Funeral Weekends: A Guide

First comes the call. It’s Tuesday. You’re watching American Horror Story with your friends piled into your freshman dorm room, screeching every time Lady Gaga opens her mouth when your phone rings. It’s dad, who sounds like he’s sitting in an airtight room with bad news.

Grandma’s been sick for months, and last week a similar phone call arrived in the bustle of the workweek telling you to call her because she is failing. You call her, and she can barely understand what’s going on. You don’t know what else to say, so you tell her everything you want her to know—that she has been such a light in your life, that you will miss her, that you love her, you love her, you love her. Your aunt takes the phone and says they have to go, so they go. You climb into your lofted bed in hopes of no one being able to see you sobbing silently into your pillows, twelve hours away from where you should be: with your family.

You know what dad’s calling you about.

So out into the hallway you go, knowing immediately to sit down—who can take that kind of news standing up? —and brace yourself. What’s feared is true. Grandma has been taken away. Hours later, you will come to the harsh reality that you have no time with her left, but first you remain calm and just talk to dad, trying to be there through conversation to make up for how distant you’ve been from the situation. Random hall mates drift past you, flashing faces of concern after seeing your tears, and you wave them off.

You breathe. Take a moment for yourself, and prepare to walk back into your room, crammed with near strangers. They ask you what’s wrong. You tell them, and they smother you with hugs and words of sympathy, and politely show themselves out.

What now?

Google your name to find yet another obituary popping up with your name attached to an obituary as a survivor. Survivor. Mom has you book a flight home, because the visitation is Saturday, and the funeral is Sunday.

Of course, I am taking from my own experiences, but I wish to share my wisdom; while each funeral has its own personality, its own heartbreak, this one was not my first rodeo. It was actually somewhere around my twelfth rodeo. As a mere twenty-one-year-old, I have found most of my friends in a position of having been shielded from death and its celebrations their whole lives. Adversely, I have learned to let grief be the guiding friend during the whole process.

A tall, slender white house on a hill across from the only high school is the only funeral home in my hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. As a child, I pushed open the heavy doors and found myself in a somber, ornamented room kept dark with maroon curtains and dark wood furnishings.

I remember thinking it was a mansion.

Back then, Reece Funeral Home took on a more adventurous outlook from my eyes. Surrounded by different rooms and the mystery of death at that time, it can make a kid feel like they are in a movie. I remember it like I remember my own childhood homes, crammed with intimate details. Stiff pews adorned with built-in tissue boxes, wood paneling across set as a backdrop for the service with shelves for bouquets from thoughtful senders. Everything well thought out, everything pre-prepared. Though I love this tradition, I have always found it ironic; let’s take a living piece of nature, remove it from the earth, and give it in memory of someone who just underwent the same process. Morbidly charming.

On Friday, you are going to pack for the visitation. Be wary of your choices.

Always wear your third best black outfit to the visitation, and your second best to the funeral. Why not the first, you ask? Because you will immediately regret it the second you go to wear your very best black outfit and are immediately reminded of death. Once, I chose to wear my favorite black dress to a service, and I have only found the courage to wear it one other time since then.

If you are a lady and would like to bring yourself as much physical pain as there will be emotional pain, wear heels. In other words: I wouldn’t. Any pair of shoes you wear will eventually become uncomfortable under the swelling and stress of milling around and talking to the other visitors, who would rather be anywhere else. Always think a step ahead.

Be sparing with your cologne or perfume. Everyone seems to want to don their strongest scent, like it is some sort of grounding identity in the face of loss. In the stuffy rooms of a funeral parlor, nausea can be expected to ensue. Be considerate of others.

Pack tissues, and make sure you feel good about yourself in this outfit. It will be the last official occasion you will share with your loved one, and you will want to make it count.

More than likely, you will be flying in on Friday as well. Usually, flights to and from Nashville are reserved for vacations, bachelorette parties, and fortieth birthday shenanigans. The closest I have gotten to a party vibe at a service was at my grandpa’s brother’s wife’s funeral. “Margaritaville” played from the house speaker system, and all of her friends huddled together on the benches, sobbing and shouting “Salt! Salt! Salt!”, throwing their fists in the air with each shaker. Moments like these make you realize that funerals are not at all for the dead, but for the living who have to deal with the loss. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun celebrating their life, because it will reinforce the joy they gave you.

Regardless, the flight will be awkward for you. The word dread comes to mind, simply because you are surrounded by strangers, thoughts of the weekend consuming you without so much as an Instagram post to soothe your mind.  Bring a book, or Sudoku to distract from the moment you have to go greet your family at the terminal for the first time since your loved one has passed.

Saturday will bring the visitation.

I do not remember the first time I saw a lifeless body, but I do remember the first time it was someone I was close with; unfortunately, it is one of the hardest things you will have to face the whole weekend. Commonly, your family will fawn over how well the hairdresser did, or how natural the dead person looks—or, sometimes, how inaccurate they look to their in-life personality. All of these comments have always felt forced and awkward, so I have tried the silent approach, and it has never failed me. Stay respectful, and don’t be afraid to touch their hands, if you feel like you want that closure. While your loved one is more than the shell you see, it is how you recognize them. Take your time with them, if you wish.

