Top Ten Tips For First-Rate Funeral Behavior

In 2003 my mother died, and then my father died, and then my divorce was final, and I also turned 50. Some other stuff happened, too, but these things were earth-shattering, taken all together within a five-month period, and they all signaled a death... death of youth, parents, a long-term marriage.

I was beside myself with grief in 2003, and confessed to my editor, Liz Van Doren at Harcourt, that I was no longer a writer, that I couldn't write anything worth reading anymore, that I couldn't concentrate on anything but staying afloat, making a living in the world, and taking care of my kids. I had been plunged into this period of loss at the end of 2000, just weeks before my first books, FREEDOM SUMMER and LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER were published. My then-husband came to me in December of 2000, right after the launch party for FREEDOM SUMMER, and used the words "internet" and "soul mate." I thought my life was over.

I had no idea that it had just begun. Again. I had to learn -- again -- that every ending is a new beginning. I had to believe it. Cling to it. I learned to navigate a new world of my own making, as I began to find my way in schools, at conferences, with the new books in the world asking for attention, and eventually I began to write again.

"Put Elvis in a drawer," said Liz, referring to my novel in slow, fitful progress, "and make me a promise. You are forgetting you are a writer. Writers write. I want you to sit at your computer every day and ask yourself this question: 'what can I write?'. Will you do that?"

I promised her I would. And I did. And from that promise came EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. I watched my mother waste away in front of me, and all I could think about was loss, loss, loss, when I heard a girl's voice: "I come from a family with a lot of dead people." I wrote it down. I dated the page. It was May 3.

I wrote ten pages filled with a loving, eccentric family who lived above a funeral home in Snapfinger, Mississippi. The little girl's name was Comfort, for I needed a lot of comfort. I sent the pages to Liz. She sent me a note, two words: "Keep Going."

And I did. I wrote through my 50th birthday on May 7, my mother's death on June 6, my father's death in September, the divorce decree in October; I wrote in airports and in hotel rooms and in bed. I wrote as I watched my youngest child graduate from high school, as I sold the house I had lived in for 25 years, as I moved from Maryland to Georgia, as I watched my old dog die... I wrote and wrote, and as I did, I began to laugh again.

Comfort was a sassy young lady. She thought she knew everything about death, right down to her Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Funeral Behavior, which I'm going to list here today, because I need them.

My friend Coleen Salley died yesterday. As I wrote to some friends, Coleen was a true champion of children's literature and its creators and caretakers. Her body of work (i.e. children's books) was small but significant. She was a storyteller extraordinaire, a professor and maven of children's literature, and a ferocious advocate for children and their tender hearts. She gave her whole self, her entire marvelous heart, to those she loved, and I was only one of very many who loved her right back.

I've written about Coleen so often on this blog that I won't repeat myself. You can revisit those posts here, though, if you want to. I did. Next Saturday morning, Sept. 27, there will be a jazz funeral in New Orleans, for Coleen. The Queen wanted it that way. I expect we'll all be on our best behavior:

Special to the Aurora County News
(Mr. Johnson: Please print this whenever you've got a slow news day)

Top Ten Tips for First-Rate Funeral Behavior

Life Notices and Tips by Comfort Snowberger:
Explorer, Recipe Tester, and Funeral Reporter

1. You don’t have to wear black to a funeral. Any old color is fine, just don’t wear a wedding dress or your torn shorts. No bare feet or flip flops. Comb your hair. The deceased (a fancy word for the person who died) will wear more makeup than all the mourners combined, so if you run out of time getting ready to come to the funeral, don’t worry about makeup.

2. Let’s talk about the deceased. The deceased lies, all dressed up, in the open casket (which is a nice word for a coffin) with his hair combed better than he ever combed it when he was alive. During the viewing, which happens the day before the funeral, people wander up to the open casket and stare at the deceased and say things like, “He looks so natural,” which is silly, because he DOESN’T look natural, he looks dead. But that’s okay, he’s supposed to be dead. But don’t say, “He looks so dead,” that’s not a good idea. Some people are queasy about looking at the deceased. Don’t worry about it. He doesn’t mind.

