I am what my mother would call a “non-practicing Catholic”—a nice way of saying that I don’t go to church regularly. Truth is I practice my faith daily: I like to think I live the Catholic doctrine of social justice for all; I talk to God every morning and lately all day long.
During Mom’s funeral mass, Father Victor reads a few lines about her from the obituary I wrote. He only knew her slumped in a wheelchair or in bed. Silent. He chose details I suspected he might: she had great faith in the power of prayer, and she shared part of whatever she had. Because of his accent, Mom’s name sounds like “Wirgie” not Virgie. She would love this Indian priest transplanted in the middle of Wisconsin. She’d laugh and laugh at how her name sounded in his mouth.
Father’s message is clear: everyone dies. He tells as that through death, Wirgie was recently born to eternal life, and we will see her again. My husband puts a hand around my waist. He has no way of knowing that he’s holding me up for most of the mass. Though funerals honor the deceased, they serve the living more than the dead. Today I belt out these church songs like I mean them, though I’m more of a “One Toke Over the Line, sweet Jesus” Christian than the “Old Rugged Cross” type. We chose Mom’s favorites, and I owe it to her to sing them loud and proud, even if I’m too sad to sing, even if I’m a terrible singer. Who knew there are five stanzas to “Be Not Afraid”? Today each one is heartbreaking. Blest are you that weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh.
After mass we pile into cars and head for the cemetery. Juliann jumps in my backseat and nibbles on the bagel she pulls out of her purse. Horan’s polished white hearse leads the way. My son says, “You don’t have to stop at stop signs. Just follow the car ahead of you.”
I say, “Because my mom died?” Juliann laughs. It’s not funny to me today.
Between bites she says, “That again.”
The cemetery’s well groomed grass and trees would be inviting if not for all the dead people. It’s a sunny fall day, leaves on the edge of turning orange and red. I’ve never seen a mausoleum up close before. Standing here, all I can think is how much it looks like a three-story concrete card catalogue—an image that most of the people here who are under thirty would not understand. Mom’s coffin will go in a drawer, the tomb, then it will be sealed until my Dad’s is added, we hope many years from now. Today the opening to their crypt is covered with a red velvet curtain.
I stand near Mom’s casket and read the engraved name plates on tombs surrounding my parent’s. They will be in good company, among folks they know from church or the tavern or the bowling alley. Later I’ll tease my dad, “Mr. Tanzer’s gonna be laying on top of you forever. Good thing you always liked him.”
Many friends and family members gather around us. Father Victor says a final blessing and shakes holy water on Mom’s casket. I’ve seen this done in church my whole life, but today I am close enough to notice that the tool in his hand looks like a golden baby rattle. What could it be called? A holy water dispenser? I make a mental note to research the name when I get home. Father hands it to my dad, who shakes holy water on the casket, and then passes it to one of his kids, who passes to another. I won’t know till much later that I held an aspergillum (from the Latin aspergere, “to scatter”). We all bless Mom with holy water for the first time. For the last time.
Then everyone stands around and looks at one another. “That’s it,” Father Victor says.
“Now we eat?” Dad asks. He is exhausted and hungry from the two hours of greeting some 300 guests and then the hour-long mass and the trip here to the mausoleum.
Father Victor nods.
I reach out to touch Mom’s casket one last time. She won’t be entombed as we watch. I know that much about the process. Juliann knocks on the casket. “Bye, Mom,” she says.
“Back to church to eat,” my dad says. Nobody moves. “Soup’s on,” he yells to the crowd. It’s how he used to call us to supper when we were kids.