My Aunt Carrie was a professional mourner. People actually paid her to attend funerals and blubber like she did after watching The Way We Were. She was damn good at it too. Every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings she would drive to Rocky Point Cemetery dressed in her uniform, a sleek yet conservative black dress, and cry like she never cried before. Well, since her last gig of course.
As a result I always saw death as a business deal– $2,000 to the funeral home, $450 for transportation, $1,500 for a casket and another $2,000 for the flowers, cemetery plot and headstone. Overall, dying is a costly business. I never realized how many people were willing to pay more money for a mourner at a going rate of $20 per hour plus gas money even after all the essentials are paid for.
“It’s not about the money,” Carrie repeated for those skeptics out there as she stuffed a wad of cash into her tummy-control stockings. For her, even though she was paid fairly well for her services, it was about respecting those whose turn it was to journey to the afterlife. She was an eternal lover who cried for a living and enjoyed it. Go figure.
I never understood much about Carrie’s chosen profession, but the most obscure aspect was why her clients found it more important to have friends after they were dead. Regardless of the deceased’s popularity, my Aunt Carrie would shed a tear and provide a shoulder to cry on when death destroyed families.
Because Carrie had so much experience with funerals, her personal specifications were distinct: she didn’t want one. She believed it would be too cliché to mourn for a mourner. Growing up she was always available to babysit or tell an outrageous story. She was such a stable part of the family I never considered the possibility of Carrie ever dying. Like a tattoo artist with an unmarked body-- it just wouldn’t make sense. A businesswoman could never escape her own product.
When I was younger my father used to describe Carrie’s job in terms of a popularity contest. To sugarcoat the whole dying part of a funeral, he would tell me Aunt Carrie and God were close friends so it was Carrie’s job to welcome the new member to Heaven. As a five-year-old I accepted this until my older brother told me she wasn’t a friend of God’s but Satan’s whore. Of course I didn’t know who the hell Satan was or what a whore did, but I did know it wasn’t something nice by the way Cody said ‘whorrrrrrrrre.’
Later that day I climbed the stairs to the attic of our house and exclaimed, “Hi Aunt Carrie!”
Carrie sat on her bed in her mini-apartment with orange walls and yellow zebra patterned carpet. I ignored the tears that streamed down her cheeks and her scattered mess of blonde hair. Even at five I knew the difference between sad and happy tears.
Aunt Carrie lifted her head and smiled broadly. Her tears vanished, allowing her previously sullen blue eyes to perk right up. Her face looked as if she had hours to compose herself and she morphed into the energetic chipper woman I knew.
“Why do you like to cry, Aunt Carrie?” I asked hopping up onto the bed.
“It feels good to cry, Nora-bee,” she said with a wink using the nickname she coined for me the day I was born.
Years later, I believed it was like a catharsis for Carrie each time she attended a loner’s funeral. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help but ask why cry for a stranger? It was all an act, right? Fake tears and fake emotions for a fake friend, but Aunt Carrie believed it was her respect and mourning that created the peace and tranquility needed for eternal rest. Only the luckiest men and women had Aunt Carrie to mourn for them because as much as the job was an act, the emotion was real.
“Is it true you and God are friends?”
Carrie pinched my cheek. “Absolutely. He and I go way back.”
To test her I countered, “Then what’s His favorite color?”
“He loves all colors equally. God never discriminates, but I do remember Him saying something about the color orange once.”
“Okay,” I said. She knew God’s favorite color and that, to me, proved friendship.
I had a hard time seeing death as disheartening in grade school because I practically grew up in a cemetery. When mom worked at the bar, Aunt Carrie took me to work with her. It was like Take Your Daughter to Work Day only cooler. I always came back with stories no one believed. Plus I enjoyed my time more when I was around Aunt Carrie because she was bolder than a mother figure and better than an older sister. As my aunt turned on her theatrics at the sight of a coffin, I would stroll comfortably around the cemetery as if I were swinging from the monkey bars on a playground.
