Bury me in red, Langston said. Bury me in red, ‘cos there ain’t no sense in my bein’ dead.
The line echoed in my head, giving me an absurd smile as I handed over the tastefully bagged blue underwear and bra that my mother would wear to her funeral. It had been more difficult than I would have imagined, trying to decide how sexy my mother’s last pair of underwear ought to be. The racy tiger stripes? The granny panties that she’d worn on church days? She had been young, only forty-eight, and I thought she should have something youthful. Instead, I settled on a new pair made of soft cotton that I knew wouldn’t embarrass her. They were good quality, a recent purchase that I found in her top dresser drawer.
“But what is the underwear for?” I had wanted to know. I tried to imagine the procedure for moving underwear over the heavy limbs of a corpse. Did it take two people? Was it a one man job? Would they insist on women to perform this last, most intimate function? Should I insist? My mother, always shy, would have preferred women, but she wasn’t much up to giving opinions these days.
“It’s to maintain the shape of her clothes. You were used to seeing her with her underwear on, so it would look strange if she didn’t wear any.” The funeral director, a woman with the same name as my oldest friend, has beautiful dark eyes. Her voice is soft and rich. These are good qualities for her profession.
“Does she get cremated in them? I thought corpses were cremated naked.”
“The crematorium will remove her clothes before the cremation.”
Her pastor is a large man that I barely know, whose diabetes makes him offer sugar-free gum in times of grief. He showed up at her house the day after she died and has told me what to do ever since, a service for which I am deeply grateful. He opens his mouth to speak, to console me by stopping the conversation, but I cannot yet be consoled. I want details, because I am my mother’s daughter.
“What do you do with the clothes after?” I ask the kind and beautiful eyes. “Please tell me that you don’t donate them.”
A tasteful little smile turns up the corners of her mouth. “No,” she agrees. “We don’t donate them. We dispose of them.”
The words they use are carefully neutral. The cremation. The remains. Dispose. “Fluids,” I say, nodding wisely.
Her death had been unexpected. We’d intended to be Christmas shopping that day, dragging our too-similar bodies through masses of Macy’s devotees. Instead, I had driven across four state lines to a hospital to discover the soft susurrus of her respirator. On the wall hung a dry erase board, where someone helpful had written her name. I crossed it out and wrote Mom instead.
A nurse had poked her head into the room, then quickly withdrew, returning with a tiny doctor in a long lab coat. In the hallway, the tiny doctor showed me the miracle of technology that let the respirator breathe air into the core of the body, but not the arms and legs. “Would you want to amputate,” she had asked, with the casual attitude that I have often been asked if I want sparkling or still, “if it comes to that?”
It didn’t. Better to lose without heavy casualties, I’d thought, so the next day I called the nurse. She returned with a man with tools, who quietly and professionally pulled the respirator out. I watched my mother turn blue, then walked out into the humid southern air to find where she had parked her car. Driving in endless circles around the hospital lots, I read plate after plate after plate.
The coffin is rented and I have to fight not to laugh at this absurdity.
We are in her church, at the funeral, the only pink faces in a sea of browns. The turnout is three times the size of the wake and I am glad for it, even as I wonder who this woman that they call Sister Maddie was.
“You must be the family.” Bags of bath salts and cards are pressed into our hands. More strangers hug me in an hour than in all the other hours of my life combined.
“However could you tell?” I ask with a laugh.
Every time I look at the coffin where her carefully underwired body lies, I see the list that the funeral home gave me to choose from. Each model had a hotel-worthy title — The Viceroy, The Chancellor, The Marquis — with a price tag to match such grandiosity. I have told everyone that I rented one called El Presidente, but I chose The Duke instead, a respectable midrange and promised nine hundred dollars of life insurance money that I have not yet seen for a retrofitting of the fabric bed. Corpses weep, more than I do anyway, so the white sateen lining is replaced between each body. When I close the coffin on her unrecognizable face, I wonder how many other bodies have lain in these wooden walls and how many grieving hands have held the heavy lid and closed it, so softly, like the lid of a piano closing on still keys.
The pastor speaks of her life — painting the portrait of a stubborn woman, who would walk out of the church every time he preached the sins of homosexuality. In the second row, my uncle’s partner lightly squeezes his hand. Later, my uncle talks about the music at the funeral, the beautiful gospel singing. Black churches, they say, nodding to each other with the synchronized habits of old couples. They wonder if anyone recorded it. Someone did, though it takes months for the CDs to get to everyone. I never listen to mine.
One of the singers comes to me, after, and grabs my hand. “Was my song nice?” he asks, squeezing. “I sang it for you.”
“It was no Viking dirge,” I say. “More melody.” I hum a few bars in example. “You see?” Then I realize that he is young, maybe sixteen, and I wonder how many funerals he sings at in a year. Is this his Saturday chore?
I compliment him, then turn as four tall men carry the coffin by, negotiating the church’s steep stairs with easy confidence. My uncle grabs my shoulders and squeezes me against his bony ribcage. I can feel his protection in the warmth of his body, in the blood that binds us.
“It’s like moving a sofa,” I say.
He snorts in laughter, then shakes his head. “You did good, kid,” he says and I nod at the compliment.
It is only later, when I am holding her ashes in an unbelievably light velvet box, that I wonder if he was right.
Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki (firstname.lastname@example.org) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.