"Funeral in First Position" by Tiffani Lawrence


My family doesn’t usually dwell on death. I believe there is some sort of inherent understanding between us that life will go on without us, and so we had better jump back into the flow as soon as possible. For a while, reality cracks in the face of death, like a mirror we didn’t know we were holding. After staring at the shattered glass on the ground for a moment, we slowly begin to pick up the shards. The first shard is the shock, which gradually fades away as the logistics of spreading the news, funerals, and money must be dealt with. The second is our memories of the dead – this is the biggest piece, the one we like to stare into for a long time before we put it away. There are smaller pieces, different for every death, but we keep picking them up, brushing the sparkling pieces away, until the floor is clean and life seems almost normal again. We put on a good face and we get through the day. And then the next day, and the next, until it doesn’t hurt so badly anymore. Maybe it’s not a good way to handle death, but it’s what we do.

 My family doesn’t rush anyone to move on, or even talk about moving on much at all. But there is a kind of practical recognition that there is nothing to be done about death except to get on with life. Each individual deals with it in their own way, but we all know without saying it. In some parts of the world, the entire village stops when someone dies. No one stops for death in our “village” except for the cars that pause briefly to watch the funerary parade of vehicles go from the church to the cemetery.

And yet, since my childhood, it seems as though my immediate family – my mother, father, and I – have been caught up in a string of deaths that never ends and rarely pauses. I used to think it was normal, or that we just knew a lot of people. But I’m starting to wonder if maybe it’s not. When I talk to friends my age, I realize their experiences with death have been few and far between. Maybe they don’t remember it very well, or maybe their parents kept it from them.

I remember my Grandpa Virgil. And his death, which struck my father’s family when I was nine. There were others in my family that died before him, but I remember them only by the grainy photographs that taught me their names. I remember Grandpa Virgil in my real memories. I remember him by the flashbulbs in my head that light up whenever someone says his name, like a marquee on Broadway. Flash. He is sitting in his recliner, balding in a U shape, grinning with his cheeks in the way I inherited, eyes scrunching into the same bright brown sparks I see in the mirror. His eyebrows are dark; his hair is silver. He is wearing slippers and laughing because he is with his family. Flash. I am crying in the darkened living room of my home, my dad’s gigantic arms pulling me in, trying to help me accept that Grandpa Virgil has cancer, sweetie. And it’s looking pretty bad. I don’t understand really, I just know cancer is bad, bad, bad, and that Grandpa will die. I push my father away, to curl up and hug myself and rock back and forth shaking my head. I can’t stop doing this for a long time. Flash. My father’s entire family is walking through a cold alley at night. We have just finished dinner. A good steak dinner with the whole family. Daddy tells me that this meal was Grandpa Virgil’s last wish. Grandpa sat at the head of the table and laughed all night. I make sure to hold his hand on the way out. Flash. There is a hospital bed in Grandma’s small, bright living room. Grandpa is laying in it. Somehow smaller than usual. I like to think it is just because I’m growing. He smiles to see my family.

Then he is gone. I don’t go to the funeral. My parents don’t want me to remember him that way.

They were right and I am grateful for it. I don’t remember him that way.

It is the summer of the same year. My Uncle David has died. It’s my dad’s side of the family again, but no one seems that sad. Except Aunt Loretta. He was very sick, my parents remind me. That must be right, he was in a wheelchair in all my memories of him. And of course, the pool is open so I can’t be sad, really. I can swim for hours, circling and diving under the blue chlorine water, thinking of him every now and then. I am sad for Aunt Loretta, and for my cousin Chris, who is mean to me next time I see him.

I didn’t go to that funeral either. I hope that my family was sad, and that I just didn’t see it. Sometimes I have trouble remembering Uncle David’s name.

It’s November, and I’m in 5th grade. I am ten now, and I feel very large in my double digits. I am in Mrs. Avery’s class, and at conferences she tells my parents that I have trouble sitting still. I like Mrs. Avery because she is perky, but she is watching me too closely, too closely, and I have to grab the bathroom pass and run. She rushes out to find me pacing the hallway in front of the big sunny windows, desperate and lost in my own confusing grief.

My cousin Mike has died. He was my father’s nephew, and the oldest of all the cousins. He was a big, handsome man in the military. He yanked the back of my dress with a laugh when I went running by at my Uncle’s wedding. I remember laughing too. A minute later, he helped me clean up when I got the drippings of the chocolate fountain all over my dress. He carried me back to my mom, and I was worried about getting chocolate on the clothes he told me were called “blues.” But then he was dead. Somehow. We don’t know how. Aunt Marianna and Uncle Bob didn’t show up at family gatherings again for a long time.

