Have Fun at the Family Funeral
When I first learned that Uncle Gerald had died, I was
hoping the family had forgotten where I lived. It's not
that I don't love my relatives, but I just wish they
would leave me alone. I left Old Bedlam Hollow when I
started college, and decided that I would be better off
out here in the real world instead of tucked back in
that surreal, bucolic setting where traditions are older
than the hills.
And no, I am not knocking bucolic settings. I'm as fond
as any of my kinfolk of sitting back in the hollow,
watching night falling over the mountains or listening
to the trill of a screech owl on the hunt.
I'm just not fond of family funerals, even when they can
think it started when I was a child, and they told me,
"Cassie, you gotta kiss Aunt Minnie on the lips or she'll be
hurt." There was a part of me that couldn't
understand how she could feel pain if she was dead. Do
the dead have feelings? I don't think so. But there
was also the gross factor. Have you ever actually
kissed a corpse? They're cold and clammy, and the mouth
has been sewn shut, so there are stitches and if you
press your lips against them too hard -- well you get
Still gives me the willies just thinking about doing it.
But there were other customs, like the fact that they
always put a plate of salt or a divot of sod on the
chest of the dearly departed to keep the spirit from
wandering away from the corpse -- or so I was told. You
see, back in the hollow, they didn't have a lot of the
modern conveniences -- like a good education. They
believed that a hoot owl singing after midnight meant
someone was going to die, and that if a mockingbird got
into your house, someone in that house would pass away.
Sparrows came and took the spirits of the dead, and will
'o' the wisps out in the wet woods were the wandering
dead who couldn't find their way to heaven or hell.
Me, I stopped believing that the dead could wander when
I stopped believing in Santa Claus -- which was about
the time I turned seven and heard my dad cussing as he
was trying to put together the bicycle I'd asked for.
He'd dinged his finger when the screwdriver slipped. He
kept insisting Santa didn't have time to put the bike
together for me, but I was pointing to the Sears and
Roebuck tag still attached to the box before he could
hide it. I had to promise that I wouldn't tell Mother I
had figured it out on account of her still thinking I
was an innocent.
Father was born in those backwoods, though, and he used
to tell me tales of dead wanderers and phantom armies
and wampus cats. I liked his stories, even if I didn't
always believe them, which might explain why I grew up
to write them down for so much a word.
It was Father who told me they used a plate of salt or a
divot of dirt to keep the corpse from wandering off.
And that is where my tale really begins.
You see, I was all of sixteen the day Aunt Delia crawled
out of her coffin and proceeded to walk out of the
family room and out of the house, just because her
husband, the aforementioned Uncle Gerald, forgot to put
a plate of salt on her chest.
Uncle Gerald had a problem with things like that. In
life, Aunt Delia pretty much led him around by the nose
because he couldn't remember half of what he was
supposed to do. He was a simple man, fond of collecting
butterflies and secretly reading the old romance novels
Aunt Delia used to keep on her nightstand. Sometimes I
think he wished he could be like one of those
hard-bodied heroes who could crush a woman to his chest
like a bag of corn chips on game day. Instead, he was a
small man, wiry and thin like a bunch of sticks held
together by hints of flesh.
Aunt Delia was his opposite, a large woman of ample
chest and double chins. She considered herself the
social butterfly of the hollow, and many a "ladies tea"
and a "summer soirée" was on her weekly agenda. She
entertained like a true southern belle, and the folks
who lived back in Old Bedlam Hollow came to respect her
opinion of everything.
Personally, I thought she was more of an old busybody
who couldn't stand not knowing every word of gossip
dripping off local tongues. More than once I was a
victim of her tawdry tales. She told Mother about my
diary -- which was really one of my early efforts at a
novel -- and Mother read all about my conquest of a
certain handsome bag boy down at the green grocer and
decided that I was the child of sin. I was forced to
watch as my "diary" was burned in the wood stove. Then
Mother locked me in my room and told me to read the
bible, not that I did.
Fortunately, my memory was good enough to rewrite the
whole darn thing, but I made sure to leave out real
names and hide the book in a cupboard up in the attic
after that. I told Aunt Delia that I hated her guts and
I would laugh at her funeral.
She merely snarled that if I had the lack of class to do
so, she would come back from the grave and drag me down
to the netherworld with her.
Not to be outdone, I let her know that I would remember
what she had done. I would be certain to make her a
bitter old hag of a character in a future novel, and see
that she got her just deserts.
