When We Buried Grandma

I often think I have a normal family. I also tend to think that all families are by some means funny in their own right. My family is a bit messed up, not nearly as messed up as some, but still not exactly Hallmark movie ready. As one example, I’d like to tell you the story of my Grandma’s funeral.

Like all stories with my family, it’s probably best for me to toss a couple of disclaimers out first so you understand some background. First, yes this is a funny funeral story. I know I should be sad because my grandmother was dead. Yes, we were sad. However, we also didn’t have much of a relationship with her. She had my father when she was a bit older, so by the time I came around she was well into her seventies. She was into her mid-nineties when she died. Also, for most of my childhood she lived in Ohio, us in Indiana. She couldn’t make long road trips to see us and mom thought my brother and I would probably raise too much hell for too many visits.

When she got to where she couldn’t drive anymore, she went to live with my aunt on my dad’s side down in Arkansas. Grandpa on dad’s side had died when I was an infant, so we really just didn’t see much on dad’s side of the family.

Also, the Spriggs clan is not a tight nit group. I have seen my cousin, aunt and uncle on that side of the family enough times that I can count them on one hand. We’ve never had family reunions (that we’ve been invited to at least). My dad did tell me one time he had an uncle or great uncle that tried to trace the family line back more than two generations. He traced them back to getting off the boat, but wouldn’t tell anyone what he had found.

Dad always bet that he had found out we were all horse or cattle thieves, I always hoped for piracy. For whatever reasons they may be, I couldn’t tell you anything about the Spriggs side of my family beyond two generations.

Now the other reason we may not know that much is that we are the black sheep. Dad’s side of the family were all, supposedly, devout Catholic. Dad met mom back in the seventies on the company bowling league. I don’t know all the ins and outs of their courtship. I did once hear the story of his exit of the Catholic church. He decided he was going to ask mom to marry him, but she’s a Baptist. So, dad took a little trip back to his hometown, a little city over the border in Ohio. He saw the Catholic priest in town and asked their permission to marry outside the church. The response he got was basically yes, with the condition that he and mom sign contracts to raise us catholic. He, for whatever reason, decided that wasn’t a choice he’d just make for all of us blindly. I like to think there was some bad-assery there and he threw a match that blew up a nunnery as he walked away.

However there were no smoldering nunneries in town when we went for grandma’s funeral, so I assume it was just normal bad-assery.

So, we were the family outcasts. Let me tell you, it is awesome. So many opportunities for Christmas cards and you don’t even have to worry about getting a disappointed look because you know it’s already there. Mom and dad ended up raising my brother and myself going to one of the local Baptist churches in town. I don’t know if there was any good Baptist church to be honest about it. I always just remember being told I was going to hell for this and hell for that. Most of the time, mom got on a kick to take us to church if my brother or I started cursing around them too much. I don’t think it was too big on my parents either. Mom always liked to prank the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses when they’d come by.

“Excuse me ma’am, we’d like to talk to you about the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, do you have a religion?”

“Well, my husband’s an ex-communicated Catholic, I’m Baptist, the boys both have Jewish names from the old testament, we’re pretty sure the oldest actually worships the old ones from some place called Riley? He said it in tongues one night, anyway the youngest we’re not sure about, but he keeps saying something about killing frost giants with a hammer. Any my dad just pulled in, don’t bother, he’ll ask you if you’re one of those ‘bible humpers’.”

That’s where our story begins, with the background that my family has a diverse religious background that doesn’t blend well with the extended family. Fast-forward a number of years and you’ll get to grandma’s death.

Grandma died in Arkansas, but was supposed to be laid to rest at the cemetery next to grandpa back in Ohio. When you have limited means as a family, you start to see options like shipping a casket and body cross-country as a bit of a luxury. Dad also tried to tell me my aunt and uncle weren’t keen on the idea he had of tossing the casket in the back of a mini-van and rigging the arm to wave at passing cars on the interstate. The plan was set that my aunt and uncle would have grandma cremated in Arkansas and they’d bring her remains back to Ohio for a small funeral on a Saturday with the remaining family and friends there, with a short burial after.

This all happened when I was in my early twenties. I either was just out of college or it was my senior year. At the time I was living in Terre Haute, Indiana, the armpit of America as Steve Martin most eloquently put it. My brother was living nearer to Indianapolis and my parents were still living in our hometown of Frankfort, Indiana. We all got the news and the plans and decided to make one big family trip out of it. We would drive over together on Friday, stay in a hotel, get a nice meal, bury Grandma on Saturday and head back. My brother and I met up at my parents house on the Friday prior to the funeral around noon. I brought a small bag of clothes and my suit, he did the same, my parents had been finishing packing their items when we showed up. While I was waiting, I decided to partake in the time honored tradition of anyone coming home from college and I raided their fridge. I ended up only getting a glass of orange juice because dad was trying to rush to get us on the road.

The trip from Frankfort, Indiana to Celina, Ohio is about a three hour drive with breaks. My parents stopped taking my brother and I on long car trips when we were about nine and twelve for certain reasons. Those reasons were that we would either fight constantly or get into really goofy stories back and forth and take things annoyingly too far. We were too old to fight in the back seat of a Hyundai SUV, so we had to opt for being completely annoying. This happens to be a genetic trait passed down from my father, he enjoyed joining our “discussions”.

