This is about two things; what used to happen and what I think is happening.
I was very young when I attended my first wake; young enough so that all I remember of it is that I was in a forest of legs, legs with faces somewhere up there in the distance, and voices flying overhead. They were making words, I knew, but I couldn’t make sense of them. It seemed as if everyone was simply saying, “Noise!” Everyone, that is except old ladies on chairs with sad and tired faces who were saying soft things in whispers as they moved the beads through their hands. I looked at them with the open and intense stare of the young child, the child who hasn’t yet learned discretion and dissembling. They looked at me in the same way; their eyes unshielded by age.
Perhaps my most specific memory of that evening is of seeing a massive pair of shoes at the bottom of a staircase. They were the shoes of my Grand Uncle Bill Fanning, brother of my grandmother, my father’s mother Catherine Fanning Gallaher from Leighlin Bridge, Carlow, Ireland.
At some point during that evening of legs and loud talk, everything grew quiet, and all over the place people got shorter in the legs. They were on their knees, and saying words I knew were prayers because I had heard them from all the other people, the older ones I lived with. We prayed for an eternity, following the lead of the man in front, Father Someone. And, when the prayers were over, we left and went home on the subway. I slept. It was quieter.
I do not know whose wake I was at. I only remember legs, big shoes and noise. It may have been Uncle Bill’s, since I never saw him after that, and Grandma, who was given to prayer several times a day, became more involved in her “office”. She wanted her brother in heaven, and it was the best of things to do; to pray him all the help she thought he needed. Never giving up
She never did. Besides her brother, she had a big family back across the water, and a sister here, too with five sons, and they all needed praying for.
Several years after that incident I attended my first Funeral Mass. My mother’s mother, whom I loved, had died. I knew she was sick because I’d overheard conversations at night in the kitchen, and my mother on the phone to her sister. Then I was told to dress one cold gray morning for Mass. Nanny was being buried. I rode in the back of the long black car between my mother and my aunt. My sister may have been in the car with me, or she may have been staying at home with our neighbors. I cannot remember. My brother was there.
The only thing I remember about the Mass beyond my first feelings of loss and sadness was the silence, broken occasionally by mournful music, as if the organ was weeping too; and the people singing sad songs for me and my family and my grandmother in the coffin in the front. Everyone was in black, and everyone was sad, too. Everyone prayed. I even saw rosary beads in the hands of the men who moved then one at a time as they slowly went through the silent mysteries, silently. What I remember most is the deep echoing silence in the church. I used to think that church was huge, and that when silent the whole world was silent, too. Like that day. My mother told me to pray for my grandmother, and always to remember her when I prayed.
I have no memories beyond the silence and sadness, being urged to pray for Nanny to help her to heaven, and my tears.
Georgie Masters mother hung herself one afternoon and died tied to the curtain rod in their bathroom. Georgie and his sister Eileen stayed with us for three days. Then on the third day, their father came to get them to take them to St. John’s, the big church, for the funeral. We rode along with them behind the hearse carrying a lady I didn’t know much about. Because it was the way of it, I prayed for her silently in the silent car, and in the silent church where a pin drop would sound like a cannon’s roar, I thought. Silent except for the quiet whispers of prayers being said for Mrs. Masters, that her Purgatory not be long, and that God be good to her.
We walked back from that Mass to our house. Mr. Masters held my hand when we crossed Broadway underneath the El. His hand was warm, and bigger than my father’s. He had a long black overcoat one and wore a black hat. We got back home and George and Eileen left with their father. I could take you today, with my eyes closed, to the spot where I stood in the hallway of our apartment as they left the house. I still pray for Mrs. Masters, but I suspect the prayers are put in someone else’s account. She was a woman in pain.
I have been to perhaps a dozen funerals of men, police officers and federal agents, who have died in the line of duty, and one or two priests, too, called home after long years of work in the vineyard. In the former cases, hundreds, at times thousands of their brothers lined the streets outside, and stood silently until the funeral ended. In the latter, the loudest noise at the beginning and end was the tolling of a single bell. A single bell. A reminder to pray, to remember, to pray.
