This column was recognized with a Los Angeles Press Club Award.
Mr. Snead has an artificially orange comb-forward and the type of throaty voice and desiccated face one only acquires after living in the desert for awhile. He is an undertaker.
On his forearm, I make out what are obviously two prison tattoos; one reads “Love” and the other is a name, “Jenna,” maybe. He is filling out forms with a mechanical pencil like a man for whom writing doesn’t come easily.
“Was that D-A-V, or D-V, or D-A-A-V?” he asks.
It’s Davidson, as in Ronald Davidson, my stepfather. He died yesterday at 62 and that’s why I’m at a funeral home out on Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas. My mom is here, too, and though there are copious boxes of proper tissue in the place, she is clinging to the roll of toilet paper she’s had by her side since returning from the hospital with nothing but a bag of Ron’s stuff: slippers, a stack of Louis L’Amour paperbacks, his watch.
Snead continues to pencil in his funeral forms like he’s wiring an explosive for the first time.
“Race of the deceased?” he asks.
“Black,” says my mom.
“What?” Snead leans in. “I’m hard of hearing. It’s especially ladies’ voices I can’t catch.”
“He was black, ” I repeat, as Snead nods and looks down again at his paperwork.
This will make the funeral planning especially tricky, as we are burying a man from a culture that is not our own.
Ron left few hints about what he wanted after what my mom calls “the D-word,” death. They never spoke the D-word. Even when it seemed Ron was knock, knocking on D-word’s door, all he mentioned was that he wanted “good liquor” and food from Lucille’s, a barbecue joint up in Henderson.
Mom chooses a funeral plan from a long list of options and we get up to peruse the wall of caskets. I swear I’m trapped in an episode of “Six Feet Under,” only instead of Nate Fisher and his granola mix of empathy and directness, I’ve got Snead, the red-haired ex-con forcing me to speak as if projecting to the back row. I watch my mom’s eyes dart across the wall of caskets. I hand her a mint from the dish on the faux wood table but it doesn’t stop her from squinting at a row of “registry books” mounted on a Plexiglas shelf behind her. One has two of the tackiest eagles you’ve ever seen, like marshmallows with wings. The other two feature Jesus.
“No Jesus book,” says mom, to no one in particular.
“What was that?” Snead asks.
“She doesn’t want the Jesus book,” I stammer, struggling to be both polite and loud. “We’re Jewish.”
Hatch, match and dispatch, I keep thinking.
That’s what a rabbi once told me when I was writing a story on intermarriage. The rabbi said it was birth, marriage and death that always spell trouble for an intermarried couple.
Shiny casket samples line the wall but we don’t see the one included in our funeral plan, the one for $795. It’s around the corner with the cremation urns. Ron wouldn’t have cared about a fancy casket, but I worry that his people will judge us; I’m overcome by the mysterious urge to plop down my credit card and charge my stepdad the $9,000 coffin, cream-colored with chrome. I know I can’t charge him back to life, but I want to show people that even though I was only a stepdaughter, I loved the guy.
According to the Talmud, the rich used to be buried on tall, ornamented beds while the poor were laid out on plain biers. In order to avoid shaming the poor, a law was instituted that death shouldn’t be a time to display wealth, that everyone would be buried in a simple pine coffin. Our family has no wealth to display, so we’re doing it Talmud-style. This notion comforts me as I back away from the Cadillac Coffin.
As it turns out, the Econocasket isn’t pine, but it isn’t so bad. It’s pale blue and textured, almost Laura Ashley.
Mom and Snead and I are standing there and I feel the need to make conversation. I come up with the following gem: “Did you know Costco carries caskets now?” This is apparently a sore spot with undertakers.
“Costco,” he nods, scoffing. “You don’t want one of them caskets. They won’t even guarantee ‘em.”
When the deal is done (and it feels like I myself have inched closer to death just watching carrot-top’s penmanship, labored and glacial)he hands my mom the final contract.
I think it’s Ron’s spirit that makes me like Snead – “Love” and “Jenna” and bad hearing and Costco defensiveness and all. Ron liked everyone. I even like the patient way Snead tells my mom, “You can write a check, or even charge it.”
She looks up at Jesus. She sucks on her mint. Her eyes are red-rimmed and she’s pulling on the last of her toilet paper roll. This is my first funeral, but this is her first day as a widow.
“Mom, you should charge it. Think of all those frequent dier miles.”
Even Snead chuckles. We’re all saved for a second, even the little picture I make in my head of Ron, trumpet under his arm, smiling his big cheek smile as if to say, “No, you didn’t.”
As Snead walks us to the door, he reminds us to pick out a suit for Ron and drop it by the funeral home.
“OK,” mom says. She glances across the hall to a door marked “Urn room. No exit.”
