It's a perfect day for a funeral... Mine!
There is non-seasonal rain. Thunder rumbles and lightning splits the clouds into streaks of silver, black and grey. It is a perfect day for a funeral. A classic; the weather I always imagine for my own funeral. It seems fitting to herald David’s curtain-call with such inclement weather. It pleases me, though not obviously, I hope.
I feel cool and stylish and know I look attractive in my mourning dress. Black is my favourite colour. Today is the perfect day to show off my new outfit. I love it. The veil covers my face and drapes over my shoulders in deep cascades of cool, black chiffon, totally covering my hair. I hide behind it. The unnatural stoop of my shoulders, however, now bowed in grief and mourning, cannot be disguised by the veil, nor can the thin, black gauze hide the trembling in my hands and the unsteadiness of my gait. Yet, I play my part to perfection.
They’re holding the service in the little chapel in the centre of the graveyard. The celebrant is wearing a black suit adorned with a flowery cravat and kerchief. Very, um, nice. (That celebrants conduct funerals is a new one on me. I thought they were the domain of the marriage ceremony.) Bright flowers cascade over the casket and beautiful bouquets adorn every pew. The organ music softly plays some unfamiliar hymns but the overall feeling is one of well-being. I feel at peace, knowing David is getting the well-staged farewell he deserves.
Friends and family fill the little chapel to capacity. The numbers surprise me, as I had no idea David had so large a family or that he was so popular. In all the years I knew him, I had met few of his friends and because of the distance, his family was a shadow in the background. It pleases me to see so many people there. I feel a little awkward, however, and somehow out of place. This is so unlike me, as I enjoy the opportunity to perform.
The service starts promptly. Idly, I wonder how many more funerals the celebrant will perform today. I read somewhere that every second, two people die at some place in the world. The odds are there are many people being buried today. Some of those people must have died around here, and they will probably also be buried today. A marriage celebrant shares a family’s joy. A funeral celebrant shares their grief and sorrow. It takes a special person to officiate at funerals.
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today....” Is this a funeral or a wedding? “ ... to join with family and friends of David Whittaker Caldwell in bidding David a final goodbye and God speed, as he concludes his journey throughout this life, and embarks on the next chapter of his eternal existence.” Beautiful words. Borrowed from a priest, perhaps.
“Mrs Caldwell,” the celebrant continues, “has requested that several of David’s friends and family address us today, to speak to us about David, who he was and the person he was.” I am looking forward to this. Do other people see David the same way I do? I think perhaps not. Ours was a special relationship. No other person on earth could have known David the way I knew him. The first person to speak is David’s brother, Mark. I knew Mark. He is ten years older than David and his hero. Mark could do no wrong in David’s eyes. How did Mark feel about David?
“David was a special brother,” began Mark, “too special for words.” I had to agree with that. “When we were younger, David followed me everywhere — as younger brothers are apt to do. I was flattered at first, but as I reached my teens and other interests took my fancy,” (a discreet cough here as he looked in the direction of a beautiful redhead I knew to be his wife), “I’m ashamed to say I neglected him. He was always in the way. I still loved him, though, and I hoped I showed him my feelings. As he grew into a young man, I watched the changes in him. He was always a loving person and these qualities grew and magnified as he grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he was surrounded by friends and acquaintances vying for his attention. No matter how busy he was, he always found time for his friends.”
I knew him as a loving person, too. I wonder to what changes Mark refers.
“When David married, I worried that he would suffer from burn out. Now he would have to devote time to one special person and I wasn’t sure he was prepared for that. Yet it appeared my fears were ungrounded as his was a happy marriage. I’m sure Candice can vouch for that. It wasn’t until much later David began to suffer. I hope and pray no other human will need to suffer as he did.”
Suffer? Mark knew? I thought only I saw David’s suffering. He was always cheerful around other people. Mark concludes his little speech by addressing David — or at least — the coffin.
