I don’t know about you, but for me there’s very little comfort in attending a funeral. We gaze down at the physical shell of a person who once talked and laughed and moved, a body now suspended amid a sea of satin lining inside of a grossly overpriced piece of wooden furniture. I go as a show of respect and to lay eyes on the deceased one more time, even if they look uncharacteristically stoic and overly powdered. But no amount of sharing funny stories or reflective anecdotes in even the most beautifully orchestrated homegoing can negate the hurt of knowing that they won’t be there to talk to ever again. The fellowship itself is cathartic; the actual going, to me, is just ritualistic.
Funeral or not, death almost always comes with a surprisingly mixed bag of emotions. I’ve been more or less devastated than I thought I’d be too many times to count. I have to laugh even admitting this now, but when news broke that Michael Jackson had gone on to glory, I bawled in my car like I had a personal relationship with the man. I mean, heaves, snot, sobs, the whole works. But sometimes, among those many feelings that crop up in the process of computing the finality death, there’s residual anger or resentment, even if you don’t want to admit it in the privacy of your own thoughts, much less out loud for the whole world to judge.
Let’s not pretend like every relationship ends on a high note: there can be issues you didn’t get a chance to resolve before a person died or, maybe even worse, the dramatic discovery of new information that causes pain after they make their transition. I’ve heard of more than a few men who passed away and left two women, two sets of kids and two separate lives in the wake. That unfinished business creates a whole other level of grief to wade through. It’s one thing to cope with those feelings of shoulda coulda woulda and wish-I-would’ve-done-differently. But it’s also normal—and honestly OK—to need to hash through your anger at the dearly departed as part of your effort at closure.
My Uncle Junie was my mother’s only brother, a handsome, cocoa-complexioned man with a bushy moustache and a deep, baritone voice. He was at every family get-together and waffled between shacking up with his latest girlfriend and returning home to live with my grandparents in cyclical fashion. He was an ever-present figure in my life, but I do not have one good memory about that man. Not one. Not a tee hee together. Not a ha ha. Not a loving glance. Nada. He had been an alcoholic for more years than I’ve been alive before he died in his sleep last October from a brain aneurysm.
My cousins and I had spent the bulk of our childhoods trying to be anywhere he wasn’t, and that behavior carried into my adult years. It was a kneejerk reaction to ease on up out of a chair and feign a sudden interest in the grass blades growing outside or the slow creep of a snail on the sidewalk or anything else that would put me at a distance from what was almost certainly his impending drama. The sound of his car in the driveway or his presence in a room, even if he wasn’t saying anything, could change the entire dynamic of a function and set everybody on edge because anything was liable to pop off. And it usually did.
My poor grandmother’s hands would shake with the anxiety of knowing that the simplest statement or question—which usually weren’t ever directed at him, but he did a lot of conversation jacking—would set him into a colossal, Mad Dog or Wild Irish Rose-fueled temper tantrum. Once, at a family reunion in Philly, he cleared the joint out and mollywhopped the festive spirit by threatening to kick his then-wife in her disrespectful mouth. I was young, so I don’t remember all the details, but I’ll never forget the expression on my grandparents’ faces. My Nana couldn’t have stood taller than 5’ 2” on a good day, but humiliation shrunk her down to pocket-size that afternoon. It was also, not coincidentally, the one and only time I ever saw my Granddaddy look defeated.
Maybe it was that bottle, not exactly him, that was the culprit, but he’d been drinking hard liquor for so long that his entire demeanor was defined by his alcoholism. I think, out of respect for and obligation to my grandparents and my family as a whole, folks in our circle tolerated him. But I knew what everyone at his funeral was thinking: he brought death on himself and he might not be going to meet the Big Guy in the Sky because of his behavior. They were probably replaying an assortment of unpleasant memories of their own in their heads. The minister preached about forgiveness and God’s love for all of us, no matter what our pitfalls are. No one directly said it, but we all knew what it was hitting for because we’d all known the man lying in the front of the sanctuary.
After my uncle passed, I realized I was mad at him. Mad that my only mental pictures of him were negative ones, mad that I don’t have any funny stories to share. I felt kind of… robbed. As a woman who spent my childhood growing up without a father, he could’ve been a spectacular fill-in in conjunction with my grandfather. But he didn’t. He chose the bottle over me. He chose the bottle over his own kids. He chose it over everybody. He was embarrassing and abusive. But there is a redemption moment.
In the months before he passed, my mother said, he was a changed man. He was gentle. Appreciative. Humble. He still drank—he had to not to get the shakes and suffer withdrawal—but his spirit was different, she insists. At his funeral, she was on a campaign to tell his naysayers that the man they’d known as a raving lunatic was reborn, even in the few precious weeks before his death. My anger towards his memory has since waned. She convinced me, but more importantly, I resolved that if I believe that no one is perfect, how can I hold it against someone for not being perfect? It seems like the most hypocritical of grudges to hold against someone in life so it makes it that much more useless in death.