The wedding is the only memory I have of Mike. It is a good one to have. He is kind. I did not know Mike, but I miss him. He was the oldest cousin; I am the baby. I feel a bit lost without my other bookend, even now. Three deaths, one side of the family, one year. Maybe Uncle David’s death affected me more than I thought.

My Great Grandma Nedra Dailey died in September of the next year. It is the same side of the family. I did not go to the funeral. We don’t want you to remember her like that, my parents say.

I do not remember her at all. She is the picture in the photobook. A much younger version of me, perhaps five years old, stands next to a smiling woman with a whisper of white hair in a wheelchair. My father is in the picture too. The memory is silent and static. I realize only now that Grandma Dailey is who my Aunt Nedra is named after.

There is a brief period where we largely avoid deaths in the family. There are others on the outskirts of our acquaintance, more funerals I don’t go to, some that I do, more tears I don’t share in. And then, when I was 14, days from the 5th anniversary of my Grandpa Virgil’s death, my Great Grandpa Ted died.

Grandpa Ted was nice, but in my head he has always been old and deaf. Sweet, but a little hard to relate to. What I remember most distinctly about Grandpa Ted and his wife Grandma Bertie was how much their social interactions with family centered on food. They dropped in just before the meal and were out the door before the dishes were done. What if you wanted to spend some time with them outside of their house or a holiday? They would almost certainly ask you to take them to their favorite buffet. It became a joke in our family. This is what I remember. It makes me smile.

I did go to this funeral. I remember fidgeting in my seat during the service, picking at the hemlines of my clothes. I was sad for a while, but Grandpa Ted was old—and it felt okay in a way. The funeral was at the Amos Family Funeral Home. A place I would come to know unfortunately well over the next couple of years.

Houston’s death was a spectacle as large as his personality. He was a showman, a fireball, and a great friend. He was funny and overly energetic and sometimes annoying. And in November of my senior year of high school, at only seventeen years old, he was dead. He died in a car crash, and my community fell apart. He was a prominent member of the choir and theatre groups I spent every day with by the end of high school. I was at dance when they told me he died. We were preparing for The Nutcracker.  

I am leading class with my best friend Trenna. We are trying to keep distracted middle schoolers on task while Trenna’s mom, the woman who owns the studio, takes a phone call. This is our usual job; we are adept leaders – though sharper with the girls than we might need to be sometimes. Trenna’s mom briefly reappears to call her to the front room. I continue with the lesson, trusting they will be back. Trenna’s mom reappears in a couple of minutes, her face is drawn, she guides me to the front room of the studio and leaves the students to their own devices for a moment. Trenna is on the floor, sobbing. Trenna’s mom tells me, tears in her eyes, that Houston is dead – a car crash – this afternoon. I sway for a moment, but Trenna’s face confirms my fears and I collapse next to her. Two almost adult women awkwardly curled around each other on the floor, hanging desperately to one another, crying, moaning, screaming in pain and disbelief. Later, I wrap my long arms around all the unruly middle schoolers I can reach, and kiss them each on the forehead, my tears falling on their upturned faces, overwhelmed with love and grief.

Because he is young, because it is unfair, the news explodes across the city. A rising star that went out. The line at his visitation, at Amos Family Funeral Home, winds all through the halls and out the door. My choir sings at his funeral, which is held at one of the largest churches in town. I am full of hope fueled by sadness, of love and the joy of being loved. It seems like the whole community is here to celebrate this teenager’s life. I sing harder than I ever have, stamp my feet and sway my shoulders. I catch a glimpse of his body in the open casket. It is caked with makeup and so, so dead. Not Houston. I don’t look again. I don’t want to remember him that way.

But I do.

I have a lot of memories of Houston, but this will always be my last, and that makes me sad around the edges of my heart. Teenager or elderly person, a car crash or cancer, death disfigures us all.

Two days before I graduate from high school, my Great Grandma Bertie passes away. She’s outlived her husband by three years, but the last year or so has been bad for her. Two days after my graduation, her funeral is held at Amos Family Funeral Home. It’s weird timing for me. I know I miss her, but I am also spending a lot of my time celebrating something else.

I do my best to comfort my Grandma, who has now lost both of her parents, but I feel inadequate for the task. I am uncomfortable when she cries while she hugs me, and I want to pull away. I don’t know why. The room where the funeral is held smells funny – stale, almost – even though flowers overflow the recess in the front of the room where the casket is.

