By Mike Gravagno
1. Know the Theme.
The theme of MOST funerals is something like sadness, or missing Nana, or general mourning. The color scheme is black, and the food selection is bland (because now that the dead can’t taste, why should you enjoy your chicken piccata). Going in cocky and all-knowing can get you into trouble. Knowing the religion of the dead is a good lead, but that only lets you know the flavor of mourning to expect.
There are other possible themes. If you go in ignorant, it’s unlikely but possible that you’ll show up flustered and a few minutes late (see Rule #2) because traffic was heavier than expected and work didn’t let you go on time. You had to change while driving down the 405 in an eight-year-old family minivan that’s yours now (which you’re a big fan of even if you are supposed to roll your eyes at the lameness of such a vehicle). When you finally find parking in the cemetery lot, you’ll hustle but not too much to avoid sweating through your black button-up/black Dickies ensemble. When someone asks to lay a lei around your neck as you enter the funeral hall, you’ll look quizzical but be accommodating. It’s your first funeral, and maybe this is something people don’t talk about.
If this happens to you, don’t acknowledge that everyone else is in brightly colored, floral-patterned Hawaiian garb. You are not allowed to get mad at your girlfriend for neglecting to tell you the theme, seeing how it’s her grandfather who died and he raised her after her mother died in a car accident. You forget if her father did too, or if he was simply gone. Now is also not the time to ask for clarification on that point. Now is also not the time to bring up how someone could have easily told you when you went to the house the day he died.
Push any irritation away and try not to look too morose amid the swath of cheerful fabrics.
When you see she is in the front row next to her grandmother and other extended family, you should calculate the months you’ve been dating (two) divided by your age (sixteen), and sit that many rows back. Find her best friend (who also didn’t get the tropical memo) and huddle together, a dark island in a sea of visual joy, and talk about how neither of you know what to do or what to say or how to make your face. You’ll giggle and snort about how you’ve accidentally rebelled at a fucking funeral.
When the service begins, realize it’s just all his friends telling stories about how they got drunk in Korea, how they stole the general’s television, and how they would pretend to fall down escalators to scare strangers. Remember that this is what you want when you die: friends sharing how dumb and young and alive you all used to be.
2. Show Up on Time (But Not Too Early).
This rule applies to all Important Events in life (and most non-important ones too). The not-too-early suggestion is to avoid blowing through your post-funeral anecdotes and sympathetic hugs early in the day. You need to pace yourself.
3. Prepare an Anecdote.
Only if appropriate, obviously. If you’re there in a support role, don’t try and steal the show with a second-hand story, or blow up some small moment until it’s full of meaning, like how you shook hands once, looked him in the eye, and knew his worth.
Remember something humorous, meaningful, or both. Not so you come off funny or deep, or both, but because this is the best time to remember what made them amazing. Let’s say you lost your cowboy uncle who lived in Texas for most of your life. Share one of the few times you spent together; maybe you were both visiting family in Philadelphia the summer before your senior year in high school. Maybe he was there for cancer treatment. Maybe you drove around together because everyone else had their normal responsibilities and you were on vacation and he was sick. Maybe you gave him shit for driving twenty miles an hour everywhere, and maybe he said something like, “Back in Texas, we all drive slow, and take it in. What’s the rush? We’re not going anywhere in particular, and if we were, it’d still be there. Get me?”
4. Don’t Roll Your Eyes (Or At Least Be Discreet).
People will use all kinds of tired clichés, all sorts of mixed metaphors, all shades of empty aphorisms, all breeds of religious/spiritual beliefs you happen to not believe in.
People will say:
“He’s in God’s whole wide hands now,” or,
“She went to that pie in the sky to meet her maker,” or,
“John’s in the wind and the leaves and he’s always watching now,” or,
“If you go to the lighthouse late at night, and light a purple candle, that’s when you’ll see her shadow on the wall.”
Hold in the judgement, and remember the weirder ones for when it’s safe to share over a bourbon. Nobody practiced for this shit, and when people get nervous, they tend to retreat toward platitudes.
Another rule that also works in non-mourning situations. Drink lots of water before, during, and after the official mourning periods. You do not want to deal with the headache that goes along with a lack of water (and imbibing that bourbon) on top of everything else.
