I always try to choose forgettable names when I sign the guest books–Daryll Clark, Tim Miller, Brian Evans, Ken Adams, and the like. No Felixes, Macs, Jethros..Everests. I don’t come to intrude or be remembered or be recognized. And I don’t come for the food and drinks that often follow. It’s not that kind of a ruse, and it’s only a ruse because it has to be a ruse; otherwise I wouldn’t use an alias at all.
I expected this one to be a fairly large turnout. Gloria Johnson was a beloved member of her church and retired high school English teacher leaving behind two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. My presence would be of little consequence–I could easily blend in.
Oklahoma City is no huge metropolis, but it’s large and sprawling enough that I had not been detected as a funeral crasher (I prefer visiting mourner) except maybe by one of the more popular funeral directors in the area, but who was he to say anything? They want as many warm bodies in the service as possible.
I had made a science of arriving at the most opportune time to go unnoticed and still find good parking and a favorable seat–close enough to smell the lilies and hear the soloist, but not in such a prominent seat as to make a spectacle of myself as I’d done once early in my…endeavors. Rule number one: never outmourn the family.
The line for the guest book was only a distant cousin, a pillar-of-the-church power couple, three chatty old school chums, and a vice-chair of a woman’s prayer circle deep. I’ve learned to spot certain types. Prayer Circle went a little heavy on the rose water and exhibited a showy sort of sympathy–tilting her head, knitting her eyebrows, smiling warmly at anyone who walked by. There is no substitute for sincerity. Better to offer nothing at all.
The ushers were hired-hands from the funeral home–pros. The family was taking no chances on the local ushering talent–in my experience, a wise move. They spoke with confidential, soothing tones as they subtly but surgically directed people to an even distribution while reserving the first two rows for the family. These men in their dark suits, official funeral-home usher name pins, and just a splash of fatherly after-shave knew precisely how, when and where to seat late-arriving mourners and were prepared to play the role of bouncer in the rare case it was needed. No one expects to have to eject someone from a funeral, but when it needs to happen, you’ll be glad to have a pro.
A greeter from the church chaperoned the makeshift guestbook station as I approached. This might be my first interaction as Michael Jacobs–or should it be Jacob Michaels. She was very hands on; an unnecessary, but cordial touch.
“Feel free to leave a word or two of condolence. It means a lot to folks,” she said, turning the page for me and directing my attention to the holstered decorative, silver ball-point pen next to the book.
I took the pen and signed Michael Jacobs, Miss Johnson taught me how to write on mothers and journeys and far off lands, but more importantly she wrote on my heart, may she rest in peace. “Anything I can do to be of comfort,” I said, returning the pen to its place.
“Has your party been seated?” said the usher, respectfully touching my arm.
“I am on my own today…” I said, squinting at his tag. “Greg.”
He handed me a bulletin and gestured precisely to the middle rows of the right wing of pews and said in his low, velvety voice, ”Anywhere you are comfortable, sir.”
A true professional.
I checked my watch. I estimated the organist was in mid-prelude. She sat with her back to the sanctuary with pipes rising before her; occasionally peering at the rearview mirror to monitor the progress of the seating. With one hand and a foot, she held the final chord of Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” while she shifted the next score in front of her and rolled straight into “In the Garden.”
I took my seat and pulled a neatly pressed, snow-white linen handkerchief from the left breast pocket of my dark blue poly-wool suit. I removed my glasses and wiped the lenses and nose bridge, refolded the handkerchief and returned it to my pocket. In my right breast pocket, I kept a pristine handkerchief to offer a fellow mourning should the occasion arise.
It was a standard “Celebration of Life” bulletin with a fifteen year-old church directory pic of Gloria on the front–after the husband passed, but before the weight loss and cataracts. She was a lovely woman; a master of the directory pic–no doubt from decades of school staff and church member photo sessions–chin level, slight tilt of the head, a glimmer of warmth in the eyes, and just enough part in the smile to show teeth but not reveal whether or not they were dentures.