That’s when I get my instructions for her D-word, “Just burn me up and put me in a shoe box. Right on top of your TV.”
“What was that?” asks Snead, as the door shuts on him and we step back out into the crackling heat of the asphalt parking lot.
Later that day, my brother and I send mom into Ron’s room for his burial outfit. She emerges unhinged. I hand her a fresh roll. She is about to use the phrase I most associate with the first big death of my adult life.
“What happened, mom?” we ask.
“I got the heebie-jeebies in there,” she says, sobbing.
My brother and I stare at our mom, a person not prone to using phrases like “heebie-jeebies,” a person who condemns even family nicknames and refuses to talk baby talk to babies. Ron’s suit draped over her arm, over-sized and snazzy as he once was, she stares at us, lost.
“I should have gotten him new socks. All the socks had holes. I should have taken better care of him. Could you find some in there without holes?” she asks me.
And there’s nothing to do but go in for a perfect pair, diving into the sock drawer of a dead man. I stuff the dark nylon socks into the pocket of Ron’s suit so she won’t see them again and get deja-jeebies.
Philosophizing and wise words help you with the big picture, but what do you do about the socks? The voice that’s still on the outgoing message, “We’re out having fun, we’ll call you back”? The cans of Ensure still in the fridge? The half-empty bottles of medicine propped on the bedside table? Death be not proud, it be creepy. For whom does the bell toll? I don’t know, but the sound is freaking me out.
While my brother is at Costco filling a cart with Crown Royal and Jameson’s, I’m at a desert Kinko’s. I’m cropping out two strangers from a photo of my dead stepfather. The photo will be featured on the cover of a four-page funeral program, along with a lengthy obituary written by Ron’s sister. I sense that this task is of maximum importance, but I have no idea what I’m doing. A line is forming behind me.
When I get back to New York from the funeral, I will e-mail Karla F.C. Holloway, author of “Passed On: African American Mourning Stories,” to ask about the funeral pamphlets.
“The obituaries within the funeral program are social and familial histories, and they are absolutely traditional,” she writes, in an e-mail I’m thrilled to get. Being a new member of the fellowship of loss, it’s healing to be in touch with someone who literally wrote the book on death. And I want to make sure I did everything right.
“In many families there are the ‘keepers of the obituaries’ (often women) and you can find drawers or files full of them,” Holloway explains. “Many consider it disrespectful to ever toss one away…. They are more than keepsakes, but absolutely held as precious, and sent to family members who could not attend.”
Back at Kinko’s, I’m also having Ron’s photo blown up and mounted on foam core to be displayed by the casket. This is a compromise. His family wants an open casket; mom thinks Ron would hate an open casket. He was only in the hospital for two weeks, but kidney failure took him fast (and took 40 pounds) and mom knew he wouldn’t want to be seen that way. The photo is where the two sides meet. Goodbye culture clash, hello Kinko’s. Hatch, match, dispatch.
Holloway insists photos at black funerals aren’t uncommon, especially in cases where an open casket isn’t an option.
After Kinko’s, I head over to the cemetery to buy Ron a little real estate. The plot salesman keeps saying my mom’s name wrong and playing with his car keys.
Mom looks around the place and notes “There are no black folks here.”
Clutching my bottled water with the “Cooker Cemetery” label, I say, “Let’s bounce. We’re going downtown.”
Ron loved downtown. He loved a party, and downtown Vegas gives you one 24/7. It is for this reason that we buy him a plot at the oldest burial ground in Sin City, right downtown. We even find him a section filled with minorities, the photos on the tombstones welcoming us. One minute mom’s sipping her Cooker Cemetery bottled water, the next there are tears rolling down off her chin I’m not even sure she notices. I guess this is how it goes.
The funeral is fine. The minister is calming in her towering height and sturdy gray shoes. Her Jesus references are minimal and I like how she brings in Gabriel; the angel and my stepfather both played the horn. It was a nice touch.
Whether you’re black or Jewish, sitting shiva or standing to give “tributes,” eating barbecue or bagels (both of which we would all do, sticking to our own cultural comfort foods but otherwise mingling well), there’s no removing the heebie-jeebies from the act of choosing a plot or a suit or the right photo for a coffin-side easel. Paying some guy $900 to dig a hole in the ground for your loved one will just never be normal, but we do it.
I don’t think much about that hole until Ron’s casket is poised just above it. As mourners return to their cars, I run my hand over the casket and hope the undertaker found the socks in his pocket.
For the first time, the heebie-jeebies grab me by the throat. In that box is the guy who taught me how to drive, who made me dumplings, laughed at my jokes and got my mom her sweater when she was cold. Just inches from where my hand passes over the felt pattern on the casket is Ron, in his best suit, probably thinking, “This is the worst party I’ve ever had.”