She merely smiled her infamous southern belle smile and
threatened to tell my mother she had seen me kissing the
So I said I would just have to tell Sara Brown, who had
been her country fair rival for ages, that Aunt Delia
used cake mix instead of making her little petit fortes
We went on with this uneasy truce for years. Because of
Aunt Delia, I knew the Kelsey Twins were really triplets
whose daddy sold one of the babies to a city lady just
so he didn't have three mouths to feed. Mrs. Gable was
really Mr. Gable because he liked to dress in women's
clothing. And it was rumored that Mrs. Bedlam whose
family were the first settlers in the area, had buried
three husbands -- two where no one would ever find them
again. There wasn't a bit of nasty gossip that old girl
couldn't winnow out of someone, and I am ashamed to
admit, I got just as good at it to get back at her when
was not the least bit upset when the old girl took a
tumble that broke her neck. She slipped on the edge of
the porch after Uncle Gerald had scrubbed it down. She
had made him wash it with a toothbrush and dish soap in
a cup because she said he was the one who tracked the
mud up and down it when he got back from one of his
forays into the fields for butterflies. Naturally, he
got distracted and didn't rinse it off as well as he
could have, and then he went off chasing a butterfly,
and well, accidents do happen, and those who gossip do
get their comeuppance.
There was a wake, of course, a powerful tradition in
these parts. You die, and everyone throws a party, and
there is a lot of food and drink. And that doesn't say
a whole lot about the way people think of you as far as
I am concerned. One gets the impression they're glad to
see you go.
At any rate, Aunt Delia's wake became the most memorable
in Old Bedlam Hollow. Everyone gathered about the lawn
while Mr. Fogarty, the local undertaker, was making
last-minute adjustments on Aunt Delia's makeup and
hair. Uncle Gerald was apparently out in the kitchen
preparing the salt plate when a Speyeria cybele,
otherwise known as a Great Spangled Fritillary -- and
yes, I had to look that up because I had no clue what
Uncle Gerald was talking about -- flew past the window.
Since it was one he didn't have in his collection, he
went running into the laundry room to snatch up his net
and hat and bag and charged out the back of the house,
unbeknownst to anyone else.
Now I was sitting over on the wall under the apple tree,
and the bag boy -- whose name was Pete, by the way --
was over at the gate making eyes at me. And I was
imagining what he would look like decked out in tight
velvet breeches and a white shirt open to the waist when
I heard a round of bickering start up over near the
porch. A gathering of chairs and a podium had been put
up near the old arbor so the preacher could stand in its
shade to give his eulogy for Aunt Delia. It was Harold
Baker and his cousin Johnny Lee Stonewall, both of them
over eighty and thin as porch rails. What started the
fight, I'll never know. One minute, they were calling
each other names, and the next, their fists were flying
like leaves in the wind. Problem was neither could
fetch a sound blow on the other, so it looked more like
two girls having a fight in gym class; a lot of slapping
and squealing, mostly because Harold wore one of those
horrid old hearing aids that sent a sharp sound echoing
when his ears were pulled. At that moment, it was
Johnny Lee doing the pulling -- with his gums because
his false teeth were on the ground where he had spat
them out as the argument progressed.
have to admit I was laughing, but then so were a dozen
others. Mother told me to stop making a spectacle of
myself, and I was hard pressed not to tell her that I
was not the spectacle at the moment. She pushed Father
and ordered him to go over and stop those two before one
of them got hurt. Bad move. Father was holding a plate
filled with Cousin Birdie's fried chicken intended for
the funeral table, and the plate took a tumble, sending
chicken parts everywhere. And at that moment, the
Nelson's dogs decided to come over the fence and charge
into the fray to lay claim to the scattered bits of
succulent hen, and Father tripped over the dogs and the
By that point, I was ready to fall off the wall laughing
when movement at the door caught my eye. I turned and
looked, and I know my mouth was an "o" because there on
the porch, her front half decked in the clothes Uncle
Gerald had chosen to bury Aunt Delia in, was the old
girl herself. Her face was contorted into an expression
of righteous rage, and it was clear that she was trying
to open her mouth, and but for the stitches keeping it
shut, she probably would have been screaming.
Of course, a number people helped her in that
department. Her cousins Ophelia and Mavis shrieked in
unison. Several others began to flee for the gate. I
caught a brief glimpse of the horror on Pete's face
before the rushing horde ran over the top of him in
their attempts to escape.
stayed on the wall, not sure what else to do. Mother
was busy trying to get Father up off the ground, and he
was busy trying to find the eyeglasses that had taken a
tumble when he did. They were off somewhere in the
grass, I imagine. I didn't really care. I was busy
watching as Aunt Delia started down the path, her arm
extended like the finger of accusation towards Harold
and Johnny Lee. The latter keeled over, clutching his
chest while the former soiled his shorts and took off at
a desperate run, moving pretty swift for a man in his
eighties. His hearing aid squealed with each stride.
