Saturday, August 11, 2007

Postcard from Albany:

The Virginia funerals were intimate and superstitious. Men dabbed the sweat off their foreheads with handkerchiefs while preachers railed about hellfire, eulogists told jokes, and we all sang soulful hymns. The New York funeral was more Catholic and prescribed. The graveyard was a long drive away. The tombstones were small, white, and uniform, like well-tended teeth. A computer at the visitor's center gave us digital directions to Grandma's gravesite where three burly white men in clean denim and hard hats shouted over the din of a backhoe that lifted her coffin by a chain, and swung her into her grave. When the coffin wouldn't fit, the fattest one stood on it to give it weight, push it down. It was an efficient New England burial and the family decamped to a banquet hall where there was baked chicken and beer.

In Virginia, the post-funeral meal was casual, with lukewarm fried chicken and sweet tea and coleslaw on paper plates in the fellowship hall next to the church. The old cemetery was just steps away and the tombstones, if they were like teeth, were neglected—some round, some pointy, most of them stained. Two silent black men lowered Granddad's coffin into the ground by hand, then shoveled the dirt on top. Two plates of the fried chicken and coleslaw brought from the fellowship hall waited for them nearby, covered in plastic wrap.