You don’t, for example, want to be dehydrated while standing as part of the welcoming ceremony for a fallen Marine. If you happen to work at an army base that doubles as an airstrip, serving as the focal point for all service members of all military branches who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, remember to sip water. You don’t want to be standing in formation for an undetermined amount of time as the grieving friends, the shaking parents, the grey husband or stoic wife, the sad but confused kids, and the hundreds of volunteers who ride their motorcycles as a motorcade to honor the fallen, line up and wait for the plane to arrive, for the immediate family to take trembling steps towards the honor guard who have mastered looking professionally mournful without seeming aloof. When the need for pomp and ceremony makes sense, you don’t want to have increasingly larger waves of dizziness slosh up from your knees while your vision tunnels. You’ll have heard about tunnel vision, but won’t think it’s real until the edges of your eyes get blacker and thicker before you sink.
Maybe someone catches your fall. Maybe your face catches your fall. Maybe nothing catches you, and you knock down the row of soldiers at attention like some sort of macabre dominoes set.
Regardless, you don’t want to wake up in an office near the landing strip with your uniform blouse open and your boots unlaced and a captain handing you a bottle of water. Drink your water. And never lock your knees.
6. Know Who to Get Substances From (And Who to Get Substances For).
It will be obvious who’s holding. Even if you’re a teenager at your uncle’s funeral, someone will ask if you want pot, and possibly hint that they can get you something else (sotto voce, of course). Look around for others in need.
Don’t think about starting an underground funeral economy that connects everyone in need with those well-supplied. Just pass along the information.
7. Hug Without Getting Snot on Your Shoulder.
Is that really where your mind’s at when someone is breaking down in front of you? Hug them, hold them, let them use your entire sleeve as a handkerchief, and let them know someone will remain stable when everything seems lost. The only thing you should be thinking about is if you’re gripping them tightly enough. Or too tightly. Check their breathing. And then when they’re out of sight, pull out your Tide pen, or run to the restroom and wipe it off, or head to your car and grab your spare shirt.
#7.5. Bring a spare shirt.
8. Practice Your Laugh-into-Sob and Your Sob-into-Laugh.
Scratch that. You can’t practice that. When that amount of sorrow shreds through your throat, you’re going to sound like a choking donkey. Accept it, and be glad you got to experience the laughing part. In fact, look for moments when you can share laughter. Everyone needs that more than anything. That, and hugs. And drinks. Provide all three and you win the funeral.
#8.5. Do NOT try to win the funeral.
9. Don’t Try to Hook Up.
Or fuck it, do what feels right. Grief takes all forms. But don’t take advantage and don’t be a prick. Use protection— nobody wants to be a funeral baby.
10. Cry Without Dripping Snot Down Your Face.
Same as Rule #7, but for yourself. No one needs to look good at a funeral, let it flow and have tissues handy (unless Rule #9 is the way you’re headed. But you’re probably still okay with a minor runny nose).
11. Never, Fucking Never, Ask the Deceased’s Loved Ones If They’re Okay?
Also known as the “Ask the right questions” rule.
No one is fine, no one is okay at a funeral. Don’t burden them by asking. They will say yes, because they know that’s what you want to hear if you ask that question. You can ask them how they are. It may seem like semantics, but, while not ideal, that question is acceptable. Mostly because it is impossible not to have it spill out when your Dad calls you crying (which is the first time you’ve ever heard him cry) to let you know your Grandpa died. So, if the wrong question comes out, don’t be too hard on yourself.
If at a funeral or pre-funeral grief-laden situation, do ask:
“What can I do?” or,
“When was the last time you ate?” or,
“Need me to get you a water?” or,
“Need me to get you a whiskey?” or,
“Need me to find who’s holding?”
Barring that, a simple and sincere, “I’m here if you need anything. Even if it’s to shut up and sit here,” accompanied by a hug is almost always welcomed.
12. Ignore All Rules (EXCEPT RULE #11) When Needed, and Succumb Fully to Grief.
Don’t fight it. Don’t apologize. Let the grief drown you and tear you in every direction it may and then slowly, and when it feels right— NOT when someone says, “You should be fine by now”— pick yourself up. You don’t want to push the tears down because the funeral is over which you think means time for grieving is over, go to Basic Training and then have to explain to all of the other new soldiers why you wake up crying in the middle of the night or occasionally sob when the choir sings “Amazing Grace” at Chapel.
Don’t feel fight the feeling of sadness. Don’t feel the need.
Copyright Gravago 2020