HOWTO: How to Attend a Midwestern Funeral

The funeral went just fine.

Grandma was well prepared and wearing one of her signature bright red-salmon dresses with a rosary folded into her hands. Her face may have been a bit ruddy but I like to think she’d been out gardening – or maybe had some latent Cherokee no one ever knew about.

The visitation was for about 6 or so hours and over 250 people came through from all generations and locations. Maria, who I’ve known since pre-school came in and it was fantastic to hang out with her. All 15 cousins made it (not all spouses) and many of the great grand-children. What susprises most of us is how we all look pretty much the same, skin a little looser, maybe a bit bigger (or as we say in our parlance ‘bulked up!’) but still the same.

You know how in Tetris when you complete a row it falls away? That is sort of how I picture the family tree. That as Grandma’s generation falls away there is the next generation in place – the Boomers in this case.

My brother-in-law was able to come with my sister so it was fun to talk to them for a while.

The small-town mentality was present in that Heather and I had gone to high school with the family that owns the funeral home. I remember driving out of the parking lot after school and seeing the son with the track team practicing their long distace running. Or the super-hot sister on the cheerleading squad. Now he was helping guide the pallbearers and is expecting their first baby next week. Heather’s friend Kate and her family came in as well and as they seemed to stay for a long time until Kate informed me that her parents knew the woman who was being presented on the other side of the funeral home – the other visitation for that day. This had me clapping my hands and chanting, ‘I! Love! Indiana!’ So it is a good idea to always check to see who else may have passed away recently because you just never know…

I had forgotten that when grampa died that there were two days of visitation – that was a while back so there were more of the old guard still kicking around to visit – plus all of the customers from the jewelry business – and the Knights of Columbus. I remember the visitation seemed interminable and featured a complete praying of the rosary (when you pray the rosary in a group you can’t speed through it) and then a full ceremony with the Knights of Columbus including swords and other pageantry.

There are a few iconic images that I think echo through every time and place and people. One is touching the casket of a loved one – when your warm hand meets the cold wood or metal. Another is seeing the surviving children usher the casket into the house of worship. Seeing my mom and her sister hold hands as they accompanied the casket – with their two brothers on the opposite side – down the aisle to the front of the church echoes through pretty much any culture at any time. As they all four turned to move inside the main area of the church their heads turns and all their profiles lined up at the same time and revealed the shared geometry of generations (Heather was also next to mom so that was a bonus). Noses and chins and brows and lips from various regions all intersecting for a brief instant. The church service smartly synchronized at noon so as we got to the church from the funeral home, the church bells clanged noon as they moved the casket from the hearse and into the church. We all carried carnations down the aisle and laid them atop the casket.

St. Anthony’s always has a nice church smell. I never liked the architecture (kind of modren and angular – I like the old school cathedralesque). But how many hundreds of masses had they attended there (often accompanied by us). We sat down, Brooks, Heather, mom, dad and I and realized we were sitting in the second pew on the left (house left) – and this was usually the pew that grandma and grampa sat in (often arriving in church just as the bells were ringing for the turning of the hour).

Heather did the first reading (‘a time to plant, a time to sow’ etc) and she said she’d change the gender of God in the reading for a small sum of money. We thankfully didn’t entertain such shenanigans for very long. One of my cousins did the second reading (Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, Verses 1-8). I wasn’t very attentive during the gospel and homily. We were all holding it together pretty well. We aren’t a screaming crying type of family – mostly sit and push the tears out with as little noise or visible shuddering as possible. I did get a bit misty when I started to imagine the countless pictures of grandma and I next to eachother blowing out our respective birthday cakes.

I then got up to read the petitions and tried to say them in a slow lilt instead of my usual Chicago-go-go brevity. Communion came and went, I drank the wine offered by my aunt Joyce who was sitting behind me and we held hands during the Our Father. After communion a few cousins got up to say things. Heather helped me with the one I delivered – partially based on the post I wrote a few days ago:

When I think of grandma I think of that healthy hearty laugh echoing down the hallways – or a yellow Chrysler barreling down a dark country road towards Lancasters – a robins-egg blue bowl full of potato chips – chocolates hidden away in the closet for an emergency sugar rush – a pressure cooker full of porcupine meatballs – a ledger that seemed to track everything – and a magic candy dish that was never empty.

Her devotion to her family and her faith continue to amaze me. Hard work wasn’t talked about or implied – it was demonstrated. Sacrifice wasn’t a burden to be shown off but the necessary tactic to survive nearly a century of history and change – all from the central command of the kitchen table ornamented with plastic flowers and fruits (almost good enough to eat).

Grandma would say she was from a simpler time – a self-described ísimple country girl from NíAlbany,í – when real women cleaned with pure ammonia and there was always time for drinks and friends at the Knights of Columbus.

Grandma loved education and got excited every fall watching us go to school. She’d go to Walgreens and buy us notebooks and pencils and reminded us that if we ever ran out we just had to tell her – even when we went off to college. She’d say: My sister and I had only one pencil for the whole year. For her education was a ladder.

Grandma saw no limits. There was nothing that couldn’t be done. And if a challenge seemed insurmountable she’d tell you that you ‘to offer it up.’ We used to suspect that grandma had a gleaming white phone in that back bedroom because when she prayed – things happened. You do not underestimate the power of Tuesday Novenas.

Underneath the mild exterior and a thick white head of hair (I pray I have hair that thick and healthy when I’m that old) was an immovable force tempered with immutable love. She was a titanium bolt wrapped in Oil of Olay and rose petals. Tough as nails, smart as a whip, and warm as a busy kitchen at Christmastime.

