Friday, March 19, 2010

Funeral Alcoholics Anonymous-Style

I played the piano for a funeral this morning. I didn't know the deceased. More often than not, I don't know the person at whose funeral I'm playing, which is a bit odd considering the size of the city where I live. It's probably easier that way. If you or I died, we wouldn't want the musician weeping all over the piano or organ, then screwing up the music either because she or he couldn't see through tears or because the keys were slippery. I wonder who had to play music at J. S. Bach's funeral. That would have been a very daunting task for anyone who believed in life after death or that the deceased might be lurking.

The deceased at this funeral had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for more than fifty years. Most of the people in attendance at the funeral were members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The funeral proceeded like any other funeral until it came to the open microphone session that has become common at funerals. Every person who approached the microphone said, "I'm ------ and I'm an alcolholic," after which the congregation responded with an enthusiastic, "Hi, _____!" My mom told me that in A.A. and the other assorted Anonymous organization meetings, that's standard protocol.

At this point, the funeral was moving into slightly unorthodox territory, but the priest didn't appear overly concerned. Then a man named Gus stepped up for his turn at the mike. He began with the standard A. A. opening, but soon ventured into dangerous territory in a Catholic church when he launched into a litany of all the brothels he had visited with the deceased and spoke of how much time the two of them had spent cruising ****** Street, which is the known red light district in our area.

The piano in this particular church is located in the choir loft, so I couldn't see the faces of the family, but the priest became noticeably pale. He stood up about three times while Gus was speaking, then sat down again. He stood a fourth time, then walked up to the side podium where the scripture readers usually stand. He looked up at me and asked as the guy was still talking, "Can we have a hymn, please?" When I was younger it caused me great distress when a bride fainted or something else went off-kilter and I was asked to play an unplanned song to cover or camouflage something -- I'll write another time about the school Christmas program I inadvertently sabotaged-- but now I know at least to be mentally prepared to play something at any given point in a service or program. I played Handel's "I know That My Redeemer Liveth" because it was loud enough to drown Gus out if he created a disturbance as he was escorted away from the microphone. It ended up not mattering, because Gus surrendered without undue protestations.

After the funeral, I heard one of the funeral directors say that Gus had fallen pretty far off the wagon and probably needed to attend his A. A. meetings more faithfully. I probably should have known the guy was drunk, because my mom is Irish, and, not to be overly stereotypical, but she has her share of lushes in her family. Gus wasn't slurring his words in the way that I've seen my Uncle Ralph's brother Joe do when he's polished off a fifth of something potent, but Gus must have consumed enough of something to effectively block his filter.

The priest who officiated at this funeral was one I'd never even seen before. He looked a great deal like Peewee Herman (Paul Reubens, actually, I think). For all I know, Pee Wee may have taken the vows. I approached the priest and said that since we didn't have any say in the guest list at these functions, we deserve to be paid more when the guests acted up and we had to cover unexpectedly. He handed me a quarter from his pocket. It's probably wrong to accept money from a priest, but I needed the quarter to have enough change to get a soda from the church office machine because the dollar slot is always jammed, so I said thanks and kept it. He looked at me very strangely.

When my mom came to pick me up during her lunch break -- I'm not old enough to have my driver's license or even my learner's permit  -- she told me about a funeral at which she played. The woman died sitting in an easy chair, and rigor mortis set in before she was found, so she had to be wired into a reclining position in the coffin under her clothing. The person who did the wiring should have used stronger wire, or at least more of it, because the wires broke and she shot up into a sitting position right in the middle of the service. Everyone alive in the church, including the priest, the next of kin, and my mom, ran out of the church screaming. Not that I'd like the shock, but I'd pay to play for a funeral (as opposed to being paid) if I could be guaranteed that or something equally interesting would happen.

After school, I caught an episode of Judge Alex. The case was routine except that the plaintiff brought medical documentation of a need for surgery from her chiropractor. Not that I listen to everything my father says, but one of the first things he would tell you if he were here is that a chiropractor isn't qualified to determine whether surgery is necessary. The plaintiff went on to say that the chiropractor also presided at weddings and funerals, and had done her husband's funeral. I suppose just about anybody off the street can officiate at a funeral, as the deceased won't come out of the grave or otherwise suddenly become un-dead; probably no particular certification is needed just for conducting the funeral as long as you're not embalming the body. Weddings, on the other hand . . . If someone were married by that chiropractor, it might be a good idea to check into the legality of his or her marriage.


  1. My mom was an organist for over 50 years. This was interesting reading. Sounds like you have to be able to think on your feet when you're playing at weddings and funerals.

  2. That was a very funny funeral story that your mother told you.