long time and after a while I believe even the corpse got bored. There was always a group of relatives – aunts, uncles, second cousins, nephews – whose assignment was to be “cluckers.” A cluck is not exactly like a “tsk, tsk,” but it’s close enough. “Angelo was such a good person,” someone would mutter. “His lungs. How could something like this happen?”
How could it happen? Well how about Angelo was 89 years old and had been smoking and inhaling those vile little black Italian cigars since he was eight years old? That’s one reason it might have happened.
But any expression of sorrow was followed by a chorus of clucks, almost like a chicken convention. Closely related to the cluckers were the people who didn’t cluck but made a weird noise by nervously pulling on the sides of their mouths and issuing a horrendous sucking sound.
I was raised on local home-style Avenue U funerals at the neighborhood funeral parlors – Cusimano & Russo and Torregrossa – and then, at the age of 19, I had my first “away” funeral. My former wife’s boss, whose first name was Gus (I can’t remember his last name), died. For my wife and me, his funeral was a case of culture shock. People were actually talking out loud about the deceased and smiling and the coffin was nowhere in sight. Worse, no one was crying. Also, there was not a priest or a cross in sight. What kind of people were these? The toughest part of the entire Frank E. Campbell funeral home experience came when my wife and I were told that the reason the body wasn’t around was because it was going to be cremated. I got a little queasy when that was explained to me.
So there my wife and I were, sitting in one room with all these WASPs, knowing that somewhere on the premises Frank E. Campbell’s guys were putting the torch to the man named Gus. Then things got really weird. A barbershop quartet dressed in those old-fashioned costumes entered the room and the leader pulled out a pitch pipe and started humming “MMMM ... MMMM ...” It seemed that Gus had been a charter member of a barbershop quartet and in his memory the group was going to sing a few songs. It was odd for my wife and me, a couple of kids from Brooklyn, sitting in a fancy Manhattan funeral parlor listening to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Sweet Adeline.” That’s when I lost it. I got the giggles. You know, the kind of giggles you get when you’re in the third grade and you can’t stop laughing even though the teacher is getting pissed off at you.
Finally I took a handkerchief, put it up to my face and pretended I was crying and dashed out of the room. I guess they thought I was strange. No one cries at a Frank E. Campbell funeral.
When my grandmother died many years ago, my brother and I were standing outside of Our Lady of Grace Church on a cold, snowy day, waiting to go into the church for the services. I realized this would be the first time I was setting foot in a church for many years.
I said to my brother, “I wonder what it’s going to feel like walking into church after all these years?”
Someone gave the signal for the bells to start tolling and we started up the steps of the church. Just as we reached the entrance of the church the reverberations of the bells dislodged a great big chunk of ice. The piece of ice fell two stories and cracked me right on the top of my head as I was going to take my first step into church.
The impact knocked me face forward on to the ground into the vestibule of the church. My head was bleeding. From the ground I looked up at my brother and said, “Well I guess things have changed. It used to be he would throw lightning bolts at you. Now he’s throwing snowballs.”
My brother and I laughed hysterically all through my grandmother’s service.
I would like to think my Grandma would have enjoyed the irony of the moment and laughed, too.
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