Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a cemetery on Halloween? There were no cheap plastic tombstones from Target, no mummies wandering around with toilet paper dangling from each decaying extremity, no strobe lights or wailing moans or creaky doors swinging on hinges.
There was none of that. But on October 31, 2001, I went to a cemetery to attend my father’s burial.
I know! Didn’t see that coming, did you?
In hindsight, I don’t think any of us much cared about the irony of a Halloween burial and hanging out in a cemetery (except perhaps my nephew, who normally celebrates his October 31 birthday with wild! abandon! Buuuuuuttt, that particular year he had to go to a cemetery to bury his grandfather. Happy Birthday!)
Because my father was, like, insanely Catholic, he had two funeral masses. Actually, he had two because there was one in the town where we grew up, and one down on the island where he and my mother had lived full time for five years. I believe there were about seven priests in attendance between both masses (as I said, he was seriously Catholic) so we joked that it was his assurance of getting straight to heaven—no ‘do not pass GO, do not collect $200’ for him. Like a VIP pass for the hereafter.
We had his first funeral in our old church where most of us received a variety of sacraments over the years, then a few days later headed down to the island for the second mass and burial.
Only it was Halloween. And the really creepy thing? Either the funeral home didn’t provide services in locations that you had to take a ferry to get to, or my mom had decided that it wasn’t necessary. We’d followed in my father’s DIY tradition for everything from fixing plumbing to painting to electrical wiring, so why on earth couldn’t we just take care of the burial? I’m surprised duct tape wasn’t employed at any point.
(It should be noted here, for practicality’s sake, that my father’s earthly remains were in a smaller, hand-carried box. Not the six-foot-long variety. Just to be clear.)
On a blustery October morning, we drove the hour from our hometown to the ferry district, and hopped on the ferry with a number of attendees who were along for the second service. Some people took their cars, some didn’t. We carpooled to the church. All in all, it was a tremendously non-traditional funeral procession. There may or may not have been a Carling Black Label or two consumed, but if there had been (and I’m not saying there was) it was purely in honor of my Dad, and his favorite beverage. A toast, if you will.
The funeral itself was fairly typical, with my brothers sharing tremendous words of love, humor, and respect. At one point, my sister had a coughing fit, and I had a baby bottle full of clean water to mix with formula for my then Baby B. When she really started convulsing I grabbed the bottle, took off the lid and thrust it at her to calm her cough, and when she realized she was drinking out of a baby bottle, we both got a first-class case of the giggles. Which no church service in our family would be complete without.
After church, we made our way to the cemetery, and with the priest’s help, presented my father’s remains to the earth in the most dignified way possible. When the final words had been spoken, my brother produced a bag of peanuts in the shell and passed them out. If you knew my father, you knew peanuts were his favorite snack. He’d sit on the beach for hours, reading the paper, listening to the Red Sox, and cracking and eating peanuts, leaving a sports-bar-like carpet of discarded peanut shells at his feet.
People looked a little confused upon receiving a peanut at a burial, but after following my brother’s lead, proceeded to crack them, eat them, and gently toss the shells into the shallow grave. Some did it self-consciously, some did it thoughtfully and meaningfully (at least, with as much meaning as one can convey with a peanut), and some, like the eight of us and my mother, did it tearfully. What a bizarre, unconventional tribute, but it couldn’t have been more fitting.
We started toward the American Legion for my Dad’s official send-off, and my brothers very quietly called aside the older few of their sons and nephews, and produced a few shovels. As I said, the funeral home had not accompanied us to the burial, and there was work to be done. In the tradition of my father, who’d woken up these same men since they were boys with a loud, Marine Corps bellow and the passing along of a lawn-tending implement of some kind to start the yard project of the day, my brothers handed shovels to their sons and they set about burying my father. Peanut shells and all.
After the American Legion, after the friends had taken the ferry home, we went back to my mom’s house. My ever-practical sisters produced some home-baked Halloween goodies and candy and started costuming their children. I’d bought a costume for my little guy, only ten months old then, and began to dress him as a little green dinosaur. My throat tightened as I remembered going shopping for the costume with my mother the week before. I’d dropped her off, showed my Dad the costume, he’d had a quiet chuckle about it, and I headed home. It was the last conversation I would ever have with him.
Halloween has morphed into a huge, commercial holiday similar in scale to the commercialization of Christmas, only instead of brightly colored festive lights, reindeer and a jolly man in a red suit, people decorate their homes like graveyards. Rotting tombstones, ghostly hands clawing out of the ground, bats circling overhead and blood and gore galore. Don’t get me wrong: I love Halloween. It’s still one of my favorite holidays, and we do the whole pumpkin-carving/costumed trick-or-treating thing with our kids. I love horror movies, too, and I relish curling up with a good scary book.
It’s just…I’ve been in a cemetery on Halloween. It wasn’t scary, or ghoulish, or creepy, or a scream-inducing thrill-a-minute. It was a first-class bummer. I was there for a funeral, just like every other person who’s ever had a legitimate reason to go to a cemetery. It was surreal and weird and heartbreaking. Everyone’s entitled to their own decorating style, but you just won’t ever see my front lawn turned into a cemetery for the sake of entertainment or esthetics.
Peanut shells though? That would be a totally different story.