Grandma Bertie is in there. I don’t want to look at her, but I tell myself I must, that this time I will face what death looks like. Her face doesn’t look like her face. It has too many lines, it is shrunken and small. She was never a large woman, but damn she was so stubborn sometimes that she felt six feet tall. This body in the casket looks incapable of such a thing, like it’s a replacement and the real Grandma Bertie is still out there somewhere hobbling around with her walker. I take my seat, and instead of listening to the service that sounds so generic, I become fixated on her hand, because I can’t focus on her face. It rests on white satin, wrinkled and ancient looking, but distinctively hers. And as I stare at it, I am hit forcefully with a thought—there is nothing there. This thing, this hand that isn’t her hand anymore, it’s just a lump. She looks like a person still, not my person, but a person. But I can tell that she’s dead. I intuitively know that it wouldn’t matter how far away I was, I would be able to sense her deadness. I sway in my seat, hit by a sudden vision of what a field of bodies in a war would look like, what that might feel like.

I can’t get the image out of my brain for a long time. I decide that I hate open casket funerals. I make a point to tell my mom this, so that if anything ever happened to me she would know to keep mine closed. I don’t want people to remember me that way.

That summer my Great Great Aunt Vida Flory dies. She was 101. My mom goes to the funeral, but my dad and I have other things to do. We laugh about how she was sharp as a tack until the very end, and how she was deafer than anyone we knew. Now, I use her as a prime example of the longevity of the females in my family, and other than that I don’t think about her much.

My Cousin Albert dies at around the same time. He was the husband of my dad’s cousin. He was always a happy guy. Large, with dark hair and a dark moustache. I was a flower girl in his wedding when I was little. I felt sad for his wife, but it wasn’t a big deal for me.

This seems insensitive now. Clearly it was a big deal.

It’s October, during my sophomore year of college. I am enjoying dinner at a local burger joint with my boyfriend and my best friend. We are having the kind of friendly animated argument about something trivial that only good friends can have. My phone goes off in the seat next to me, buzzing intensely with my Dad’s number on its face. I frown, thinking about how unusual it is for him to call me out of the blue. He makes awkward small talk for a minute then asks me where I am. He says it is good that I am with my friends, and that makes me scared. Then he tells me James has died, rather unexpectedly, and the world cuts out for a moment. All sound, my field of vision, my breath, everything stops as that statement registers in my brain.

James Lawson was a close family friend. He and his wife Bert had always been a part of my life. His ruddy-faced, big-bellied laugh is my most outstanding memory of him; like a Santa Claus without a white beard. He liked throwing big parties so he could give what he had to others. It didn’t matter what it was: food, the use of his pool, an ear to listen. When I was in seventh grade they hosted my birthday party, and I can’t remember him ever looking happier than when he was watching me and my friends do stupid tricks off the diving board. James had the best board game collection, and every time I came to his house he bought me a huge bag of M&M’s, and a pack of Oreos. His joy was to spoil the kids around him and to make them smile.

A year before I got the news at dinner with my friends, James had been taken to the hospital and they had found fluid around his heart. After some more tests, they found out that he had lung cancer. The doctors gave him two years to live with treatment. The cancer spread other places. He died a little past the one-year mark, after taking a big trip with his wife and trying to stay the same happy James until the end.

After this phone call, I thought for a nanosecond that I could get through the meal with my friends and save my grief for later. But as they looked towards me with questions in their eyes, as I opened my mouth to tell them what happened, something inside me broke and the tears hit with full force. I sagged against my boyfriend in the booth just trying to breathe, trying to tell them what had happened. My friends shared a look and began the evacuation process immediately, though I initially tried to protest. I barely noticed when my best friend left us outside the restaurant. I wanted to put one foot in front of the other. To get to the car. To move. That was my only goal, my only future in that moment.

It seemed like a long time until we got together to celebrate his life. James loved the Tennessee Volunteers, so his wife covered their house in Vols swag, and did what James loved to do best – she threw a party for all their friends. Our friends got together and drank, ate, laughed, and hugged the evening away remembering a great man. It was fun, but sad.

 His wife is still struggling with his passing. For a while she tried to buy me Oreos when she would see me.

Around Thanksgiving during my sophomore year of college, Uncle Dustin had a heart attack. They got him to the hospital and had stints put in, to prop open his veins and keep him around. Our family was worried, but it looked like everything was going to be ok. I left my family with a hug and a smile when Thanksgiving break was over, excited to see them all in a week for the dance performance I was in.

