I’m not sure which part of my cultural identity–Irish, Polish, or Midwestern–shaped my perception of death and funerals. They’re sad. I’ve cried at them. But I’ve laughed at just as many. Laughter is pretty important to me personally when dealing with grief; jokes are how I cope with the fact that the world is pretty unfair and that none of us makes it out alive.
A newly retired teacher passed away from complications due to diabetes. Everyone kept saying he didn’t even have a chance to enjoy his retirement, which is a real shame. Funerals happen quickly here–there’s no embalming so we get people in the ground with a quickness. Classes were cancelled after 10AM on Monday so that the teachers could visit the deceased’s home and pay their respects. We stayed for perhaps an hour–long enough for the viewing, to greet the family, and eat lunch. This was akin to the wakes I’ve been to in America.
Naïvely, I thought that was all there was to it.
The next day, I walked into the teachers’ lounge after teaching a class to a very excited principal (this is not new or surprising, he’s a smiling and excitable man):
“Cait, you’re going to sing at the event today right?”
“–what? What event?”
“That was yesterday?”
“No, that wasn’t it. Today. You’ll sing right?”
“Sing what? Alone?!”
laughing “No! With the other teachers!”
“Oh. Yeah sure.”
So that’s how I ended up singing at the funeral of a man I’d never met (and is basically how I get roped into everything here: confusion followed by agreement).
Again, classes were cancelled for choir practice–some of my fellow teachers are very, very good and take singing seriously. We rehearsed for only an hour before returning home to get dressed for the funeral later that afternoon. I love being picked up in cars for big events because it usually turns into a clown car situation pretty quickly. With eight teachers stuffed into a small SUV, we headed out.
The actual funeral service was at least an hour and a half long. The teachers stood and sang songs at intervals–it went pretty poorly for us altos as there were only four of us to balance out the ten sopranos. I did a lot of mumbling and probably should have just joined the sopranos but I bumbled my way through. We sounded amusingly bad. Fortunately, as one of my fellow altos gleefully pointed out, the singing group from the deceased’s church also screwed up a few times. There were songs sung and Bible verses read, as well as speeches about the man himself, all sincerely meant but amusingly punctuated by chicken antics: chickens running up the stairs toward the priest, chickens fighting, chickens falling from the roof, chickens strolling up the middle aisle of the bereaved. Funnier to me were the attempts by funeral goers to shoo them, chidingly as if the chickens should know to show more respect for the proceedings. It seemed there wouldn’t be an uninterrupted, solemn moment the whole service long.
The pièce de rèsistance came when it was finally time to close the coffin and lay him to rest. They nailed down the lid, hoisted it onto the shoulders of eight of my fellow teachers, and…it didn’t fit out the door.
Somewhere “Yakity Sax” must have been playing, I swear. Indonesians are greatly embarrassed by things like this; when things go wrong they snap into action to correct the situation as quickly as possible but also you can feel the bystanders enjoying the chaos as they crane their necks and rush closer for a better view of the action. Sometimes I just need to appreciate the silliness of the moment.
I heard varying theories on the coffin problem: “The body rolled to one side of the coffin so it won’t fit out the door straight!” (I imagine a corpse rolling like a soup can). “They didn’t measure right!” (but it fit into the house). To me the problem was obvious–the lid wasn’t flush with the coffin when they nailed it down.
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any more comedic, it hit me: explosive diarrhea. You can’t make this shit up, folks. I managed to make it to the bathroom in time, but only just and only after being misdirected to a shower room with no toilet first. As I exited, two kilos lighter and with as much grace as I could muster, I heard a sound that I slowly identified as the whir of power tools. Sure enough, they sawed off the malaligned side of the coffin lid to fit it out the door. I had to temper the laughter threatening to erupt from me like the diarrhea had moments before.
With the addition of only a few Jewish jokes, Mel Brooks could have written this. Eventually the coffin fit out the door and the dearly departed bapak was accompanied to his final resting place up on a hill behind his house, minus the coffin lid shavings left behind on the front porch. I hope he would have appreciated the comedy of his send off as I did. May he finally rest in peace.