And where she’s at now I can only imagine the joy of a certain gentleman on seeing her arrival as he says to Agnes, "Hot daggety!"

That final exclamation was a declaration of joy her husband used – often in the middle of a hot poker game – equivalent to ‘We’re cookin’ now!’

I still don’t feel I got the warmth part right. Grandma was warm but had a certain coolness to her as well. Not a lot of touching – you knew you were loved – no need to get all indulgent about it (though we gradually wore her down to much more expressions of affections later on). I couldn’t find a ‘cool as a…’ metaphor I liked though. I also didn’t want to relegate her to the kitchen so much – that seemed like it minimized her impact.

It was great to see many of my cousins. Everyone has sort of mellowed out. Their kids (my first cousins, once removed) for the most part are looking like they are turning out well. One of my cousins said he’s even hired people from Elance.

The service ended and they moved the casket back up the aisle and we all took our carnations back. The motorcade began featuring cops on motorcycles running up the sides to ensure the lanes stayed clear (ultra-Kennedy). I called them Hell’s Angels of Agnes. I never knew grandma ran with a posse. The motorcade drove from the church to the cemetery where the headstone – engraved years ago save for a final date – lay. Two grandchildren who had died in birth have been interred on either side of the headstone and are engraved on the sides. The family last name is engraved big and bold on the stone – matching the typeface of the family jewelry store. Grampa was here already – I think he passed away back in 1992.

A nice not-too-windy day and the siblings sat in front while the rest of us stood behind as a monk in robes did the final readings. We each passed by and laid our carnation atop. Right before that I’d notice the one wink of the day. In every funeral there is a wink – a small flash of humor that reminds you to keep things light. In this case it was the last name of a nearby gravestone:


I knew I couldn’t point this out to Heather until we were well-cleared of the casket for fear she’d start laughing and that would make me start laughing. But is was nice to know that even for the family of


that things were at peace. Of course I’m echoing Seinfeld‘s episodes in my head, ‘You’re the assman!’ ‘According to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, you’re the assman.’

We made our way back to the cars and then off to my aunt and uncle’s for lunch.

There is always food leftover from a funeral visitation or post burial meal. We call it Griefmeat.

In this case the Griefmeat was deviled eggs, various potato salads, barbecued meatballs and ham sandwiches.

This is the midwest, there’s no need for any vegetables – you’ll get your fiber from the baked beans.

I contented myself with the neverending calvalcade of cookies that was present at all times. I even had a glass of red wine that really took the edge off and was probably why I slept well when I got home.

I was disappointed Ron couldn’t get off from work. I would have loved for him to meet the whole huge family. This will probably one of the few times we are all together until mom’s generation start to kick off – and I hope that isn’t for a very very long time.

Evidently some of my cousins have now found this blog so I may have a whole new crop of readers – for better or for worse! – I hope they don’t freak out too much as they read it. Our side of the family was always ‘Those crazy Wibbelses’ so I’m guessing they’ll take it in stride. Except for my cousin that wore the "I Love Jesus’ earrings. Nah, she’ll just laugh.

I did do some corrections to that earlier post – evidently grandma and grampa did always vote Democrat but I remember grandma telling me once that they voted differently – I think that was for Reagan maybe. Plus I was mixing up the number of grandkids – there’s 15 (I’m youngest) not 17.

I was glad a lot of people came to support mom and dad.

As we waited for the second day festivities to begin my cousin Kelly (laid up in a bright pink leg cast but almost as plucky as her two kids), ‘Andy when are you gonna move home!?’ Luckily the same question was asked of Heather. I don’t know. I do know that if mom or dad had health problems I’d probably move home or if Heather had some sort of emergency I’d move to her or have her move to me.

The other deft question of the day was:

‘Andy, when are you gonna get married?’

And my reply:

‘We’ll get there.’






5 responses to “HOWTO: How to Attend a Midwestern Funeral”

  1. JB Avatar

    You have such an interesting and close-knit family. It feels like almost the exact opposite of my family. Part of me is quite envious.

  2. Cousin, Kelley Avatar
    Cousin, Kelley

    Hello there cousin:

    Great seeing you last week-end. Your review of the memorial was exact. Good job.

    And, yes, we do have a close-knit family, whom I will agree, are pretty much timeless. All the cousins look great, seem to be thriving well, and all seem to take really good care of themselves. How blessed we are to have such fond memories to hold on to from our childhood years.

    My cast came off on Thursday….. Yep, the bright neon cast is no longer hanging around. And there was no need to have another hard cast (I had planned purple for the next 4 weeks). The Dr. had my foot x-rayed and it is healing fine…… So, I NOW have the same styled HUGE “moon-boot” that my Dad was sporting at the funeral. So I do get to put some weight on it…. OUCH! (My dad gets his off this week). Just thought I would update you.

    And, Andy…… Jim and I were wondering what you meant by me being as plucky as my kids? HA!! Hmmmmm…… I’m sure it is all good!!

    Take care, Andy —– KJB

  3. Lyle Lachmuth - The Unsticking Coach Avatar


    I teared up when I read your tribute to Gran….

    So, evocative.

    I wonder what part of you is her??


  4. Andy Avatar

    Kelly Jo, plucky meaning energetic and peppy.

  5. Cousin, Kelley Avatar
    Cousin, Kelley

    Hello there, again dear cousin:

    Aha —, Yes, I guess I am quite “plucky”. I miss MY cousins. ——

    Hope your day is GREAT!! —- Kell

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