Been in America a week. Seen my first corpse. Today, just one week after Halloween.
The temperature’s dropped thirty degrees since I arrived. I know this because there’s a huge sign on the way to Detroit which shows the date and the temperature. “42 F” it beamed, in big red lightbulbs as the traffic–nearly all new cars, nearly all racing, cutting in and out–went speeding past. What was their hurry? Must have been the joy of having a new car in the Motor City. And the joy of being alive.
We were in no such hurry. The person we were going to see wasn’t going anywhere. We were on our way to Laura’s Grandma’s funeral. She was 97 and passed away last weekend, two days after I arrived. I’m sorry I never got to meet her. My grandma died many many years ago and the idea of someone my age having a grandparent is kind of nice. But she had a good innings (as my dad used to say) and you can’t really ask for more than that. People seem to live an awfully long time here in a country which has no big social medical programme.
It had occurred to me as I’d put on my suit earlier that this was only the second time this year I’d worn a shirt and tie, let alone the suit. It was the tie Laura had hunted down for me to dress as Agent Smith last Friday. My first black tie getting its second outing in seven days. The first, Halloween, was just a memory as we locked up and headed out, on to the street where leaves are piled high waiting for the city contractors to come and collect them. No bonfires allowed in Michigan. We passed our remaining pumpkins at the top of the steps, now filled to the grins with rainwater like two small church fonts.
Lunch before we’d left had consisted of Nutella, grape jelly and peanut butter sandwiches. Americans have an unnatural love affair with peanut butter, especially mixed with chocolate. Reese’s pieces. Why? It’s bizarre. Peanut butter and chocolate. No wonder Jimmy Carter became President. That and the evangelical bleem-bleem pearly white smile. These people love a preacher man even more than they love peanut butter.
This proved true when we arrived at the White Chapel cemetary. I thought briefly of Whitechapel, the suburb of London, England. Michigan’s White Chapel comprises an eponymous building with three entrances and a large ornamental pond out the front. The building’s walls strain for a false architectural vanishing point above creating an imposing spectacle alone on the flat, framed by space and sky. Big sky. Gravestones are nowhere to be seen.
Odd for a cemetary not to have gravestones or upright personal markers of any kind. Memorial stones here are set flush with the immaculate lawns to create a tranquil flat vista which mirrors the surrounding Michigan farmland. The landscape is broken only by a few mournful bare trees and occasional vases of flowers–real, not artificial. There’s a sign informing visitors in no uncertain terms “No artificial flowers”. A few leaves blow across the road. Apparently people buy their ‘plots’ here decades in advance. We’re not in St Albans any more, Toto.
We go into one end of the white building, into the chapel. Chapel Of The Flowers. It’s peaceful. Quiet. Marble, soft lights, soft voices, stained glass. Grandma Bird is laid out in the casket which is open. Laura and the boys go forward to see her and Laura quietly talks to the boys about what’s happening. I’m left standing there with Laura’s cousin but frankly, I’ve never seen a dead body before and I’m curious. I want to look. So I do. I go over.
As far as I can tell, she looks just like she’s sleeping, although Laura remarks that she’s very thin. Not like her old self. But this is the only self of hers I’ve ever seen and my eyes keep playing an almost hypnotic illusion there in the dim lighting. As I stare, I’m sure I can see her breathing, which of course she isn’t. I guess it’s just my mind refusing to accept this first-time reality of a non-breathing body.
We sit down to listen to the preacher, a Baptist minister, who knew both Marie and her late husband, Charlie. They were apparently very religious. Laura and one of Marie’s friends said a few words. Laura remembered her Grandma’s banana bread. Then the preacher warmed to his themes, supposedly to commemorate the life of this apparently very spirited lady who’d lived for so long but he also did a fair amount of praising Jesus. We all managed not to sigh as he finished and then started again when he remembered some anecdote that fitted his sermon for this cold wintery day.
It’s the Bible Belt, for sure. And the preacher was as sure as any of us, although I’m not so sure he always knew down which path he was leading us as he imparted his Message. At one point he went off on a tangent about how astronauts could only be a maximum height of six feet because of the size of spacecraft. And he was short, he told us. A short man. But what his point? I’m six foot one. Does this mean I won’t fly to Heaven in a rocket but he’ll get in?
It was all very puzzling. Jack sat with his eight-year-old jaw hanging open, staring at the man, while Sam had his hands over his ears, displaying incredible patience for a six year old, kicking his legs in space and only squirming infrequently. Mom had briefed them at lunchtime that it was a solemn, serious occasion and they appeared to have taken it in. No Nintendo. No fighting. Quiet. Respect.
Me, I sat staring at the stained glass windows, trying to figure out all the symbolism while the words went one way, then another and the wind howled eerily outside the doors. I was swept away on the wings of the ghostly wind, whistling as if on cue to the funeral service. Cold wind, howling round the crypts. My mind wandered to thoughts of the blue in the windows. Blue, deep rich blues.
Ultramarine, that deep colour (or color) beloved of the wealthy patrons of artists who wanted to display their wealth by the inclusion of as much of the hue as they could afford. Which is why the Virgin Mary is always shown in blue. Because it demonstrated that the person commissioning the work had dedicated a significant portion of their wealth to a religious work. Making statements on many levels. “Look how pious I am.” And, “Look how much money I have. How important I am. I can afford ultramarine.”
Ultramarine. Expensive. Expensive because it was made from crushed gem stones. Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli, mined mostly in Afghanistan. And there the preacher stood, in the chapel of marble, speaking in front of a window which in my mind reflected a whole course of history which had led to events now taking place on the other side of the world. Religion, wealth, power. All encapsulated right there in stained glass.
Yet this was all idle musing. We were there to pay our last respects to Grandma Bird, who died this week aged 97. Respects for a life lived with spirit. Wealth and power really mean nothing, in the end. It’s some kind of spiritual connection, whether through religion or with the universe in general, that makes us, poor humans, who we are. Respect for our place in the universe and our connection to it in all its unfathomable vastness.
Today I thought about how impermanent we are, lasting less time than the works we create and the possessions we temporarily own. Cars rust, some survive. People come and go while their manmade buildings and roads remain. At least for a while. Some of the feelings of now come from having divested myself of nearly two thirds of my worldly goods in the past two months. Left my job, house, moved on.
We are here, now, but for a short time. Yet it is all the time in the world. It sounds Zen, which pleases me. Life is magical.
Jack and Sam are oblivious to the Zen on the way home, alternately playing Nintendo and pounding on each other. Mom yells at them to stop but they’re giggling right up to the point where the inevitable happens and one really hurts the other. Sam wails. “He bit my finger!” We can’t make out the rest in the howling. Jack sits quietly, doing the innocent look beloved of siblings everywhere, as we pull up next to the house.
Five minutes later we’re all inside and the wailing has stopped. “Is your finger okay now?” asks Laura. “Yes,” says Sam, looking pleased with himself. “I dipped it in the pumpkin water.” Laura and I look at each other and do the eye-rolling thing. Magical indeed.