The priest at my grandmother's funeral last week in Albany, New York, was tepid. His elocution was sound but his words were empty. He said something about making the most of every moment and how she made the most of every moment and then the stained-glass windows won my attention. The preachers at my granddad's and great-aunt's consecutive funerals in Virginia were more fiery and theatrical, waving their fists and declaiming about hell being a real, hot, tedious place without toilet paper or hope—kind of like the church we were sitting in.
The upside to burying three relatives in two states in two months is that you get a course in comparative funerals.
Last month, my mother's father and his sister had the courtesy to die on the same day, so neither would be left alone on earth. They'd both been living in Suffolk, Virginia, just this side of the Dismal Swamp—southerners, witty people who know how to fix things, jingoistic descendents of soldiers and farmers, with a touch of the bootlegger and the swindler. My dad's dad, on the other hand, was raised by a New York priest and raised a family of doctors and yoga practitioners who sail boats, appreciate jazz, and are fussy about who went to what college.
Obviously, the Civil War continues to be fought in our family and my siblings and I spent a lot of our childhood trying to convince the northern relatives that we weren't shit-kicking barbarians and the southerners that we weren't effete weaklings.
But each side would've had its prejudices confirmed by the other's theater of death.
The Virginia funerals were intimate and superstitious. Men dabbed the sweat off their foreheads with handkerchiefs while preachers railed about hellfire, eulogists told jokes, and we all sang soulful hymns. The New York funeral was more Catholic and prescribed. The graveyard was a long drive away. The tombstones were small, white, and uniform, like well-tended teeth. A computer at the visitor's center gave us digital directions to Grandma's gravesite where three burly white men in clean denim and hard hats shouted over the din of a backhoe that lifted her coffin by a chain, and swung her into her grave. When the coffin wouldn't fit, the fattest one stood on it to give it weight, push it down. It was an efficient New England burial and the family decamped to a banquet hall where there was baked chicken and beer.
In Virginia, the post-funeral meal was casual, with lukewarm fried chicken and sweet tea and coleslaw on paper plates in the fellowship hall next to the church. The old cemetery was just steps away and the tombstones, if they were like teeth, were neglected—some round, some pointy, most of them stained. Two silent black men lowered Granddad's coffin into the ground by hand, then shoveled the dirt on top. Two plates of the fried chicken and coleslaw brought from the fellowship hall waited for them nearby, covered in plastic wrap.