“David, Mate. I’m going to miss you. You never knew it, and I never told you, but you inspired many of us to keep going, even when everything was stacked against you. I hope you’re at peace now. I know you are and hope we’ll meet again. If I can be half the man you were, I know we’ll meet again.” David was twice the man you are, Mark, I say to myself. He was perfect.
Joanie Dickson nee Anderson, apparently an old school friend of David’s, is next. She stands tall and graceful in beautiful black georgette with gold buttons. Her blond hair matches the buttons with shine and falls in soft waves about her shoulders, framing an impishly cute face. Very stylish. Very beautiful. I feel the old surge of jealousy pull at my heart. Joanie is still such a beautiful woman. No woman can ever hope to compete with her sophistication. I am yet to meet her — having only seen her from a distance — but I always envied her poise and grace. I wonder if I look as good as she does. Her memories of David are as the good friend he had been to countless students.
“David really cared, and to see so many of his old friends here today proves that we all cared in return.” Her words drip from her lips, saccharin sweet. “He was special — really something else. If any of the girls had no date for the formal, he would often take them along, too, or at least offer to dance a few numbers with them. Not many guys would do that, but David never baulked at showing a little kindness, even to the less than popular. I would often see a group of plain-looking girls surrounding David. He made them feel special.” I am sure she was never dateless on a Friday or Saturday night. I remember she was always one of the first to be asked to dance at the school dances. It would seem easy to be happy with David’s acts of kindness when you weren’t in need of them yourself!
“David,” she concluded, “I hope you will continue to be the sweet, caring man in your new life as you always were here with us. I firmly believe that life simply doesn’t end at death. It continues forever in some form or another. If this is true, then you will be always alive. In fact, if it‘s true, I have no need to speak of you as a deceased person. Your body is decaying, but your soul is alive. You are still you. We just can’t see you any more. Please remember us all, and look after us. We all need a Guardian Angel. You were one in life: I know you’ll be one in death. Till we meet again, David. Farewell.”
Joanie gently sponges some tears away from her carefully made up eyes, sniffs delicately, steals a final, yearning look at the flower-adorned coffin, and resumes her seat in a pew in the middle of the chapel. I don’t know how I should take her little speech. What does she really feel for David? I cannot help feeling Joanie’s words are all an act, a mere show. Perhaps I am being a little harsh. After all, people deal with grief in many different ways. I could be seeing Joanie’s grief displayed in a most unusual way. She never was one to display emotion of any sort. I believe that was why most of the girls at school had avoided her; and perhaps the very quality which drew the boys to her, like ants to honey.
I wonder how Candice is holding up and allow my eyes to wander over the congregation until they rest on her. From my chosen seat at the back of the chapel, I can see her sitting ramrod-straight in the front pew, apparently staring at the coffin. Her shoulders are rigid — not the carefree, relaxed woman I remembered from my youth. She is beautiful, just like Joanie, but more refined and pure. Finding adequate words to describe Candice is very difficult. I have known her for many years, yet her beauty is still breathtaking.
She is raven-haired, tall and slender without being too thin. Well shaped is probably a better way to describe her figure. Her face, now covered by the veil, is only gently lined and these lines add a depth to her beauty. She is a mysterious woman; very difficult to understand. David was never attracted solely to beauty and many people wondered what David had seen in her. But I knew. Nobody knows David the way I know him! My wandering attention is brought back to the service by the intonation of the celebrant.
“David was much loved by all who knew him, as our two previous speakers have noted. Mrs Caldwell has requested that a work colleague, Peter Beaumont, now address us.”
