No one wants to sit on the empty chairs. They remain vacant, red and cushy, on the fake lawn beneath a scalloped canopy. The man in the brown suit waves us in, obviously used to reticence. We are curious but unwilling to get too close. Bob walks over and takes a seat. I inhale before ducking out of the sunlight to sit beside him, our knees a few feet from my mother’s white coffin. I fixate on the spray of red roses and baby’s breath, wondering if the matching chairs are a coincidence.
My mother was in good company, I’d noticed, as I scanned the eight obituaries ahead of hers on Fogelsanger Bricker’s website, all dated within a week of her death. “Is it always like this for you?” I’d asked the funeral director. “No,” he said, “it’s been crazy around here.” He stopped short of saying that business was booming, or worse that people were dying to get their obituaries posted.
On the day before her funeral, Bob and I flew to Philly, rented a black Dodge Charger, and drove to Shippensburg. The next day dawned crisp and clear, gorgeous weather for a burial. We parked next to Our Lady of Visitation Church in the coned lane behind a silver hearse and I began hugging family we’d not seen in two years.
Hesitant to enter the church, I’d hung outside making small talk with the man from Folgesanger. “What kinds of things happen at funerals?” I asked. He crossed his arms across his brown jacket and blinked behind his sunglasses. Undeterred, I continued. “The worst thing you can do at a wedding is throw up on the altar. What’s the worst thing you’ve seen at a funeral?”
“Well, there was this one time where the ex-wife of the deceased got up and said some really bad stuff”
I leaned in for more.
“She was screaming at her ex-husband’s new wife, yelling, ‘You killed him!’ You killed him!’ Out of control! Everybody got worked up.”
“Good lord!” I said. “So, do you carry a stun gun?”
“No,” he chuckled. “But I have a black belt in Kung Fu.”
My brother, Father Joseph, steps confidently into the shade, his white robes swishing with a sound like water over river stone. The gleaming white box, suspended in a sling of wide, green straps does not give him pause. This isn’t his first rodeo.
His sturdy, clear voice draws the crowd like the yellow string on a Crown Royal bag. He has said these words countless times during his thirty-year career but he personalizes them so seamlessly that I feel he is speaking of death for the first time. He does not wince or stutter, and gives no indication he is about to bury his mother.
Father Mark, who has flown in from California, brings a silver pail of holy water. Outside the church he had told me, beaming, that today was Saint Theresa’s feast day and also his birthday. I am humbled he chose to celebrate in this way.
My brother takes the silver sprinkler, dips it in the bucket and shakes it. He walks completely around the casket, wetting all sides, casually placing his shoe on the stainless steel frame to navigate the thin space between this grave and the one at my mother’s feet. My eyes follow the light that dances from the water to the canopy ceiling.
When he is finished, the black belt picks up the flowers and invites us to take one. I pull a long-stemmed rose from the spray. Father Joseph nods at a man in a pair of well-used denims and he enters the canopy to wrestle three metal bars out from under the coffin. He touches a switch to release the handbrake on the lowering device. Slowly, the casket begins to sink. I hear muffled sobs behind me.
I stare at the unwinding straps, while the shiny box slides from view. This would have been way worse if they hadn’t draped the dirt sides in Astroturf. Worn jeans kneels next to one of the straps, applying tension as needed to keep the rig moving straight and true. I am mesmerized, stuck in time, listening to the sniffles and the slow creak, wondering how many times these straps have been coiled and let loose this week, and marveling at how clean they look.
When my mother reaches the bottom, my brother leans forward and tosses in a bright red bloom. I stand up, let go of my rose, and watch it fall.