To those of us who grew up Catholic, especially of the Irish and Italian variety, funerals and cemeteries were as much a part of growing up as playing CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) sports and dodging a nun’s fury. The first significant death in my life came while I was in utero. When my mother was seven months pregnant with moi, her best friend, who was her brother, was killed by a drunk driver, He was 36 years old and the father of seven. Can we say that the last couple months of her pregnancy were stressful? There are no pictures of her pregnant because she was crying all the time. For years I insisted that I was either (a) adopted or (b) the next Immaculate Conception. With my mother, the latter was definitely more plausible.
From 1965 to 1976, there were at least seven immediate family members who died. I must admit that I didn’t attend the rosaries and funerals of these relatives until my maternal grandmother’s funeral in 1976. You see, a traditional Catholic rosary features an open casket which, to many, let alone a child, is a tad gruesome. So, when Nan died, my parents wanted to spare me the trauma of kneeling in front of her, seeing her decked out in one of her prettiest dresses with hair and makeup perfect. It never occurred to them to just CLOSE THE CASKET. No. Not an option.
What I was required to do on practically a weekly basis was to schlepp between four cemeteries with flowers for the various dead relatives. In those days, the Catholic Church didn’t allow cremation; so getting scattered to the wind wasn’t an option. You were buried in the ground and that was that. The dead needed a place to go that the rest of us could visit. Kind of like that one rich kid in school or a rich relative who had the summer place you got invited to occasionally. As with the rich kid or relative, the cemetery served as a reminder to the living to pay some damn respect. Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the dead relatives were ALL watching. Guilt does survive the grave. Don’t you forget it.
This sentiment is why it’s so ironic that my mother doesn’t visit the cemetery anymore. The change seemed to have happened when her mother died. After that initial pilgrimage following the funeral Mass, she hasn’t been back. She doesn’t even know if the headstone has been updated. And when my Dad died 20 years ago, she has only visited a handful of times. I haven’t really asked her why mainly because I haven’t wanted to get re-acquainted with the weekly cemetery crawl. I don’t need to visit a plot of ground with a stone slab on it in order to think about my father or my grandmother. I have my memories and that is enough. Maybe after a lifetime of open caskets, chanted rosaries and funeral plots, it’s enough for Mom too.