It was at that point that I learned that when you die
and a funeral director "dresses" your body, he doesn't
really "dress" you. In fact, he cuts the clothes open
in the back and tucks them in around the body once it
has been laid out in the coffin. So there was Aunt
Delia, walking stiffly towards Johnny Lee, working her
jaws up and down, her arm still extended, and her flabby
blue backside exposed to nature and all God's creatures.
That was when I finally lost it. I started laughing so
hard I got the hiccups. Preacher Jeremiah didn't help
matters. He got on his knees and started praying to God
to stop the devil that was making poor Aunt Delia walk
again. Mother was on her knees as well, and Father was
trying to wrestle a single piece of chicken from one of
the Nelson's terriers -- yeah, he really liked Cousin
Birdie's fried chicken enough to defend it.
Johnny Lee finally managed to get to his feet again, and
he was staggering back against the stone wall that
surrounded the front part of the property.
"Forgive me, Delia. I never meant to upset your
funeral!" he cried.
don't know if that confession actually satisfied her,
but at that moment, she turned towards me, and I could
see that there was nothing but wickedness in her eyes.
She started to stumble towards me, rigor mortis
stiffening her stride. I scrambled back over the low
stone wall that fronted her property. All the dire
threats she had ever made against me raced through my
mind. I wondered if she was about to carry one of them
out, and while I didn't worry about her telling my
mother anything -- how could she with her mouth sewn
shut -- I remembered that she once said if I dared to
laugh at her funeral, she would come fetch me into the
netherworld with her.
Pete was just getting up, and he saw me heading for the
road with a look of uncertainty in my eyes. I guess he
thought he should try to do something heroic, but Aunt
Delia headed for the gate and stepped out onto the road,
and knocked Pete back when her stiffly pointed finger
poked him in the eye. He went down squealing as she
started towards me.
There was nothing I could do but run. Where? I wasn't
sure. I rushed over to the family station wagon
thinking I could get inside and lock the doors as
thoughts of those horror movies where the dead came back
to eat the brains of the living flooded my mind. The
last thing I needed was Aunt Delia eating my brains.
Unfortunately, my father had locked the car and as I
tore at the handle in desperation, Aunt Delia was
started to run on, but Aunt Delia stumbled and blocked
my path. So there I was, stuck between two cars and a
high stone wall, a shambling, half-naked, flabby old
gossip bearing down on me. I backed away, trying
desperately to think of what I would do next when a
butterfly net came down on Aunt Delia's head.
"Run, girl!" Uncle Gerald shouted.
I took the instructions to heart and scrambled over the
front of the cars and back into the open road.
Aunt Delia was struggling in the grasp of the net,
turning and growling like some sort of beast. Uncle
Gerald merely pulled her off balance and forced her to
fall down. It was then that Mrs. Bedlam came charging
up with a big slab of sod and slammed it down on Aunt
Delia's chest. She gave one heaving sigh of a breath
and stopped moving.
Slowly, folks began to gather around. Mr. Fogarty came
out with his assistants and a board. They carefully
moved Aunt Delia's now truly dead remains onto it and
took her back into the house. I heard the sound of
several hammers pounding after that while the preacher
gave his eulogy. I guess they were making sure she
didn't get up out of her coffin again.
Uncle Gerald came to me later while the wake was slowly
coming back to life and apologized. "It was all my
fault. I knew Delia was going to make a spectacle of
herself, but I just couldn't resist that Speyeria
cybele. I hope she didn't hurt you, Cassie."
assured him that I was fine, but I have to admit that
inside, I was a bowl of gelatin, quivering and cold.
Besides, the only people really physically hurt were
Pete and Johnny Lee. The former was holding a steak
over his eye, while the latter had been carted off to
the emergency clinic. We had no idea where Harold ended
up, but some said it was over in the next hollow.
Oh, and Father had to have his hand bandaged because the
Nelson's terrier bit him and won the tug of war over the
All that aside, it was at that moment that I made up my
mind to leave Old Bedlam Hollow, which I now considered
appropriately named. And even now as I sit writing
these words, taking my revenge on Aunt Delia in a way
that no fiction could ever get right by relating this
tale, I can't help wondering if someone will remember to
put a plate of salt on Uncle Gerald's chest.
The last thing we need is him half-naked, chasing
butterflies around the hollow.