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July 4, 2012 / hippiechickamblings

What Not to Do When You Live in a Funeral Home

Living upstairs over a funeral home gave my youth a unique perspective, but not in the way you might think. I didn’t grow up to be a ghoul.  I missed the whole Goth movement thing. Being a blood sucking creature of the night never appealed to me, and I’m probably as concerned about the Zombie Apocalypse as the next person. In short, I’m disgustingly normal, depending on your working definition of normal. As a kid, I even had friends who came to my place for weekend sleepovers just like any typical 13-year old. The atypical part, of course, was that my sleepover usually occurred at the same time as a funeral service, and if you added my friend Dee (not her real name, as she has grandkids who still believe she used to be Santa’s secretary), to the equation, things could take a definite turn onto Abnormal Avenue.

Dee was the sort of friend every kid should have and all parents have nightmares about. Our relationship was an interesting partnership. Feisty, vivacious, and outgoing, she was a born leader, and I, her follower. I did what she wanted, and she took the heat when we got in trouble.  Dee had huge, coffee-colored eyes, a mass of wavy, dark hair, and a dainty, button nose people pay plastic surgeons thousands for. From the neck up, Dee was a cherub-faced doll. Below the neck, she could’ve easily been mistaken for a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. She also snorted when she laughed, which limited her dating prospects considerably.

The weekend Dee decided to “listen in” on a funeral in progress could definitely fall in the category of What Not to Do When You Live in a Funeral Home. Then again, staying within the norms of society was never Dee’s thing. We were in my room, talking about boys, ragging on all the girls we hated because they liked the same boys we did, and listening to music. Dee suddenly turned to me with that spark in her eyes I’d learned to fear. “Hey, let’s slip down and listen in on that funeral going on!” I continued chewing my Bazooka bubble gum, waiting for the punch line, which never came.

“Seriously? You wanna be the next funeral in line, because you know my mom could make us dead really fast.”

“I want to know what’s going on down there,” she insisted. “I’ve never been to one of those kinds of funerals. Besides, it would be something different we haven’t done yet.”

I reached over and lifted the needle off my turntable, silencing Hendrix, my eyes searching her face for signs of psychosis. “We really do need to find you a boyfriend,” I said.

“Look, what’s the big deal? There’s no way we can get caught, and besides, I’m tired of doing the same old things.”

“So you think a funeral is a new, cool and groovy way to spice it up?” I was flabbergasted. We’d done lots of things together, been in hot water more than a few times, and had more adventures than we deserved. But this seemed off the beaten path, even for Dee. “We really HAVE to find you a boyfriend,” I said again.

“Just what are you so afraid of?” she demanded, rising from the foot of my bed to glare at me over the record player.

“Maiming, for one thing,” I said, determined not to back down. “Mutilation, followed by a slow, painful death,  which Mom could manage without even making a mess. Look, if you’re bored, I’m sure we can find something on T.V.”

“I can do that at home,” she said, warming to the idea of winning an argument. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to know what goes on at one of those Old Regular Baptist services. Aren’t you just a little bit curious?” She was already slipping out of her shoes at this point. It’s easier to sneak in your socks.

“I don’t have to be curious,” I assured her. After all, I was thirteen and knew everything. “It’s not much different from any other funeral, except maybe a little longer. And louder. They have more than one preacher for a service, and there’s a lot of crying and wailing. And singing, but with no song books.”

“How do they sing without books”?  She had that dangerous look she always got when she knew she was getting her way, and I figured I better do some fast talking if I was going to get out of this and live to see fourteen.

“The song leader has a book, and he calls out the lyrics, one line at a time. After each line, the people repeat it, in whatever tune they can think of. There’s no instrument or any set way to sing the line. Look, it’s not that exciting,” I hastened to add, when I saw that she was practically salivating.

“So, why do they just use one book?” she asked, unable to stifle a triumphant grin.

“Maybe they can’t afford more!” I snapped, kicking off my own shoes. Dee could be very persuasive. She was also twice my size.

My bedroom was at the end of the hall of our apartment and one step away from the door to the narrow stairwell leading to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairwell was another door, and on the other side of it, the funeral in progress. Dee’s plan was for us to perch ourselves on the thinly carpeted stairs between the two closed doors so we could hear the proceedings in secret. I think she’d been watching too many spy movies.

As according to her master plan, we managed to make it to our perch undetected, and positioned ourselves halfway down the stairwell as the singing was at a fever pitch. Dee crouched on the step closer to the door at the foot of the stairs, and I sat a step behind her, keeping one eye on the door at the top of the stairs, in case Mom discovered my empty bedroom. Her brown eyes alight with mischief, Dee listened, grinning, as the singing was lined out, building its own sweet rhythm to the wavering pitch of a primitive melody. Once every couple of minutes she’d crane her neck to look at me, shooting me a two-thumbs-up to let me know she was glad we’d taken the plunge. Seeing her obvious delight, I began to feel a bit guilty for having given her grief over this little adventure. What was wrong with satisfying a little curiosity?

