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Death Trip

The funeral of my grandfather.

The remains should be arranged as naturally as possible, and clad in a tasteful manner. The coffin should be plain elm or oak, lined with white, and have simple petal handles. On the lid should be a white metal or brass plate, engraved with the name, age, and time of death.

That from 1883, in the "Funeral Etiquette" chapter of The Universal Self Instructor, hints for the new middle class so that they might, by application of good manners, rise above their stations. I would suggest a bright pink coffin, with my grandfather in ruffles. Perhaps we could take one of those greeting cards that plays music and wire it to the hinge, so that when they open him up for the viewing, "Silver Threads Among the Gold" plays. Something to scandalize the Methodists.

"What I'll miss is the sound of him coming in the back door," my grandmother said on the phone. When he came in, the sound of the key and swish of the door opening over the worn carpet, he always brought some treasure: a line of trout; golf balls picked up outside the country club; a purchase of fruits and vegetables from an Amish stand; an amethyst discovered near the Poscopson. He was the boy's-novel boy for his entire life, pockets filled with marbles and coins and toys.

When I was five, he taught me to wink. "All you do is blink one eye," and he demonstrated. I scrunched up. "Not that hard. Just a little wink." Around that time--1979--he yelled at me for taking some chicken out of the fridge without asking. I ran into the yard and began to cry, and when he saw me weeping, he apologized outright. He took me seriously, and it was never a question that I would love and respect him. He had a petrified shark's tooth the size of my small hand, and he let me hold it, showing me fossils of ferns and trilobites, animal matter long since dead, but printed in stone on a geological printing press. He would take me down to the basement among the drills and diamond saws, and slice open geodes like apples. A gray rock could have a universe of tiny crystals inside, and we would look it over with a hand microscope. The grandchildren used to drink his bottles of root beer and replace it with tap water and food coloring, and giggle when he would shout, livid every time, "sonofabitch, this rootbeer is flat."

My mother emailed me the notes for the obituary at work, so that I could edit it down and give it some snap. "Make sure the Methodist church is listed before the Lions. Is USS Dewey spelled right?" I spent a half-hour on it, searched the web for "Dewey," reading through a USS Dewey alumni chat page. Then looked at sites about the "PBY", the kind of airplane he crewed in the 1930's. When it was done I printed it at 14pt and faxed it to Boyd's funeral home. The fax machine squealed, ran, and printed out a confirmation page. Proof of the transaction. I stapled it all together, the cover sheet, the confirmation, and the obituary.

The immediate family ought to be out of sight during the progress of the religioyus rites, but not beyond the hearing of the service. Those who are in deep mourning are excused from paying visits of condolence or from attending the funeral of friends. If the deceased was carried off by a contagious disease, the fact should be mentined in the funeral notice.

In the 1880's people still died from plague and lockjaw, and newspapers reported ghost sightings. He picked out his hymns before he died, his three favorites. Amazing Grace is in there, some other songs I don't know. I have this fear of my mother oversinging, proving her rabid devotion to her father to the assembled gathering, and her sister doing the same, until they are in a shouting competition, drowning out the organ.

My brother wants to say a few words. I don't want to say anything; I just want to avoid talking to anyone in my family except my grandmother. I'll accompany her at the funeral, walking slowly with her arm in mine, hunched down because I'm over a foot taller. My girlfriend, who none of them have met, is coming with me. She's my protection, my safe place, my friend.

There's one place where it gets me, and it has nothing to do with my grandfather. Do you mind if I tell you, while I have your ear? All of this, the funeral, the family, the sudden reminder that life ends, it makes me realize how ignorant I am. I'm so sure I'm clever and sophisticated, a smug little agnostic, but put me face forward with death, and I don't know my right from my north. All the rules for social interaction, all the solid clues and codes and handshakes sublimate into the air. Well-written proposals, a steady paycheck, making rent, building the next generation of web sites--these things don't hold up next to death. Death blows them over like a hurricane through a shantytown.

What I know is that I don't have a clue. But I'm thinking I don't like the scrabbling guy I've become, vain and amusing, lying to cover up scary feelings, avoiding the truth in the name of rationality and prudence. With this death I've been experimenting, telling my friends outright that my grandfather died and that I'm sad, not making apologies for my sadness, asking them to accept my downcast eyes.

I don't tell them that I feel my grandfather's blood rushing through me. I learned in high-school physics that we breath every other human's air, taking in a little bit of Hannibal and Leonardo Da Vinci and Emma Goldman with each sneeze and sigh. So right now he's still here, and I'm breathing him, and you're breathing me, we're all inhaling together. It's just that right now I've got him stuck in my throat.

I can't tell you much else right now, but if you come back tomorrow, I'll try harder.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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