Incense and Root Beer

9 10 2010

Cemeteries have be the part of so many pieces of literature that I hesitate to use one as a subject of my writing for fear of it coming across pedestrian and filled with cliches.  The idea for this post has been simmering in my subconscious for nearly three years but not until earlier this week did it come to the surface where I could examine it and determine if it was worth writing about–I’m still not sure it is.

Being raised Roman Catholic and being a practicing Catholic until my mid-20s, I have seen my share of ritual as well as being a part of those rituals as an altar boy.  In fact, I served as an altar boy from the 4th grade up through the time I left for college.  To me, one of the most fascinating of the church’s rituals is the one surrounding the internment of the deceased.  Of course, most cultures have elaborate rituals and beliefs about dying and the afterlife and, in my mind, one is as good as the other since no one has every been able to write a first person narrative about the experience.

I cannot remember exactly when I became aware of funeral masses and the ceremony at the gravesite but I suspect I first experienced the funeral mass in the 3rd grade. School children in Catholic schools were herded into church to sing at funerals which were usually scheduled mid-morning.

In the established pecking order of Saint Joseph School only 7th and 8th grade altar boys were allowed to get out of school to serve at a funeral mass and then go to the cemetery with the priest for the graveside ceremony.  After I served my first funeral I knew I wanted to serve every one that I could.  Getting out of school was cool but the real reason was because the undertaker, Frank Colvin, always took the alter boys to Dick Clark’s Drive In for root beer.  This was our little secret.  Father Egloff and Sister Mary Lea had no idea that when we were with Frank, we were really skipping school. I guess that is why the root beer always tasted so good.

I know we had to be a funny sight; three altar boys in full black cassocks complete with white surplices and a undertaker in a long black hearse. Hanging of the driver’s window of the hearse, a curb service tray holding four frosted mugs of root beer–life was good.

I had not thought about the undertaker and the root beer for decades until October, 2007 when we buried my dad and I saw the altar boys/girl at the gravesite.  As sad as the mood was, I smiled a little smile and hoped that they too might get a cool drink after a hot day of carrying a heavy crucifix and getting light-headed inhaling the smoke from the incense.  No pain, no gain.






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