This is a surprise. I know Peter Beaumont. He and David have never agreed on a business deal. What could Peter possibly say about David? I hoped he had the common sense not to rail David in front of the entire congregation, as he was accustomed to doing in board meetings. I shudder as I watch Peter’s heavy frame advance to the podium. I steal another quick glance in Candice’s direction. She remains rigid and unmoving. What is she thinking of? How can she ask David’s arch enemy to speak at his funeral? I am terrified he will say the wrong thing. My fears proved ungrounded. True, his words took on double meaning when the extent of the rivalry between him and David was known. However, I believe that, with the possible exception of Candice, I am the only person here besides Peter himself who knows that.
“David was a most remarkable business man,” he begins. “To work with him was a real challenge as he always expected the best of himself and his colleagues. I believe he did in death what he always preached in life. He did the best he possibly could.” What is that supposed to mean? Did he expect David to die more spectacularly than he has?
“.... David was a perfectionist. He lived the perfect life; married the perfect woman; raised perfect children; performed perfectly at work and in the end, he died perfectly, too. He died as we all would want to: without fuss or panic. David, continue your perfect life wherever it may take you. There is a hereafter, I firmly believe that; a perfect hereafter for you.”
There isn’t a dry eye in the chapel after Peter’s speech. Peter can always do that. He has missed his vocation — should have gone on the big screen. I don’t like Peter, though for David’s sake, I tolerate him. He is a brilliant business man — even David admitted that — but he lacks ethics. He rides roughshod over every colleague; what friends he has are wary of him. However, every client applauds him. To them there is no better, so while David did the ground work and the behind-the-scenes slog, Peter grandstanded on centre stage. It appears to me he has even managed to overshadow David’s funeral.
I expect Candice to say some words but she is obviously too stressed to face the crowd. I don’t mind. I could say something, though I doubt it is appropriate for me. My relationship with David, how we met, the antics we used to get up to, the type of man I found David to be will not be discussed publicly. The celebrant announces the end of the service with a beautiful hymn — one I am familiar with and he then says a final prayer. It is all very moving and lovely. I nearly cry myself, but I’ve better control of myself than that.
David’s body is to be interred underneath an old river gum in the centre of the cemetery, not far from the little chapel. The guests file out of the chapel, following Candice in a solemn line. Mark holds a large, black umbrella over Candice to shield her from the torrential rain. She seems unaware of his presence, or even of the rain and Mark has to follow her lead to keep her from becoming wet.
I follow behind the crowd, wanting to remain invisible. My own black umbrella is larger than usual and I am reminded of an old nursery rhyme about a big, black umbrella crossing a street on a misty, moisty morning. I stand at the extreme back of the group, craning my neck to see better. It was essential for me to make sure David made it into his grave, yet I hoped for anonymity. Some morbid part of me expects David to rise from his grave and say it was all a big joke. You know. ‘Thanks for coming and all that. Good to see you all cared, but it’s time to go home now, folks,’ that sort of thing. I don’t want that to happen, of course, but something just seems not quite right somehow. I feel an absurd desire to burst into hysterical laughter well up inside me that I somehow manage to quell.
The little procession, diminished by the rain, reaches the grave side. Rain has formed miniature rivers of red mud running down the excavation mounds and into the prepared pit. Terrifying visions come to me of the pallbearers slipping in the mud and landing on the bottom of the pit, with the coffin on top of them. That would certainly put an end to the perfect funeral — a not-so-perfect end to David’s perfect life. However, nothing of that type happens — much, I presume, to Candice’s relief. And mine. Hysteria would break out then!
The celebrant speaks a few more words over the grave, the coffin is lowered and the first clod of dirt is dropped on top of it. Candice, her eyes still expressionless, drops a single red rose into the grave, and then turns away. She glances in my direction, and for one horrifying moment, I think she’s seen me. I hold my breath as her incredibly blue eyes, now shielded by the black veil, hold mine. There is no spark of recognition and I slowly expel my breath as she walks to the waiting limousine without a backwards glance.
I feel a little sorry for David in that moment. When I die, I hope my loved ones will weep at my grave side for me. Surely that would be a sign of respect and love. Then again, I could be judging Candice as harshly as I may have judged Joanie. And my own eyes have remained dry throughout the whole service.
