Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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Grandma Adams' Funeral - Guest Author Holly Guile

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Grandma Adams was fascinated with her own death. Fascinated much the same way a child looks forward to Christmas, or, one unfortunate child who doesn’t know what a dentist is and is looking forward to the trip.

She paid for it in advance as she had made her arrangements in the year and years previous. She scheduled everything, according to a calendar we found later, with September 29th, 2004 circled. That was a kindness, and fit her pragmatic nature to the end.

She was my mother’s mother. Tall, white hair pinned down in tight springs, and a laugh like air moving through a rusted windmill. I remember Grandma Adams for a few things: as the head of her family, literal “Old Wives’” tales (including one that foretold I would lose all my hair should I dye it), and who dramatically revealed to my sister and me on an afternoon she babysat us— hoisting her day-dress in her front-room and declaring, “I bet you’ve never seen something like this—that she had no bellybutton, when The Price Is Right was not enough entertainment that day.

As far as Mormon funerals go, it was a typical affair held in the fall. There was the viewing, graveside ceremony, and luncheon. Typical, but for the lack of a funeral service, which was a kindness.

My family, the Guiles, were late for almost everything to do with it, almost including the actual death. Grandma’s legacy also included grudges and a deep dislike of my father, who tricked her once believing he was Death bidding her to “come home” as he played his bagpipes in the backyard of our shared home.

Her most important legacy was how adept she was with money. Her coffin and embalming, indeed, her choice in a mortuary, were all tribute to that. The mortuary, though set apart from the other storefronts on State Street in Salt Lake City, still had the look and feel of a strip-mall storefront, though concrete, asphalt, and chain-link separated it from the other shops. The building itself was shaped, and the parking lot around it, as if it had once been a restaurant with a drive-thru awning.

The coffin had the look, feel, and sound when knocked on of thick plastic, not so dissimilar to the toys that often come free with a child’s meal. Its lining was the satin-like material that caught on the skin of a wandering hand. What it could have felt like lying in it is a curious thought I have now. The death industry, as that is what it is called, makes a great deal of money on the sentiments and short-sidedness of the grieving. Grandma planned her own death to be cost effective.

I tend to avoid the open caskets at funerals; the dead look too much as if they’re sleeping, as if they will wake up to push your face away from theirs. The dead, in a viewing, are meant to look like their living counterpart, regardless of cost. In life, Grandma’s blush simmered underneath her skin as a permanent mark of her German heritage. In death, her skin was painted with smudged brown and gray makeup, making her a gross depiction of “black face.” Her memory picture—Death Industry speech for “more lifelike”—was glossy and too puffed out; the embalming fluid smoothing out her wrinkles and toughening her tissue skin. Her white hair was freed from the tight pins and coils, framing her face, her expression of one closing her eyes while waiting through an annoying dinner party.  

The mortuary was draped in dark green, perhaps meant to convince the grieving family that they were not, in fact, in a room of hard edges and wheeled-in coffins, but something natural. That their loved one was being returned to the earth. My cousins, kids of my Mom’s brother Dave and his wife Nancy, lined up on the stiff couch next to coffin and stayed for the entirety of the viewing. No smiles. No tears. As if they had rehearsed it. Pale faces, thin lips, blank eyes as if they had rehearsed it.

My family—six brothers, two sisters (including myself), nieces, nephews, and our parents—wandered around, laughing, telling stories, and eating food. Our family was always on the peripheral of the Adams’ family line of sight. We were there, but just beyond. The better to make chatter and become bewildered with those who have a place of honor in the center of the event. An older cousin, for instance, who propositioned my father during the viewing. The same cousin, amongst other cousins, who made sure to go through Grandma’s medicine cabinet later that day, after the luncheon.  

Later, in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, near a cedar tree and the double-headstone marking where Grandpa Adams was laid the year previous, where Grandma was being lowered that day. The heat of Utah September crept through the pines and quaking aspens as our family, the Guile family, attached to the Adams’ only through our mom, the eldest daughter of Lydia Katherine Magdelina David Adams, crept around the outer edge of the goings-on, enjoying the green, nigh-translucent grass, the blue sky. My sister and I had wandered off in search of a bathroom. When we returned our brother, Nate, asked what we were doing. “Knocking over tombstones,” I replied.

The luncheon was the pit-stop on the way home to Provo, which included sliced ham and funeral potatoes, a Mormon delicacy prompting thoughts of faked deaths and murder. When we would return to the trailer Grandma lived in during her last years of life, we would remember the calendar, the rifled-through medicine cabinet, and Mom finding her wedding dress stowed in Grandma’s hope chest, amidst old cloths. That day in particular, though, ended with my sister and I moving back and forth between the gym of the church the luncheon was held in and the car, loading thick gatherings of crimson roses into the trunk. Aunt Nancy stood at the top of the stairs, near the church door. Her eyes narrowed on us as I hefted the last of our arrangements Elisha and I pilfered for our Mom. I smiled and closed the car door.

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Holly Guile is an instructor of college writing at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College. When not teaching, she does research and writing as a popular culture scholar, specializing in superhero comic books and vampire literature, having presented both subjects at national and regional conferences. You can find her writing, ramblings, and any miscellany at and