I opened the bulletin. On the left was Dylan Thomas’ stirring poem “Do Not Gentle into That Good Night.” An English teacher to the end. On the left was a brief order of service–a greeting, opening scripture (John 11:25 I am the Resurrection and Life), a soloist, etc. And on the back was the part I treasured most: the obituary. I’d skimmed it in the Sunday paper already, but only just. I did not want to take away from the experience.
Born July 15th, 1936 Died October 25th, 2020. 84-years-old. She’d been preceded in death by her husband, Garland Johnson. Garland. A very unusual name for a man…cheery. Did he live into it? Perhaps carve woodland creatures for children at a church Advent crafts gathering? She’d taught English and creative writing until she was 70 years old– nice number of completion. She must have had a sense of numeric significance. She’d devoted her last years to quilting and singing alto in the choir. She’d been a widow for sixteen years.
Every person is extraordinary in some way and sometimes it takes a funeral to know it. As I studied her obit, I could see the reflections of something extraordinary. It was not a resume of her life’s accomplishments as one often sees. But accomplishments were listed. Her son, Eldridge, sang lead roles at some of biggest opera houses in the country and abroad. Two of her students wrote bestselling novels. Three of her grandchildren were National Merit Scholars. And her husband, Garland, had been dean of the University of Oklahoma School of Law for thirty-four years. There was something extraordinary here.
A door to the left of the chancel opened and a tall woman with a silver bob haircut, black robe and a simple, elegant ivory satin stole with a black crosses embroidered on each side walked in, climbed the steps and took center-stage. More so than the greeters, the ushers, the mourners, the bulletin, or the music, she would set the tone of the service. I turned and looked up the aisle. The family was lining up in the foyer. A mother straightened her young son’s suit jacket. A middle-aged man spoke quietly with an usher. Then a man of slight stature and stately posture, took a place at the head of the line–likely the eldest son. I returned my attention to the front. The pastor raised her hands, palms facing up, a gentle smile on her face, and everyone stood.
As the family processed, the organist shifted to “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It complemented the pastor’s gentle smile. I did not gawk at their entrance. They deserved some level of privacy even in their public expression of grief, but I knew that many of Gloria’s family would not be experiencing much of. It’s tough to lose a Grandma…no, Granny? No. Well it’s tough to lose a grandparent, but…Gee Gee? But at her age, a passing can be a peaceful event for a family. Granny G—no, a little too hip.
The pastor, Reverend Parker, gestured for us all to sit, and there was a collective woosh of dresses and suits and a few clunks of dress shoes taking their place.
The Reverend held an open Bible aloft in her right hand and the other raised in kind open-palmed.
“I am the resurrection and the life ,” she began, with tender might. “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
Flawless. Didn’t even glance at the words. A bold and effortless start. Next up: soloist. I was grateful that this was coming early. The anticipation of the potential for disaster is quite disconcerting to me. Rarely have funeral disasters occurred because of officiants, ushers, families, or organists. Singing a funeral is a difficult job even for seasoned pros. Getting just the right song, in the right key, with the right arrangement or backing track is a difficult job for someone who is used to downing a shot of Cuervo Gold and telling the DJ to cue up “anything by Carrie Underwood, y’all” as their primary singing outlet. We’ve all been at that funeral where the best you can do is pretend that you are deep in prayer for the family when you’re really desperately praying to make it through the last chorus of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” knowing that she’s never going to reach that last flyyyyyyyyyy.
As the pastor returned to her seat, a frumpy, diminutive woman of approximately seventy years of age approached the pulpit with a black, three-ring binder held dutifully to her side. At moments like these, I gauge the congregation’s reaction. Was she a member of the church? A member of the family? A paid soloist? I discreetly scanned the sanctuary as she opened her binder onto the pulpit and put on her reading glasses. The family did not move, but a dozen or so men and women throughout the congregation shifted in their seats and suddenly became very interested in their bulletins. This was a member of the church and people knew what was coming.
I took a deep breath and prayed quietly for a simple hymn–”Softly and Tenderly” or “Amazing Grace”–but when the organist began her soft-handed, arpeggiated introduction, my stomach tightened. I recognized it immediately as the grandest, most-likely-to-end-in-a-flaming-wreckage funeral song of all time: Malottes’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer.”