It was Candice and not I who dealt with David’s growing stress. Candice comforted David when the strain of living up to perfection finally became too much. Candice, not I, encouraged David to stand up to Peter Beaumont and expose him for the charlatan he is. And Candice found David at the end, a worn-out shell of the man he used to be. She, not I, is burying her husband and is entitled to display her grief in whatever way is best for her. She loved David at least as much as he loved her. I’m sure.
The rest of David’s family stays behind at the grave. No one speaks, and no one cries, yet emotion is evident on all their faces. Each member drops roses or petals on the coffin. Of all the family, only Mark appears calm and in control of his emotions. Speaking during the service would have helped tremendously. Dealing with grief is never easy — or predictable.
Roses and rose petals totally cover the lowered coffin by now. The original flowers adorning the coffin have long since been removed. I presume they are on their way to various homes to brighten the drab abodes on this dark and dismal day. I didn’t see Candice take any, though there could have been a bouquet or two in the limousine. I wonder if a gathering, a wake of sorts, has been planned. If so, no one appears too anxious about leaving. Only Candice has left the cemetery. Friends and family mill in their separate groups, discussing David’s death, the funeral, or perhaps it was the weather. I begin to feel a little conspicuous, having attached myself to no particular group, and indeed, belonging to none.
As nonchalantly as I can, I slip back to the chapel. There is an “In Memoriam” visitors' book for guests to sign as a remembrance for David’s family of those who attended the funeral. I have a wicked thought that perhaps I should sign it, too, but I‘m sure the joke would not be appreciated by Candice. I have no intention of hurting her. If she recognised me at the funeral, she made no sign. Perhaps she had no desire for unpleasant scenes either. I scan the names on the attendance list and am astonished to discover five pages of neatly scrawled names. I didn’t realise the chapel could accommodate so many! David would be pleased.
By now, the crowd has begun to disperse and I begin to feel more comfortable. I am satisfied David’s send-off has been to his liking. I am certainly pleased with it. I wait until the last guest departs. A lone black limousine with a liveried chauffeur stands at the far end of the car park under a tree. I gingerly make my way over to it, dodging stones and puddles as best I can. Stiletto heels are not made for terrain such as this! James, my chauffeur opens the rear door for me and helps me to enter.
“I trust the funeral was as well, er, executed as expected ... Ma’am,” James questions. Our eyes meet in the rear vision mirror and I detect an unaccustomed glint in James’ eyes.
“Just beautiful,” I say. “I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”
I sit in the back of the limousine rubbing tired, sore ankles. New shoes are always difficult to break in and these are particularly gruelling. I am so tired. It has been a hard day and I am ready for relaxation. It isn’t over yet.
“Take me home, please, James.”
The engine purrs as we pull out of the car park and ease into the afternoon traffic. There is a change of clothes hanging in the back. I am eager to rid myself of these glad rags. And the make-up! So thick and uncomfortable! Back in comfortable clothes again, I can offer a sigh of relief.
“Are you sure you haven’t forgotten something?” James’ question startles me out of a light nap. I look into the mirror and immediately see to what he refers.
“Ah, yes!” Gingerly, I bring my hand up to my forehead. With a flourish, I tear the hat and veil from my head. The mane of flowing blond hair comes off at the same time, revealing a mass of short, unkempt chestnut curls. Much better.
“Candice will be expecting you soon. I’d better step on it.” So saying, James enters the freeway, doubling his speed.
David’s funeral was my idea although Candice planned it to perfection. What a woman! David was so lucky! Wait! I don’t need to think of David like that anymore. The old David is gone, but I’m still alive. Candice and I can start a new life together, far away from the prying eyes of family and friends and the greedy, grasping fingers of commerce. There will be none to disturb the peace. My life insurance will see to it that we live in style!
I am David, and at last, I’m free.