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It is a cold, wet day as black-clad mourners file into the chapel. The people shuffle through the door with those awkward steps that often accompany uncomfortable social situations. Half-smiles and hushed remarks of consolation are exchanged. Several of the older women are shedding repressed tears of public sorrow, and the older men remain stoic, as their upbringing stifles all visible signs of emotion. The younger members of the crowd share a distant gaze, indifferent to the muted suffering of the elder generation around them.

An older gentleman, perhaps in his early 70ís, falls in line with the others waiting to enter the stone and wood building. His silver hair is neatly combed and a perfectly trimmed mustache adorns his withered face. With the exception of his dark gray suit, which appears to be about 15 years out of date, his facade is that of a rather distinguished man, perhaps a retired doctor or professor. No one gives him a second glance as he crosses the threshold and enters the chapel.

Just inside the foyer, a pale man with a rehearsed smile hands him a folded piece of paper with a pair of printed hands locked in prayer on the front. He opens the paper and finds the highlights of the expired life, where and when he was born, where and when he died, and so on. The stranger takes notice that the man being laid to rest today died less than fifty miles from where he was born. He wonders if the man had ever traveled beyond those fifty miles.

He takes a seat in the back pew watches the parade of family and friends as they pass by on their way to view the body they have come to bury. Occasionally, a pair of eyes will fix upon the stranger appraisingly, as if wondering who he is. Invariably, he is dismissed as a distant relative or long-lost friend of the deceased. Still, the prying eyes cause him to look away and fidget with the biographical pamphlet as nerves bring a thin layer of sweat to his brow. He is unsure of how the family will react if his intrusion is discovered. He tries to convince himself that it does not matter; there are scores of people here and they canít all know one another.

Before long, family and friends have taken their seats and haunting organ music drifts through the low-ceilinged chapel. Sobs come from all directions in increasing frequency as a tape-recorded choir sings ďAmazing GraceĒ and the casket is closed for the final time. As the heavy oak lid seals the body within, the old gentleman regrets not seeing the man; he might have learned something about him from looking at his face, or perhaps his clothes. It might have prepared him for the barrage of questions that would surely be posed by the family at the conclusion of the service if anyone suspected him as a fraud.

The music ceases with an audible click as the stop button on the tape player is pressed. An ancient man in a priestís collar steps to the pulpit behind the casket and begins to talks of how Jesus was a large part of the dead manís life. He tells of how he joins his wife and stillborn child in the hereafter. The talk slowly morphs into a sermon about the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The stranger begins to wonder if this is a service for the man in the coffin or for Jesus himself.

When the priest is finished, the grandson and a friend of the dead man address the audience. They talk of the manís life, sharing humorous and touching stories of the practical jokes he would play on close friends, or how he was never to busy to help someone in need.

The stranger in the back pew doesnít feel as he knows anymore about the man that he did earlier; no one is going to tell the less flattering details from his life, and those are what truly define the kind of man a person is. However, as he surveys the crowd, he notices frequent tissue use and hears the occasional sob; the man in the casket will be deeply missed. The stranger is envious.

The chapel portion of the service comes to a close and everyone files outside from front to back. Again, the stranger feels the need to avert his eyes from the collective high-pressure gaze of the family. They are on to him, he is sure of it.

Outside, the crowd mills about before moving to a canopied section of the cemetery. As they pass the stranger, some look him up and down. The pressure has become too much for him to bear; he has to get out of this mistake he has made. But, before he can make his escape, a young man, the grandson, looks him in the eye and gives a friendly nod, acknowledging his presence. It is the moment he has waited for: acceptance.

Under the pool table green canopy, family members occupy folding metal chairs with thick covers on them. Artificial turf has been draped over the uneven earth and the flower arrangements have all been moved to place the coffin in a botanical paradise. The stranger takes a position in the back, a good five feet away from the nearest person. He looks at the friends and family of the deceased, making eye contact with a few of them. None of them acknowledge him as warmly as the grandson did and his paranoia begins to swell once more.

The long-winded preacher says a few more words and quotes a few more scriptures, but manages to keep it short. One final prayer and one final hymn, and he tells all those in attendance to ďgo in peace.Ē

As the service concludes, some people head directly to their cars while others break off into groups, presumably to discuss the proceedings. As the stranger turns toward the parking lot, the grandson stops him and asks who he is. A wave of panic rushes over the stranger and his face grows hot. Thinking quickly, the stranger recalls something being said in the eulogy about how the deceased man loved to trade antiques in the autumn of his life. He fabricates a story about being an antique dealer that had done business with the man once upon a time. When asked how he knew about the funeral, he replies truthfully that he had read about it in yesterdayís paper.

The young man, placated by the strangerís answers, introduces himself and offers an invitation to the family home for the post-service gathering. The stranger politely declines, feeling that too much pressure has been exerted on his old nerves for the day. As he head to his car, he secretly relishes the exchange with the young man; the feeling of acceptance that he has not felt in some time.

The old man drives to his home, where no one awaits his return. Standing in the shadow of the main hallway, he empties his pockets onto a small table and hangs his jacket on the coat rack in the corner. He takes the paper he was given at the funeral and reads through it once more before placing it in a drawer with whole host of others just like it.

He goes to the kitchen, starts a pot of coffee, and opens the newspaper to the obituaries. Those people were too suspicious today; or maybe he was just too nervous. Either way, he didnít feel there was any chance of becoming close to any of them.

Perhaps this pursuit is futile, the man thinks as he sighs and begins to fold the paper shut. Before he can finish, the silence in his home becomes deafening with the ghostly sounds of the loved and lost. Loneliness and misery force the paper to reveal the obituaries again. He takes a red pen and circles the listings that interest him; perhaps tomorrow will be better.

"It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything."

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The following comments are for "Funerals"
by kinetickyle

Shock jocks

Excellent story you have here. I was expecting something a bit more morbid or shocking, perhaps a twist ending etc to tell the truth. And the fact that you didn't stoop to the expected and gave me instead a touching picture of an aging man's loneliness and search for acceptance albiet in an unusual and creepy way is what pulled this story above the rank and file. Good show.


( Posted by: Bartleby [Member] On: August 5, 2003 )

similar feelings
Like Penelope, I thought the stranger might have been some lover unknown to friends and family. But the ending really was fabulous to me. It made me think what great loneliness that old man had to cause him to seek out other people's funerals, to feel connected with family and friends...very stirring.

( Posted by: malthis [Member] On: August 11, 2003 )

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