We’d been sitting long enough to start getting butt cramps, when abruptly, the singing ceased, and a heavy silence fell like a descending curtain on a stage. Breathlessly, we waited for the long-winded preacher to start in so we could shift positions without being heard. After a couple of minutes, one lone, mellow-toned voice broke the stillness. With its lilting drone, it was barely loud enough for us to recognize it for what it was: a prayer. Now we would be forced to sit in total stillness until it ended before we could even think about moving. All of a sudden, Dee jerked her head at me, and began flapping both hands frantically as though gearing up to fly. I choked back a giggle at the sight of her watery eyes squeezed to slits and her mouth flopped open like a gasping fish. Then, horror struck me. Dee was getting ready to sneeze! In my terror only one thought crystallized. We’re going to die. We’ll get caught, and Mom will kill us dead. What happened next was powered by pure instinct and adrenaline. I threw myself forward, capped both hands over Dee’s potentially explosive nose, and flung my body backward.

I guess having someone cut your air off while trying to decapitate you has a tendency to induce panic. Panic can suck. Dee’s not-so-dainty arms flew back, flattening me against the stairs. Groping hands landed in my waist-length hair, which Dee mistook for a rope. Frantically, she tried to climb the hair-rope while backpedaling up the stairs. Having someone climb your hair while it’s still attached to your head causes you to lose focus. The reason for the loss of focus is because having your hair climbed makes your eyes leak like a rusty faucet. As my legs shot out from under me, my butt, which was still numb, plopped squarely on Dee’s shoulders.

Having the weight of my butt on Dee’s shoulders seemed to flip some kind of weird, freak-out switch. Her whole body went rigid, her legs stiffening into a fleshy board. She was still climbing the hair-rope, still deprived of air, her head shoved backward in my gut. The world suddenly wavered and tilted in a sickening lurch. With neither of us in any position to resist gravity, we had nowhere to go but down. And fast. We rode those stairs like some greased slide in a horror movie, a roller coaster from hell. The door at the foot of the stairs surged up to meet us, and we slammed into it with the force of a wrecking ball.

On the other side of the door, the prayer had stopped, and it was as silent as a tomb. Such total quiet could only mean one thing. The door was about to be wrenched open. We didn’t even take time to draw a breath before we scrambled back up those stairs, too intent on escape to worry about the noise we made. We must’ve sounded like a herd of stampeding elephants.

Back in my bedroom, we considered our options. We had committed the unpardonable sin of desecrating the reverence of a funeral service, and my dad was not apt to take that lightly. “Do they still have reform schools?” Dee asked as we lay in the darkness, trembling, waiting for the boom to be lowered.

“I think they’re called detention centers, now,” I said. She sighed heavily, and turned her face to the wall.

“Well, it’s been nice knowing you.”

At the breakfast table the next morning, we sat like two condemned prisoners awaiting execution, pale and stricken while eggs and bacon were passed around. Hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and a bit green around the gills, Dee refused a bite. It was a first. Dad cleared his throat, and reached for his coffee cup. “You girls enjoying your weekend so far?” We jerked and shot each other a panicked glance. What to say to that? Was he testing us before the torture was to begin?

“They must be trying to score some points, or something,” my mom interjected. “I didn’t hear a peep out of them all night.” Smiling, she dumped a slice of buttered toast in my untouched plate. Dee was squirming on her seat, ready to bolt. All my spit had dried up, and the room was starting to pitch lazily when Dad set his coffee cup down with a clatter and trained his steady gaze on both of us.

“Dee you should come back next weekend.”

She gulped. “I should?”

“Yep, and you better plan on bringing a nice dress.” Dee looked ready to faint.

“A dress?”

Dad favored her with a lazy grin. “Yeah, I think you girls might enjoy sitting in on a funeral we’re having. It’s not a bad idea to get the exposure, you know.”

“Exposure?” She was starting to sound like a brain-damaged parrot.

“It’ll be good for you,” Dad continued calmly, glancing at my mom. “But wear sturdy shoes. The funeral won’t be here in the chapel. It’s at their church way out in the county. They’re snake-handlers.”

4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Wonnie / Jul 4 2012 12:56 pm

    Oh what a wonderful story! Did he really make you go to the funeral though? Thank you for a wonderful story on this special day!

    • hippiechickamblings / Jul 4 2012 2:00 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, dear one! No, he didn’t make us go, but he probably should have! Dee was a little more content to sit around in my room, listening to music after that little episode.

  2. lynn / Aug 10 2013 9:02 pm

    We lived over a funeral home my junior and senior years in high school. Mom was married to the funeral director/ mortician. This brings back memories of my younger sister, her sense of humor was a little bit wild. I remember on time she answered the phone ” So and so funeral home,you ice ’em we slice ’em “. She had several like that among the fav’s were ” you stab ’em , we slab ’em…… It was entertaining to me to see what punishment the adults could come up next, I remember thinking they will run out of things before shes 16. Good old days.

    • hippiechickamblings / Aug 11 2013 2:52 pm

      Yes, growing up in such a unique environment definitely provides experiences that are not the norm, whatever that means, LOL!

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