Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Four Hour Funeral

It all started after the food trucks.

On the way home, I notice what I thought was smoke pouring out of the side of my hood. I pull over and call AAA. Then I open my hood to see tons of steam, and what looks like melted plastic. So I wait for the tow truck to take me home, and as we drive I call for a rental car to be ready at 8am so I can get the car and be at work on time for the 10am meeting I have scheduled. Seems like it will be an expensive but uneventful morning.

Then morning came.

It was a pretty typical beginning, which means absolutely insane. The boys are getting ready at a snail's pace, they don't like breakfast (even though I made what they asked for), they don't want to brush their teeth, they don't want to wear swimsuits because they're not going swimming (even though they go swimming every day and love it), and Natalie is sleeping through most of this because they kept her up at all hours the night before. Finally it's my turn to get ready, and I ask Natalie if she can drop me off at the rental place as soon as the kids get picked up at 8. She says yes, then 8 comes and goes. The kids leave with their nanny, I'm ready to go, but she wants another cup of coffee. Then she wants breakfast. Next thing I know it's 8:50. I call the rental place and ask if they have my car and if they can pick me up.

"Sure," the guy assures me. "I will leave in a minute, as soon as I Mapquest your address. I'll call before I leave."

So I do a mad dash for the shower, shave, dress, and grab my phone. At 9:05 I call the place again.

"Hi, just wondering if you're on your way, it has been 15 minutes since he said he would Mapquest and leave, and I live 2 minutes from you."

"Oh, I'm sorry, we're waiting for more cars. We'll call you when we get one."

"Let me understand. You're waiting for more cars to come get me or more cars to rent?"

"To rent. We're out of cars. We'll call you when someone turns one in. It won't be more than an hour."

I look at the clock. It's 9:20. If I leave in 10 minutes I'll barely make it to work on time. Just then, the nanny comes back and says I can use her car for the day, as long as I get it back on time for her to pick up the kids at camp by 3:45. No problem, I think. I have a funeral that starts at 11:30, and I should be done by 1:30, home by 2:15. Piece of cake.

Famous last thoughts, but I did make it to my 10am meeting on time.

The family had asked that I show up to the funeral home at 11:00 in case anybody wanted to share any last minute thoughts. I told them that was a little early, but they seemed to need it. So I left the synagogue at 11--the funeral home is two minutes away. I sauntered in a little after 11, to warm greetings by the mourners. The entire funeral attendance consisted of the deceased woman's son and daughter-in-law, two of the three granddaughters with their husbands, and all three great-grandchildren, age 6 and below. The 99-year-old deceased woman lived a great life and enjoyed time with her three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her death was sad but not tragic. I had explained to them several time that the service would be very brief. A few psalms, some words of memory, some words of blessing, then we would head to the cemetery. At this point, I was right. We left the funeral home in North Miami Beach at about noon for the hour-long slow drive to Doral.

I made phone calls and marveled at how much nicer the nanny's car is than mine. One of the calls was to the rental place. They still did not have a car for me and would call when they got one. Hopefully within the next hour.

When we got to the graveside, we all pulled over and I got the family settled under the shelter they set up. The funeral director was helping the grave diggers pull the casket out of the hearse, and I walked over to let them know that we would be lowering the casket immediately. I wanted to save a little time and get out of there as fast as I could. After all, I had to return the nanny's car and try to get my rental (even thought the rental place still had not called) or try to get my car fixed.

As I approach the funeral director says, "Did they tell you about our little snag?"

"No," I say as the first drops of worry enter my mind, "what little snag?"

"Well, it seems we have the wrong size casket to fit in the vault."

(A vault is a concrete box that they put at the bottom of a grave to weigh down the casket if the water level rises too much. It is a state law that graves have these vaults. This particular vault is 26 1/2" wide. The casket is 28" wide, plus it had handles.)

Trying not to panic, I ask, "What do we do?"

So the funeral director, the grave diggers, the cemetery director, and I sort of huddle around the grave, looking down at the vault with our backs to the mourners. Occasionally we turn around and smile at them to assure them that everything is going to be all right. There is a great deal of finger-pointing at our huddle between the two directors, and finally they get on the phone to their managers. It turns out that the cemetery only has this size vault, and they tell all the funeral homes that they cannot bury larger caskets in the ground. So the body has to be brought back to North Miami Beach, transferred to another casket, and returned again to Doral. The drive alone should take 90 minutes. I look at a clock. It's already 1:30. I am not going to get home on time.

After frantic calls and texts to my wife and to my assistant, I get all my appointments cancelled, we find a way to get the kids, and I sit down with the mourners. There is no way I am going to get anywhere on time, so I might as well just focus on them. As it turns out, they are really fascinating people. The son is a Hollywood producer. Nothing huge, no blockbusters, but a lot of films I've seen. Very cool stuff. The granddaughters are lawyers, and they do a lot of work for disadvantaged clients on behalf of the state. Even the great-granddaughter had a cool story about her first few days at "clown camp" in the Boston area. We chatted about movies, horses and donkeys, Florida versus Jewish burial law, and the weather (which had gone from thunderstorm to bright shiny day in a matter of minutes--it's Florida). We repeatedly commented that we had never experienced nor heard of anything like this happening before. Oh, and the rental place called to tell me they had a car, but I had to get there fast because there was a line. I asked if they would hold it for me until 4.

At 3:04 the hearse returns with the new casket (a very nice one, I might add). The burial ceremony continues, and by 3:15 we are shoveling dirt graveside. We all waited as the lid was placed on the vault, and then the mourners left. So I followed suit. I went to shake hands with the son, the new eldest of the family. He ignored my hand, opened his arms, and took me in to a huge hug. Not a slap-the-back hug either, but a real, warm hug. It spoke greater volumes to me than the conversations we had as we waited, and meant much more.

I got in the nanny's car at 3:35, after four and a half hours with this family. I was tired and hungry, but at the same time felt like I had made a connection with nine really cool people. It was an interesting afternoon, to say the least.

As for my car, it needs a new engine. The melted plastic apparently used to be something pretty important. As important as the indicator that tells you if your engine is heating up, it would seem.

3 comments:

Siddhartha said...

Great story - a true testament of all facets of your life - the balance of father, husband, rabbi, mourner, car owner, rental car customer, patience, frustration, Jew, American, Floridian, planner, victim to chaos, and my favorite dichotomy - both the narrator and character of the story...

Thanks for sharing

alone2young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

What a nice story. It just goes to show you if you can take the time to slow down and really connect with people you can learn a lot. You had a lot more patience than I would have had with the rental agency.