In 5th grade when Steve Batlin’s father died from a brain aneurysm in his sleep, I didn’t share my condolences. Instead, I slipped my aunt’s business card into his brown paper bagged lunch by tagging it to the top of his SnackPack pudding. Mrs. Lewin, our teacher, immediately called home for a parent-teacher conference. My mother ended up taking the next two weekends off at the bar so Carrie wouldn’t have a reason to take me with her.
It wasn’t that I took death lightly-- it was no big surprise everyone was going to die. I learned to read in a cemetery by sounding out the words on each tombstone. “Sleeping with the angels” became my favorite because having a sleepover with angels sounded like fun! Another one that caught my eye was “Death is only a shadow across the path to Heaven.” This epitaph sounded upbeat yet left a sour taste of darkness at the same time.
Sundays were the busiest day for Carrie and they were also the day of my travel soccer games. Unlike my mother who was never a fan of spectator sports, Carrie did everything in her power to attend each game but sometimes she would apologize by saying, “I’m sorry Nora-bee, but death doesn’t follow a schedule.” Before the 8th grade championship game, Carrie got a last minute phone call from Pastor Jeff to work a job. Bessy Westmore had been an elderly nun who died of old age in her sleep.
“I’m sorry, Pastor but I’m not able to make it,” I heard Carrie say into the phone she held between her face and shoulder. She was braiding my hair in French braids, my lucky hairstyle, before the big game.
“I understand Bessy was a beloved member of the church, but I already have another commitment.”
I turned my head. “It’s okay, Aunt Carrie, you can cry for Sister Bessy.”
She waved me off as if I made a ridiculous request and sighed loudly. “Fine, Jeff, but you owe me. One hymn, two Bible readings and ten minutes of tears then in the ground she goes. I’ve got a soccer game to catch.” We arrived at the cemetery with me in my soccer cleats and bright orange jersey and Carrie in her conservative black skirt and blouse. It was the quickest ceremony I had ever been to. Carrie’s tears seemed to slide down like the water on the slip-n-slide I played with in the summer.
When I was 14 years old, Aunt Carrie started her own consulting business because her work started to be too much for one Mourner. She made me her personal assistant so we put a Help Wanted ad in the Penny Saver and almost immediately started getting calls. Together, we began interviewing potential employees with certain criteria and a grading rubric at hand like my teachers did in school. We tested their ability to cry on demand, assessed their blowing nose ability and judged their reaction to the color black.
Ellen Schumer came to the interview in her high school cheerleader uniform and sobbed to the beat of ‘Hey Mickey.’ We thought her to be too peppy for the requiem so we dismissed her application. She cried after being rejected and we realized she was a natural! Terry Manning, the most miserable woman I had ever met, was a large ogre with mangled frizzy hair and black eyes. She was perpetually depressed, rude and snippy, yet she and Carrie worked best together.
In high school I studied the Ancient Romans and Greeks who saw funerals as a superstitious ceremony in human society. In these cultures, the absence of a proper burial became an insult to human dignity. Women had to conduct the ceremony and participate in rituals like viewing the body and giving the soul away to the much-awaited afterlife. It was common for Ancient Roman females to mourn for long periods of time sporting black veils. It occurred to me then maybe Carrie was born into the wrong century.
I explained this hypothesis to my mother and asked her to tell me about Aunt Carrie as a young girl but she dismissed me and grumbled, “You shouldn’t be reading those sorts of things, Nora.”
I was sixteen when Carrie first found out about the cancer. She organized a party and sent out invitations to the entire family inviting them to something she called “Carrie’s Will Weekend” where everyone could partake in the funeral preparations.
The entire week before, my mother complained about how morbid her sister’s idea was. “Is this really necessary, Carrie?”
Carrie answered, “If it was up to you the ceremony would be full of black, tears and death.”