Unknowingly, my mother started it. We were about an hour into the drive and exhausted the normal small talk about how things are going and what not. We passed by a sign somewhere, and it triggered something in mom’s memory, some sign about Limberlost. Mom asked if we ever read a novel or seen a movie called “The Girl of the Limberlost”. No we hadn’t, but that didn’t stop my brother and I from making it up. The next half hour of the drive was our speculation about was she limberlost because she had lost her limbs? Was she a leper? Maybe there was a bear involved? Was the actual spelling Limb Bear Lost? Did the bear now have her lost limbs? I think it was when my brother or I asked if it was a double entendre and what part did the bear or the limbs signify that my mother threatened to throw of us both off the next bridge.

The next person to speak was dad. He posed an interesting question to us. How do we think they’ll bury grandma? It was something none of us had considered and he brought up a very good point. Now, I can’t be very clear on the mental process of my father, but, being an accountant, he is a practical man and this was a practical concern. Go out to a cemetery and watch a grave being dug these days. We used to live by one and my brother and I would see graves being dug in the summer when we were out riding bikes. They don’t dig by hand anymore with a shovel and spade, usually it’s by some form of heavy machinery owned by the graveyard, mortuary or whoever provides that service.

But this was different. Grandma wouldn’t be in a casket, there were just cremated remains. The fact that we were burying them and not spreading them to the winds seemed a bit odd too. We decided maybe it would depend on an urn. Was there an urn? Well, there had to be an urn, how else would you transport cremated remains, we’re not heathens. So, now we knew there should be ashes and an urn, you wouldn’t need to get the Bobcat out for that. My brother and I settled on a shovel and a hole maybe a few feet deep. Dad bet on a pair of fence post diggers. Mom just rolled her eyes.
About the time we crossed the state line and about 20 minutes from Celina, something shifted. It started to feel like a bomb was going off in my guts and I let out some of the most pungent gas I can remember up to that point in my life. I was thoroughly chastised for this from my brother, at least for not warning him first. The smell was rank and we had to go the last part with the windows rolled down and the threat that I’d be tied to the roof.

We got to the hotel and checked in, at which point I went to the room my brother and I were sharing and, to put it bluntly, wrecked the toilet. A half hour later, I felt like a new man. I met them back in the lobby and we drove around town a bit and settled on a place for dinner. Over dinner, my father asked my mother to please remind him to throw out the orange juice when they got home, it had gone past it’s expiration date by two weeks already and he kept forgetting. The mystery of my intestinal trauma now unraveled and I accused them of trying to poison me while they chided me about having raised a smarter person that should know to check expiration dates.

We argued in good fun over our shared misery and wrapped up dinner, headed back to the hotel and got some sleep.

The following morning we got ready for a funeral. My brother, dad and I were all in black suits, white shirts, polished shoes and tasteful neckties. My mom wore a dress, I can’t recall much about it, but it was mourning appropriate. Dad had gotten a call from our Aunt, and our Aunt and Uncle (her husband, dad only had the one sister) were about to town. So we headed down to the Catholic church to get our seats. We were meeting the priest and talking to a couple of surviving great aunts and extended family when my aunt and uncle arrived. I don’t like to criticize people’s attire, but they looked more like they were ready to make a 2:00 tee time than they were going to a funeral.

They came up to us while we were talking to the priest, we said our greetings as I hadn’t seen this aunt and uncle since I was seven and their daughter nearly shattered my wrist in a door. I noticed my aunt was carrying a box. The box was about ten inches long and about 3 inches wide and deep. It reminded me of a box you’d use to carry baseball cards or Magic The Gathering cards in. I kicked my brother, he kicked me back. I nodded at the box. The priest moved us into the vestibule of the church. Once inside, my aunt handed the box to the priest. I guess this was supposed to be a social norm, but neither I nor the priest were in on it. We saw the priest open the box, and shut it immediately. The next two lines are my clearest memory of what was said in whispers.

“Is there an urn?”

My aunt looked mildly shocked, “Oh God, Father, have you seen the price of those things?”

My father heard it too and we had to get sat down to even figure out what to do next. Grandma was in a plastic bag, in a baseball card box. Yep.

The memorial service went nicely, neither my brother or I burst into flames, and they didn’t ask for a young priest and an old priest. Then it came time to head to the cemetery. A few more people had left and a smaller group ended up at the graveside service. We got to the headstones where grandpa was already buried, and a small section of earth was carved out for grandma to be deposited. Over the years, new housing developments had sprung up closer to the cemetery in Celina and some kids were playing in a back yard nearby.

The priest read some scripture, and my mom started to grimace. She hid her face in her hands and I nudged my brother. This was strange for mom to start crying now at this, she wasn’t really close with grandma after all. But we soon understood as she wiped a small tear from her eye and pointed past the priest when no one was looking. There, standing next to an old elm tree, not twenty yards away, were a set of dirty old fence post diggers. At about the same time, the priest hit Psalm 96:11 “And let the heavens rejoice”, and some 10-year-old on a trampoline nearby let out a blood-curdling scream that lasted no less than 30 seconds. We did our damnedest to keep a straight face for the last few minutes of the service. We excused ourselves from the extended family that asked if we’d like to join them for lunch somewhere and opted to get a pizza and hit the road.

Now, when someone tries to tell you that all funerals are sad, you can tell them, “hey that reminds me of this story, and it starts with a bad glass of orange juice and some poor girl that lost her limbs.”

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