2020-04-29
Dear Ellen,

Since I was sending off some other things, I sent Granddad on his way East. He should arrive on Monday by UPS. He's a wee bit heavy, just put him under the bed or something. Go ahead and unpack him if you want.

Love, Mom

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Welcome to life in the Leventry household. Also, death.

Don't get me wrong; the death of a loved one is a very moving and difficult time for my family. But, if ever a clan put the "fun" in funeral, it'd be mine. The Leventrys are not much for mourning--rather, not much for mourning in the conventional manner. Sure, we cry, we remember, and we suffer, but more important, we laugh. We accept death as a normal part of life. This became apparent with the re-interment of my grandparents this past September.

Late April

I get a call from my father. He's trying to figure out where Grandpa was buried so he can dig him up.

Thirteen years ago, when my grandfather passed away, he was cremated and given a traditional Episcopalian memorial service. He was supposed to be interred in the columbarium--a place for cremated remains--at their small Ohio church, but he passed away before it was built. We decided to bury my grandfather in front of our summer cottage in Michigan, where he had spent vacations with us before he became ill.

Years later, my grandmother passed on too. We had planned on reuniting them up in Michigan until a quirk of fate revealed that they had plots in the cemetery of the church in Pennsylvania that my father and aunt had attended as kids. The family decided Grandpa and Grandma should be brought together in the resting place they'd chosen so many years ago. We picked September for the service, since my parents would be out on the East Coast on business then anyhow.

This meant that someone had to find Grandpa. We had buried him near a boulder, but Dad couldn't remember which side. I had a photo of us burying him, and I was able to steer my father in the correct direction. After hours of digging with reckless disregard for tree roots, he retrieved my grandfather in a marble container the size of a shoebox. Mom and Dad brought him to Chicago, where he would stay for several months.

Saturday, August 26

Making bran muffins for breakfast, I call Mom with a cooking question. "By the way," she says, "I'll be sending Grandpa out to you at the end of the week." My parents are flying out to the re-interment, and they've thought better of trying to explain Grandpa to airport security. Besides, he would have been too heavy for the overhead compartment.

Tuesday, September 5

The doorman says I have a package. He says it was very heavy. I nod and said that, yes, I was expecting a heavy package. He notes that it's from my parents, and waits for me to tell him what's inside. Usually, I take the time waiting for the elevator to share the contents with the doorman. This time I make an exception. I take Grandpa upstairs and set him down, wondering where it would be best to keep him. I decide keeping him out of sight for the next two weeks would be best. I clear off a shelf in one closet, say a few words, and heft him up. Later, when I go to bed, I walk over to the closet after brushing my teeth and say good night.

Wednesday, September 6

I'm a little worried about how Grandpa will affect the feng shui of my apartment. Now, I'm not a huge believer, but I figure that having a dead relative in your house is probably not a great thing for the alignment of spiritual energies.

I consult two friends who know their feng shui. They tell me two things (or maybe I just happen to remember two things): 1) Keep him in the family corner; 2) keep him out of sight. Lucky for me, my closet is in the family corner. As for out of sight, well, if I manage to squeeze the coats, the shoes, the suitcases in, I can close the closet door.

Saturday, September 16

Herniated a disc in my back. Is it the presence of Grandpa, or simply some overzealous stretching? I've been told that the back is metaphysically associated with what we support and what supports us--family, work, etc. So, I kowtow to Grandpa like I never did in life, hoping to avoid another feng shui faux pas.

Monday, September 25

My parents pick me up at my apartment. Due to the back injury, I can't take Grandpa off the shelf. My mother takes him down and chastises me for not opening the box--which included some polishing cloths for my silver jewelry. We jump in the car and drive down to the little church near Philly.

The rest of my family meets us at the graveyard. We arrive to find my aunt, shovel in hand, furiously enlarging one of the holes. It seems the gravediggers made two separate holes. Jane thinks it's more fitting that they be buried together.

The Episcopal minister presiding over the ceremony doesn't know what to make of us. Sure, my grandparents' deaths are several years removed, but it's still technically a funeral. But here we were, a family gathered at the grave, laughing at old photos of the family--years younger, pounds lighter, hairlines thicker.

My aunt hauls up two canvas tote bags. She has brought everything from Club crackers to Chanel No. 5, to flowers and stuffed elephants (my grandmother was a die-hard Republican). Christmas presents she hadn't had a chance to give Grandpa were also included. She begins placing them carefully into the grave. This is a bit too Egyptian for the minister. He repeatedly emphasizes the separation of the physical body and the spirit. He also objects to anything that isn't biodegradable. We take out the plastic items, but don't let it dampen our spirits. We recount amusing anecdotes, tell jokes, and eventually even cry.

But it wouldn't have been a proper good-bye without one last spoon hanging.

Our family excels at the art of hanging a spoon from one's face, and we're fiercely proud of our skill. We spend hours at the Thanksgiving table suspending silverware from our shnozzes. My aunt pulls out the spoons, passing them around. After some cajoling, the minister joins in as well.

But he's had enough, and he declines our offer to come to lunch. I don't blame him; it's been a tough day already. Our festive mood might not match the solemnity of the service he's used to giving at a funeral. But it's important to celebrate the dead the way we celebrate the living. Like burying Grandpa and Grandma with the license plates to their old Ford.

Unconventional? Sure.

Atypical? You bet.

Appropriate? Absolutely.

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