I could hear my mother’s taunting voice as we sat around the dinner table-- “And the Emmy goes to…”-- but I knew Carrie’s job was not to put on a show or turn death into entertainment.
To appease Carrie we all met early on a Saturday morning at Gutterman’s Funeral Home, where the director gave us a tour of the morgue they had recently added to the basement to improve business. He also showed us sample caskets, floral arrangements and makeup styles. It was essentially a sales pitch for the dead.
“All for a low low price of….” my mother said chuckling from the back of the chapel as she, my father, and I hung behind the rest of the family. “People will do just about anything for money.”
Carrie scoped out each aisle of caskets and tested the wood by running her hand along the top of the cabinet. “I want an orange coffin.”
“I, well…” Steve, the director stuttered in confusion.
My mother sighed deeply, “Don’t be ridiculous, Carrie.”
“We tend to stick to the black, oak, and brown woods.”
“It has to be orange,” Carrie persisted.
“Why?” I asked.
“As a peace offering for my buddy, God.” She winked at me.
Ellen Schumer, Terry Manning and the rest of the Mourners that worked for Carrie arrived late to Carrie’s funeral that Sunday afternoon dressed in togas. They reeked of stale cigarette smoke and booze, a scent I had grown accustomed to since beginning college. Long sheets draped over their bodies and dangled in the mushy mud at the ceremony. Ellen came prepared with her cheerleading pom-poms and Terry with her scowl.
“Everything okay, ladies?” I asked as they joined the precession.
“Mind your business,” Terry snapped, and I smiled thinking of how many times Carrie had rolled her eyes and told Terry it wouldn’t kill her to be nice.
Even without Carrie’s lively presence and extraordinary personality, I was able to find comfort and accept her death because I could feel her spirit surrounding me. As I walked to the altar and stared into the blank faces of her friends and family, I imagined Carrie’s voice: “Now Nora-bee I’m putting you in charge. I do not want my ceremony to turn into a damn pity party.”
I looked around the crowd. I’m not sure if Terry blinked during the entire service and Ellen raised one pom-pom then stopped as if she didn’t have enough strength to raise the other. No one looked to be in mourning. They looked like college students during finals week with droopy eyes, like they were thinking too hard about trying to avoid cranial combustion.
I forced myself to climb the stairs to the microphone and stare into the orange coffin. Carrie looked like she was ready to go roller-skating in the 1950’s. Even her pink poodle skirt couldn’t distract from the fact that she would never mourn again.
“Despite her wishes,” I began, “I think we owe Carrie a brief moment of silence.”
“Should this moment of silence occur before or after the playing of ‘I’m Too Sexy?’” My mother shouted from the first row of the pew.
“Mom,” I scolded as I felt my cheeks flush, “I don’t think—”
“I’m just trying to follow protocol, Nora.”
An onlooking mortician might conclude the ceremony to be a ridiculous event of bizarre activities and roll his eyes before mocking the toga-wearing ladies and the Sesame Street balloons that were tied to the car doors of the stretch limo.
I bashfully cleared my throat because I knew how silly the words sounded as they left my mouth. “She, um, didn’t want Right Said Fred played until we lowered her into the ground.” I didn’t have a choice but to put my mother’s and my own feelings aside in order to focus on what Carrie wanted.
Nobody except my mother moved to hang their heads, fold their hands or even giggle. People just gawked into the dead abyss like robots waiting for their next order from the mother source. They looked like they had never been to a funeral before. They didn’t know what to do if they weren’t crying. Was there anything else to do at a funeral? Sing? Color? Sew? Bake cookies?
My mother’s head hung morosely chin to chest. I couldn’t not follow my own request so I joined her in bowing our heads. If I learned anything from Carrie it was her passion for respecting the dead. It wasn’t what Carrie wanted, but I knew it was what she deserved. It seemed Mom and I had finally come to a consensus. We mourned her spirit alone.