3. A visitation, which happens right before the funeral, is a time for folks to visit the family and to offer them comfort. The casket is closed during the visitation, so if you don't want to see your dead one laid out in the open casket, just come to the visitation and not the viewing. People who come to the viewings, visitations, and funerals are called the mourners (that’s you). The folks who are related to the person who died are called “the family” (they are also mourners). In Snapfinger this can be most of the folks in town. Be nice to the family and talk to them. At the viewing they are usually standing in The Serenity Suite next to the open casket (where the deceased is lying) and wishing the deceased would sit up and talk with them, but of course the deceased isn’t talking, so you have to do the talking. Here’s what to say to the family during the viewing, visitation, and funeral time: “I’m so sorry.” That’s all. Then move on. Don’t say, “He’s gone to a better place,” or “You must be relieved,” or “That shirt doesn’t go with those pants.”

4. This is not a good time to remind the family that the deceased owes you money.

5. You will find boxes of Kleenex stationed all around the visitation room. At Snowberger’s, there are also handkerchiefs available. Don’t fake your crying like some folks do – it’s impolite and people can tell. On the other hand, don’t genuinely sob so much that you call attention to yourself (you know who you are). The visitation is also a good time for laughing and remembering funny stories about the deceased. A visitation is sort of like a sad party, with the deceased being the center of attention.

6. Take all arguments and fist fights outside to the parking lot.

7. Here’s the order of events on the day of the funeral. One: Visitation at the funeral home for an hour before the funeral service. Two: Funeral service at the funeral home. Three: After the funeral, everybody at the funeral service gets into their cars and drives, in a long line, to the cemetery (you can walk it, but nobody feels like walking on a funeral day). Then there’s a graveside service at the Snapfinger Cemetery. Go to the bathroom before you get in your car to go to the cemetery, in case Preacher Powell gets long-winded at the cemetery.

8. Order flowers from Snowberger’s Flowers next door and they’ll be at the funeral home before you are, where they’ll dress up the visitation room. The family appreciates it (they don’t feel like decorating at a time like this), and they’ll keep the little cards of sympathy that come with the flowers. All the visitors (that’s you) will walk around in The Serenity Suite and read the cards that come with the flowers, to see whose flowers are the prettiest, whose are the biggest, whose are the best-smelling. It’s kind of like a contest. If you don’t send flowers, everybody will notice. Don’t send balloons or candy or presents. This isn’t a birthday party, it’s a funeral. Just send flowers.

9. Bring a covered dish of food with you to the funeral home. At Snowberger’s there is always a covered dish dinner back at the funeral home after the graveside service. Favorite dishes: Chicken casseroles and Jell-O molds of all colors and descriptions, anything with mandarin oranges in it, Vienna sausage and Ritz cracker trays, pimiento cheese sandwiches (cut into triangles), and dog treats for Dismay, Funeral Dog Extraordinaire. Nobody eats the asparagus or Brussels sprouts, and I don’t know why anybody would bring those to a covered dish supper (unless they’re just so depressed that they need to bring depressing food), so those of you who bring these unpopular dishes, please stop. Also, just a gustatory note (as Florentine Snowberger would say)-- you can never have too many brownies. Bring your recipes, too. The recipes for all these dishes and more will be printed in the forthcoming Fantastic (and Fun) Funeral Food for Families and Friends, by Florentine and Comfort Snowberger.

10. Remember that death is a natural thing – it’s all around us, as Edisto Snowberger always said. Don’t try to hide death from kids. If Grandpa has died, don’t say, “We lost Grandpa,” because little kids will want to know why don’t you go look for him. Just say “Grandpa died.” Don’t say “Grandpa passed” either, because we’ll wonder what grade he was in. Just say he died. We get it. Kids are better at death than grown ups give them credit for unless the kid is Peach Shuggars. Discourage Peach Shuggars from coming to your funeral. Discourage Peach Shuggars from visiting Snapfinger, Mississippi. Discourage Peach, period.