Small talk is inevitable at funerals. No one wants to be there, and you will all be confined to one building. In my experience, I have had several meaningless conversations following the guide of “Wow, I haven’t seen you since…” “the last one?” “Yeah, the last one. You’ve grown at least a foot since then I’d reckon,” with a distant relative to fill empty space between us and the casket. “She really was fun to be around, you know”.

Places to escape include: the bathroom, the parking lot, the car. Least rude out of all of these is the bathroom, where you will likely run into a few people who will stare at you understandingly.

At Reece’s funeral home, the only place to get a drink of water for your parched throat, dry from crying and potent perfumes, is a water fountain located near the bathroom. My mother raised me to be extremely aware of mono, so I always opted out of that option, and suffered for it. Bring your own water to the funeral, along with mints. Normally, I just nab some from the bottom of my mom’s purse. Nobody chews gum at funerals. Not even the dead like to listen to the rubbery sound of saliva grinding against grieving teeth.

Afterwards, family will typically gather either at a restaurant or at home. Funerals can be more centered around food than you think, due to the association between love and baking for others. It is a way for non-family members to bring comfort and ease to the first few weeks following the loss. I am from the Midwest, so casseroles are the go-to meal. You can make anything into a casserole if you really want to. Hamburgers? That can be a casserole! Tacos? That too! Corn? Come on, we’re from Iowa. Throw it in there.

Another strange phenomenon to me is the concept of ‘funeral potatoes’. Everyone has had them, but only at funerals. Essentially, they are cubed potatoes made into a casserole, topped with cheese and corn flakes. Is it strange to look forward to a funeral simply because there will be funeral potatoes? Maybe, but if it gets you through the weekend, embrace it.

My favorite post-funeral family gathering was for my grandma Nancy, who loved ice cream more than just about anyone I know. As a child, spending the night at her house always meant having strawberry ice cream with an off-brand sugar free Oreo placed to the side. “Every little bit helps,” she would laugh as we sat down to watch a movie before bed. Before her health started to fail, she had been on a weight loss kick, joining the local Silver Sneakers and volunteering at the local hospital to keep her moving around. Immediately after being diagnosed with stage four liver cancer, she replied “Well by God, I want a steak and a hot fudge Sunday!”. After we laid her to rest, we all gathered at my grandpa’s trailer and made hot fudge sundaes, choosing to commemorate her in a way she would have approved.

Then comes Sunday. The final day.

I had attended three funerals before I truly realized how finite we are. My grandma Nancy was the first person I was close with to die, and even though I watched as the cancer took its hold on her, it was still surreal to think of someone I loved vanishing into nothingness. A coffin closing is one of the loudest sounds I’ve ever heard, and the sound of the church bells ringing while they wheeled her up to the front of the parlor haunt me.

I finally broke down when I saw my family, labeled that day as pall bearers, carry her into the hearse, and watching them shut the doors. I would never see her again. And, for the first time, I felt as though I couldn’t run to my mother to soothe me—she was grieving this moment with her sister, taking a moment to say goodbye to their mother eternally. Instead, I ran to my other grandmother, Eva—having to experience her funeral several years later and realizing she was no longer there to hold me could have brought me to my knees. Losing people never gets easier—you just learn to cope in healthier ways.

Sometimes, you will be allowed to put something into the casket. Traditions like this can be traced back as far as time, but I always remembered the Egyptians surrounding their mummies with lavish gifts and resources for the afterlife. I gave my grandpa my favorite magnet from his house with cats on it, and my grandma a worn out deck of Old Maid. Choose an item that means something to you, but is not something you will spend the rest of your life imagining underground forever. Letters are also great options—a letter I left in a casket has become the reason I love writing, and know I will do it for as long as I live.

Take a flower from the top of the casket before they lower it into the ground. Press it, keep it safe. Give up on your appearance—somehow, the weather will always inhibit you from keeping it together. When the pastor speaks, listen intently. It seems like it will last forever, but then you realize the time in which you can breathe close to your lost loved one gets shorter. No one speaks under the tent. Shorter. Family first going up to the casket, leaving a hand print that will last more lifetimes than you will. Shorter. A walk back to the car. Shorter still.

Suddenly, it’s over. What now?

Another silent, Sudoku-filled plane ride back home. A day spent unpacking your third and second-best black outfits, phone calls checking in with your family. Another day spent responding to your “sorry for your loss” notifications on Facebook. Then, more days. Whether you’re ready for them or not. My main piece of advice to all first-time funeral goers: let all of these experiences change you. Giving into grief is often the only way to see how to manage it, because grief does not go away—it simply gets quieter with time. Treat yourself like a friend. Reach out if you need help moving forward from the weekend. Remember it will pass, fleeting, just like that weekend you thought was never ending; you will have to relive it until you are no longer, so be gentle, and always pick up the phone. 

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