Aunt Ruth was the meanest, craziest and most beautiful of all my mother's sisters. That’s saying something. They all were, mostly beautiful and mean, I mean. She was also the last to die at 98. The graveside service last month was attended by eight people including the pastor and two men from the funeral home named for our distant relatives. Aside from low attendance it was marred only by fire ants and my persistent thought that the grave wasn’t very deep.
The absence of pallbearers necessitated a brief up-slope struggle from the hearse with the heavy coffin involving all the men in attendance and the backhoe operator. My newly met cousin was out of breath. He wore a short brimmed grey felt cowboy hat and, except for the hand-tooled leather smartphone case, looked and sounded like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
When the pastor asked us for remarks and remembrances this cousin, still huffing and puffing, said he thought it was sad a woman who’d lived there all her life didn’t have enough people to carry her to her grave. He was a little emotional at this point and the rest of us were studying the texture of the fake grass. I wasn't alone in thinking I knew why no one was there. She was unpleasant, to be generous. And she was very old. You can be old or you can be mean but apparently you can’t be both. Not if you want a good turnout at your funeral.
We all sat in the front row under the shade tent. It felt like the folding chairs were far too close to her big green coffin. No one said anything remotely unkind. But over lunch we all told tales. Like her phone calls. We’d all gotten them. She talked and didn’t stop. Fast. Verbal hurricanes full of toxicity. Turns out we, all of us, would put the phone down for ten, twenty, thirty minutes at a time. She’d still be going. Her rants were about things none of us could remember now. Though one cousin recalled an hysterical accounting of the major appliances in her kitchen.
The grave looked more like three, maybe three and a half feet deep, tops. We'd seen it the day before - before they put down the fake grass and set up the frame used to lower the casket. But stamping at fire ants in the heat dizzy with hunger I might have misjudged and was now prone to give the backhoe guy the benefit of the doubt. He'd carried her coffin so I wouldn't have to.
The pastor’s remarks about resurrection led me to believe it didn’t matter. He evoked the image of dead rising out of graves multiple times getting more detailed and using the verbal rhetorical tic, “You know what?” “This place is quiet now, but you know what? Soon everyone here will rise!” “There are few of us here to remember our sister now but you know what? This will be a lively place on Judgement Day!” I felt strangely relieved. Maybe it was an evangelical tradition - a shallow grave to help her elbow her way out of there.
Arms length from a big green coffin sharpened my insight into what constitutes a good life lived. And my resolve to be cremated.