The Long Goodbye: Death be Not Like Everyone Else's
My friend Carol was chitchatting away, driving through Flower Mound, Texas, with my two sons and me, when she nonchalantly turned her eyes from the road, looked me full in the face and said, "I wrote a list of my funeral songs."
She titled the list, she told me, "Songs for My Funeral," and had left it out on the phone table at home, where she lives with her husband.
"Songs for your funeral?" I said. "Can I drive now?"
Worried looks crossed my sons' faces. Here we go: just another one of Mom's strange friends. But could she be the last one we will ever have to meet?.
"I'm not a kamikaze, don't worry," Carol assured me. "I just want to plan ahead."
"Well and good," I said. "But when your husband sees it, won't he be...surprised?"
While Carol is perhaps not in the first blush of youth, she is fit as a fiddle and fresh as a daisy, and the only sign signalling her possible impairment, and certainly her questionable judgment, was leaving the song list in plain sight where her husband could happen, would happen, upon it. Not that the state of their marriage is my business, but why go to the trouble of compiling a funeral song list in the first place? The music at your funeral is going to be the least of your concerns when you're lying dead in a coffin. You're not going to be dancing to it.
But Carol's my friend, and I humored her. "These are my funeral songs," I offered, in the spirit of the moment. "''Highway to Hell," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and the theme from "Dexter."
But when I took my seat in a pew, I spotted something I could not have anticipated.
"That woman's wearing sequins!" I whispered to an acquaintance, glancing to the right of us. "Look!"
Whom she looked at, though, was not the woman in sequins, but me. "So?" she asked, waiting for an explanation of why I was pointing this out.
"That doesn't seem overdressed to you?" I said. But apparently not, as two more women took their seats in other pews, easy to spot from the shimmer and shine of their sequined dresses. One even had on a great, big (everything's bigger in Texas) sequined hat. I was glad she wasn't right in front of me, blocking my view, which later turned out to be important, though I would have enjoyed examining that hat at close range.
And though I hadn't expected sequins, I had expected the usual convoy of black limos parked outside the church, for the family, but even there was a jolt of culture shock: all I saw were pickup trucks.
While East Coast mourners sit quietly, somberly, heads bowed in prayer and reflection, the people at this church in Texas raised up their hands in jubilation to Jaysus. The pastor talked a great deal about Jaysus. It was a very Jesus-filled day. Hallelujah!
On the East Coast, funeral music is respectful, calm, low-key. "Amazing Grace" is considered a bold choice.
Here in Texas, the song chosen by the departed's relatives took me by surprise. "When We All Get to Heaven" was a rollicking sing-along, clap-along song, at once cheerful and generously optimistic. For those who didn't know the words, like me, supertitles of the lyrics were helpfully projected on the big screen behind the pastor. And I thanked God my view was not blocked by that sequined hat.
What stood out too was that the pastor read a letter aloud from the pulpit, a letter written by the deceased for the occasion.
It got me thinking.
Since we're all of us getting older, some of us seemingly faster than others (in the interest of full disclosure, I'm closer to the younger wave of baby boomers, not the older), we are also doing our damndest not to limp our ways into old age. We tell ourselves, in essays, books and on TV, that 50 is the new 30, and we are determined to prove that's true. One glance at our Botoxed faces, liposuctioned thighs, hot yoga'd chakras and cleansing fasts is the dead giveaway, along with our embarrassing stubborness to insist on knowing the new songs, movies and slang. We're awesome, at least to ourselves.
"You are probably wondering," my letter will start, "why I gathered you all here today." It will go on to highlight people and events of importance in my life; I will think of them later. It will be matchless in its brilliance, its singularity.
The letter will be followed by some songs I would like to go out to, beginning with "I Saw the Light" by Hank Williams, as I am hoping by then I have; "Take Me to the River," sung by either Al Green or the Talking Heads, I haven't decided which yet; and "Wonderful World," covered by Joey Ramone. If those self-absorbed, self-centered (and now old!) baby boomer friends in "The Big Chill" can have a great soundtrack at Kevin Kostner's funeral, I can at mine. Like Peggy's funeral, mine will be fun and festive. Perhaps even rollicking.
I want my funeral to be as unique as a fingerprint, as beautiful as a snowflake.
And I'll be the one dressed in sequins.