Saturday, May 20, 2017

Where we put the fun into funeral

YOU MEAN TO TELL ME Your grandma didn't
keep a copy of this handy?

I've been paid to attend a couple of funerals recently because my daughter Ria, who is a licensed funeral director, put me in touch with an organization that is sort of like a supply-teacher company for the funeral business.

It works like this: If a funeral home is overloaded and needs, say, an extra hearse driver, or if a family wants pallbearers but there's nobody at hand, this organization sends in help. So they maintain a roster of people like me: I have a driver's licence, a flexible schedule, I clean up pretty good.

It helps that I really like funerals. Always have.

Some people are at their best rinkside at a hockey game or making, like, a PowerPoint presentation. Me, when I am standing beside an open casket or leaning over to read the names on the sympathy cards attached to bouquets, I am, as they say,  in the zone.

Makes sense, really. I come from a huge sprawling Irish/Scottish Catholic family. Everybody dies, and funerals are just a part of life.

One of my earliest memories has four-year-old me visiting Kelly's Funeral Parlour in Ottawa. I don't know who the old person in the casket was--some distant relative--but I recall wondering if his or her hearing aid, which was still in place, was still functioning.

For years, on one of the coffee tables in my Grandmother Carter's living room sat a book called "Irish Wake Amusements."

And wait'll I tell you about the night Pat Murphy died.

I was probably in grade two or three.

I had been taking piano lessons from Janet Anderson, who was the absolutely stunning daughter of my mom's best friend Ida Anderson.

Janet was about seven years older than me and the only thing I can remember about the lessons is the way her delicate hands danced on the piano keys and that she sat straight and elegantly on the piano bench; her waist-length shimmering black hair cascaded down her back. My music teacher had fine white skin and very red lips and the more I think about Janet the further I'm going to stray from my topic of death. But it was because I was taking piano lessons from Janet that, one evening, I was in our basement pretending to practise scales on our big old upright black piano.
MY MOM'S BROTHERS: Fun-loving uncles
Alex and Stellie

Like with everything else in my life, I really wanted to play the piano, but I did not want to practise.

Upstairs, mom and dad were entertaining some relatives and I could hear they were having a lot more fun than I was.

Drinking might have been an activity. Laughing certainly was.

Anyway, our downstairs piano was situated right beside the basement bathroom.

At one point, my mom's brother Stellie came down to use the facilities. (Stellie. I know. His full name was Stellarton. My mom's name was Huena. That's another blog altogether.)

But never mind that. What's important is that instead of going right into the bathroom, Stellie plopped himself down beside little boy Pete on the piano bench.

It would be safe to assume that he might have been holding a drink and/or a cigarette.

He said something like, "Um.. how about this one.. " and then... and then..  he started banging away at the keyboard. Chording. I'd never seen it before.

And he sang. Loud. And somehow, he was laughing, all at the same time.

 "Ohhhhhhh.... The night that Patty Murphy died was a night we'll never forget!  Some of us got good and drunk and some ain't sober yet. Said it was a sin and a shame and we winked at one another. something something something something the night Pat Murphy died."

It was completely spontaneous, unrehearsed and Stellie was having the most fun I'd ever seen any adult have, ever.

I had no idea a mortal could just sit and play and belt out a song with such unrestrained joy.

Stellie didn't care if he hit all the right notes.

Stellie didn't even know all the right words. I could tell he was making half of them up.

He just had to sing and didn't care what he sounded like.

I'm kind of sad to add that Uncle Stellie died far too young, not long after that epic basement performance. So I never got tell him how much his song meant to me

But when Stellie was belting out Patty Murphy, he was completely and utterly living in the moment and that inspired me to take the same approach and anybody who knows me will tell you I love making music for fun and it's often when we're doing that kind of stuff a person is most alive.

And that's why I like funerals.

P.S. Here's version. Not as good as Stellie's but it'll do.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Stellie taught you how to spit like a miner

  3. This post brings back a lot of beautiful memories, thanks Peter

  4. And Peter it is always fun to hear you make music.

  5. Gee thanks guys. Thanks for reading and saying kind things. I was lucky to have such great uncles--I'd forgotten how to spit like a miner Tom. But I'm glad I knew. I'm sure it'll come back to me.