Their names, now, I can’t remember. What is with me still, though, are the days and places, the long blue lines outside, the robed priests about the altar inside and the silence, reverent, respectful silence. These, like works in a gallery, frame my prayers, some of whom I knew well, some not at all. But all I keep in my prayers, years on, like my grandmother at her beads.
We provide the music at funerals in one of the parishes here in town. Some of the people, not a few in fact, who find out what we do recoil at knowing that’s how we spend some of our time. “Eeewww! Funerals!” “How does that make you feel?” “It must be dreadful.” These are the kind of things we often hear from folks we tell about our work.
Well, sometimes… But, then, there are other things.
Not too long ago we worked at the funeral of a person, a woman who I am told was a nice lady. Well, no one wants to speak ill.. And I will not, myself.
As with most funerals we attend and provide music for, so was this one peopled with a number of people who appeared to me as if they had just wandered in off the street, or had indeed come to a funeral, but had no idea at all what exactly that meant, or why it was taking place.
I mean, in the latter case those folks might have been thinking something like this about that: “Duh, Jimmy, she’s dead isn’t she; a bunch of ash in the little gray pot Uncle Bilge just brought in? What’s the point?” And indeed it may have been,and probably is,the prevailing frame of mind for some who “happen by” these things; little more than a quiet place to check for messages; or to catch up with someone not seen since the last party.
“Yeah, I feel sad Uncle Bob is dead. But, look, I ain’t worked since I got the news he was dying last week. I was gonna visit but, like, I was too busy. Besides, we were comped at the new casino in Revere for two days. Yeah, outta sight!. Don’t matter, really. He’s dead now. Just a minute, I gotta check this message. By the way, you going out with me and Davey on Friday, The Rotten Tomatoes are playing at The Scalded Duck. They got this new beer they’re promoting that tastes like sour apples with a pickle nose and burnt shirt finish.”
Most of them, the bereaved we used to call them, on this morning stood at the front, at the foot of the altar in a sloppy group talking loudly while we sang some prologues before Mass. (Yes it is still a Mass, folks, though it is more often referred to as a service, as if what was inside the box or the coffin was a device to be worked on by the Gook Squad or a car needing a tune up.)
They chattered the things one chatters before a funeral these days: About how long it has been since they’ve seen each other. About, whether or not Auntie May is as crazy as she dresses these days. “Did you see that thing she’s wearing?” About how the Red Sox or the Bruins or the Patriots are doing. New cars. Old cars. Vacations and, recently, tattoos, or “ink” or “tats” as they seem now to be called. There were some in evidence on the legs and bare arms of the younger women who attended; though none were on their faces…yet.
Not long after that, we were called to provide music for a young man who had died suddenly. He left two or three young children behind, I do not remember the total number, along with his girlfriend, as she was styled in the obituary. He was lauded as a wonderful father to the children, who played with them, and was always good for a laugh, leaving them happy they had seen him.
His mourners included a number of fellows who appeared in their “colors”, filling two rows at the back of the church, and reminding me of bears in a cage.
A few weeks before this, maybe a month, I heard, his brother had died. Suddenly, as the saying goes.
Yesterday we were present for the final rites of an old woman, mother, grandmother and, I think great-grandmother, and several days ago it was another old man. Dark clothes filled the pews, and quiet. Only one or two children were among each congregation of mourners gathered to say farewell.
This morning another old man who died quietly at home, followed by a bundle of relatives, dark and quiet, was wheeled in his casket to the altar for the final rites.
I find myself wondering about the things I see from my post up in the choir loft, and what is happening, and I cannot really think that what is happening is good.
Myself? I am I know no better than anyone below me, probably worse off than most. But, being present at twenty or thirty of these “celebrations” each year has not convinced me that I am.
And, is that a bad thing? At least, I find it “wonderfully focuses the mind.” We of course have life. We forget the other three things.