It is the Wednesday before the show when my mom texts me, asking for my call time for dress rehearsal that night. I tell her and don’t think much more about it. Wednesday is my busiest day of the week. But somewhere in the back of mind, a suspicious worm of fear wriggles in the darkness. Why would she need to know that and not give me any more context? I ignore it, thinking I have too much else to focus on that day. When my mom calls me to tell me they are outside my dorm, two hours’ drive from where they should be on a Wednesday afternoon, the worm of fear turns into a hellhound of panic and I bound down the stairs to meet them. They meant to tell me in the privacy of my room, but they see the panic behind my eyes and my mom bursts into tears and my dad has to tell me right there on the sidewalk Uncle Dustin had another heart attack sweetie, and this time he didn’t make it through. It is always my dad that must break these things to me. I stare at them for a moment as my heart breaks for my aunt and my cousins – twelve-year-old twins who suddenly have no dad. Reality cracks in the face of death, this can’t be real. Then the tears break too and I can’t stop crying.

We eventually get ourselves organized and I call my boyfriend even though he is in class. My family decides to get coffee while we wait for him to get out of class so we can take him to dinner with us. I try to distract myself with a description of my favorite drinks at the local coffee house and making fun of my dad for not liking “frou-frou” coffee and getting a latte anyway. We try to laugh, but I can still see the redness of my own eyes reflected in the redness of my mother’s. They drop me off for a moment after coffee to meet my boyfriend, and when he bursts into the room with worry radiating from every muscle, I lose it all over again. I leap across the room, bury myself in his neck, and kiss him harder than ever before – desperate for some affirmation of life and love and security.

When I was five years old, Uncle Dustin came into my life. He started dating my Aunt Heather, and I remember liking him because he was tall, and happy, and threw his head back when he laughed. There was no new gadget too expensive or experience too large if it would make the people around him happy. When he had children, he taught them to be generous too. The twins like to buy me ice cream or win me prizes, even though they are still too young to have much money of their own. Dustin always cracked jokes, played pranks, and loved to have a beer with his friends. He was a good cook who loved spicy food. He worked tirelessly to provide for his family, and in the end this is what we blamed for his death – the stress and long hours of being a car salesman. In my memory, he has a beer belly and never stops smiling. His eyes crinkled when he laughed. Dustin was the kind of uncle every kid is excited to grow up and hang out with—the one that shows you the best mixed drinks, tells you how not to get in trouble if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, and unceasingly encourages you to go after your craziest ideas if only for the chance to make memories. I thought that in a couple years, when I was really an adult, he would share more of those things with me and we would be friends.

I was excited to have that relationship with him. I didn’t get to.

His funeral was three days after his death. My family told me not to come. They told me not to leave, to finish the show. They knew I didn’t have an understudy; there was no way I could leave. They told me he would have wanted me to finish it.

I have never wanted to dance less in my life.

Sometimes I get scared now when I get an unexpected call from a family member. It’s like that little worm of fear never vacated its dark corner of my mind. There are so many I still care about, so many still to die. And soon to die. My Great Aunt Marge has ALS, and we are running out of time in her prognosis of two years. My Great Grandma Gish, who was one of the bossiest and strongest women I have ever known, is half lost in dementia but still holding on for now. And everyone else is prone to the fatal accidents that happen to someone every day.

Sometimes I feel anxious when people are later than they anticipated. I have the tendency to jump to the worst scenario, and I start to panic if my loved ones can’t confirm that they are safe. I fear that I have somehow lost them before I was ready. I notice this problem most with my parents, because I am an only child and I am terrified of facing their deaths alone.

When I look back at my memories of the people I have lost, I realize that I remember their happiness. Their laughs and smiles, the jokes they made and what made them happy. I remember their presence and personality, the bodies that I hugged and kissed. I remember, in essence, what made them seem most alive. And when they are stretched out in a casket, those people I lived with become things. I don’t understand what is to be gained from seeing someone like that, unmoving, unable to laugh or smile. And then the memory of this thing is suddenly connected to the wonderful memories of their life, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I don’t want to know that there isn’t anything in that body anymore. I don’t want to lose my memories of them behind this last memory of a dead body, missing all the most important parts, missing the movement that made them alive.

I don’t want to remember them like that.

When the lights blinded me for the performance that ran at the same time as Uncle Dustin’s funeral, I reached for him. In a dance of swirling fabric and bright lights, a whirl of movement and beauty and life, I mourned his death. In the solo, which had never had a meaning to me in rehearsal, I gave him tribute. The sound of the guitar swelled around me as I reached upwards, spun, balanced on one foot, extended my leg high in the air, and moved through the forms I had trained in since I was a little girl. There was nothing to do about death but move on with life, and dancing was the movement I was made for. This was the most powerful way for me to pay my respects, something staring at an open casket could never equal. I gave myself up to an outpouring of the soul and emotions that would not be contained. My family wasn’t there, but I danced for them, for our grief and love. I don’t know if I danced well, I don’t know if I even did the right steps, but that day – more than 100 miles away from the other mourners – I gave him a funeral of my own.