Death of a Grandfather
Sometime around 2004, my mom's dad died. He had been slowing down for a few years, but I took his downturn with a grain of salt. At my brother's wedding in 2002, he walked with a cane, yet he exhibited spasms of energy reminiscent of Yoda fighting Count Dooku, mainly when telling jokes or dancing with my sister-in-law's friends. Grandpa had energy when he needed it.
But time catches up with us all, and he was no exception. I was living in Austin then and got the call from my dad to hop on a plane to Indianapolis. He, mom, and the rest of my immediate family would meet me, as they would be arriving from Michigan. He informed me of funeral arrangements: the viewing, family get-togethers, funeral Mass, etc. And here is where you get an idea of a son's trust in his father. Dad continued, "Well, if you get here by Wednesday night, that should work, but you might miss the casket-building party." Now, I know my family history, and we've had funerals before and I never remembered any casket building party. But, I assumed I must have just missed something and that Dad knew what he was talking about, so I let it slide.
My father picked me up from the airport. We exchanged hugs and he informed me that he had just left the previously mentioned casket-building party. He declared it a success and told me he wanted one when he died. I mentally filed that away as something to do on the awful day when he left this earth for good, right after I battled my brother and both of my sisters for Dad's collection of autographed Detroit Red Wing hockey pucks. After that endorsement, I had to find out what in the world a casket-building party was. He explained that a handy professor at a local Catholic college started hosting these parties where family members had some pizza, swapped stories... and built a coffin for the dearly departed. Grandpa became fixated on this about ten years prior. He saw no reason to give part of his kids’ inheritance away for a fancy burial vessel when a pine box would do the trick.
Cold as it sounds, I was looking forward to the visit, funeral or not. Like most people, I love my family, but unlike most people, I actually get along with them. Besides, Grandpa had it pretty good. He never met a stranger and was a great man of deep faith, sometimes even managing to stay awake during Mass (in fairness to him, he had sleep apnea). Also, he had sixty years of marriage to my grandmother before she passed, ten kids (sadly, two of them died in infancy), a couple dozen grandchildren, and another ten or so great-grandchildren (pushing fifty as of 2016 — the bloodline is safe). He was so cheerful that when my sister once asked him about the Great Depression for a report, he said, "It wasn't that bad." Actually, that might have been due to his native optimism, but it also might have been because the question was asked over a long distance call and economy of word helped his personal economics.
Fast forward to the viewing at the funeral home. As I said earlier, I had never heard of a casket building party until this point, and as Jerry Seinfeld once said, "Sometimes, the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason." You see, it seems my family built the coffin too narrow. So, the family was faced with the prospect of holding the viewing with his shoulders rolled inward like an overly polite person in the middle seat of an airplane. Luckily, someone had the idea to rest Grandpa on top of the casket, a fine idea, but for the fact that he resembled Snoopy sleeping on his doghouse.
As it turns out, the week was full of surprises. For starters, let me just say that my family is overwhelmingly Catholic. My parents, siblings, and I are thankfully practicing (though I was a committed Protestant at the time —a fact I forgot until 45 seconds ago). But, both then and now, my extended family runs the gamut: orthodox Catholics, cultural Catholics, lapsed Catholics, Catholic Catholics, confused Catholics, and Catholics who wish they weren't Catholics. So, while not everyone buys into the larger beliefs, we at least have a traditional template to fall back on for ceremonies. But, somehow, without Grandpa there to keep everyone in line, my mom's family continued to get along and love each other, but regarding how to conduct things such as funerals, a power vacuum developed akin to the Mexico/U.S. border when drug kingpin Pablo Escobar died.
So, the first sign of trouble was the casket. Ironically, at that moment, we really needed Grandpa to protect us from his own ideas, but he was dead and not up to the task. The next iconoclastic thing we were going to do was nail him in the coffin. Literally. At the funeral home before the Mass, someone had the idea to let anyone who wanted to drive a nail into the coffin. This required first putting the flat lid on the box. At this point, I noticed that my grandfather's nose was clearing the top of the box. I said to my mom, "I don't think it's going to fit." My uncles and father adjusted the lid and there was a pregnant pause as a hundred plus people realized that it wouldn't go down the final inch. This produced an impasse only matched once in family lore: back in 1988, when my two-year-old sister got her head stuck in a railing at Wendy's. She was eerily silent as my dad attempted to compress her head and shove it back through. This continued until a passerby pointed out that she had stepped through the railing with her body until her head got caught and that simply reversing the process would solve the problem. We ate our Frosties slouched in shame that day.
But, no such passerby or solution for this problem existed. With a tyranny of will he often applies to the professional world but rarely to the physical world, my Uncle Sal gave the lid a final push and the crowd collectively winced as Grandpa was sentenced to eternity with a flattened nose. My mom got a pained look on her face that I only saw matched before or since by a guy who lost $100 in a street game of Three Card Monte in front of Caesar's Palace.
The Mass passed without incident. The graveside service was marked only be one unusual thing: in much the same way as the nails, everyone who wanted to got the chance to throw dirt on Grandpa's grave. With a shovel. Some might say I repeated this the act of throwing dirt on his grave be writing this. But, I doubt that. I think Grandpa probably would have liked this story. After all, he basically wrote it.