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April 23, 2014
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Jerry's Ink


FUNERALS CAN BE FUN, TOO


When I was a kid living near Avenue U in the Italian section of Brooklyn, the only time I saw my entire extended family was either at a wedding or a funeral.

The weddings were "football" affairs with sandwiches tossed from table to table ("Hey, gimme a proshoot – all we have at this table is salami"). There were also giant pitchers of beer passed around, since serving hard liquor was seen as putting on "airs." Untalented and very drunk uncles would get up and sing "Come Back to Sorrento" to loud cheers. Beer-tipsy aunts could be observed scouting the room to see if they could pilfer a coffee urn or two.

Funerals were another story. They were the culmination of our greatest fears. We were all so close. We only had each other. A three-day funeral produced a lifetime of tears, but then after the tears came the stories about the deceased, and in time the stories produced warm thoughts and warm laughter.

One of my favorite funerals was the funeral of my former wife Barbara's grandfather, Ambrosio. In Greek the meaning
of Ambrosio (Ambrose) is "immortal." Immortal is, in this case, the wrong word because there was Ambrosio, dead as a doornail, lying in a casket in a Brooklyn funeral home.

Now, Ambrosio was a legend in the family. He was a not a nice man. He was an abuser, a world-class womanizer who would disappear for days at a time with his latest floozy. His long-suffering wife had the last laugh. On the day the family was first led in by the undertaker to see him lying in an open casket she looked down at him with a little smile on her face and said, in a loud voice: "Ambrosio, at last I know where you are."

At his wake a woman (maybe an old girlfriend) whom nobody seemed to know came walking down the aisle of the room where the corpse was laid out, screaming, "AMBROSIO! AMBROSIO! AMBROSIO!" Then she reached the coffin, looked at him and in a loud voice shouted, "LOOK AT HIM . . . LOOK AT HIM . . . HE LOOKS SO GOOD . . . HE LOOKS LIKE HE CAN
 GET UP AND WALK." Sitting next to my wife, I remember saying in a voice that might have been a bit too loud, "Lady, if he gets
up and walks I'm going to race you and him out the door."

Funerals were tough in my old neighborhood. We were a neighborhood of limited vocabularies and limited emotions.

When the going got tough we mumbled and smoked.

There was a lot of cigarette smoking: Mourners would arrive, pay their respects to the family, sit in one of those hard folding funeral parlor chairs mumbling to each other as long as they could stand it and then go outside the funeral home and smoke as many cigarettes as they could.

A wake was three days and there was always an open casket. Three days staring at an open casket is a long time and after a while I believe even the corpse got bored. There was always a group of relatives – aunts, uncles, second cousins, nephews – whose assignment was to be "cluckers." A cluck is not exactly like a "tsk, tsk," but it's close enough. "Angelo was such a good person," someone would mutter. "His lungs. How could something like this happen?"

How could it happen? Well
 how about Angelo was 89 years-old and had been smoking and inhaling those vile little black Italian cigars since he was eight years old? That's one reason it might have happened.

But any expression of sorrow was followed by a
 chorus of clucks, almost like a chicken convention. Closely related to the cluckers were the people who didn't cluck but made a weird noise by nervously pulling on the sides of their mouths and issuing a horrendous sucking sound.

I was raised on local home-style Avenue U funerals and then at the age of 19 I had my first "away" funeral. My former wife's boss, whose first name was Gus (I can't remember his last name) died. For my wife and me, his funeral was a case of culture shock. People were actually talking out loud about the deceased and smiling and the coffin was 
nowhere in sight. Worse, no one was crying. Also, there was not a priest or a cross in sight. What kind of people were these? The toughest part of the entire Frank E. Campbell funeral home experience came when my wife and I were told that the reason the body wasn't around was because it was going to be cremated. I got a little queasy when that was explained to me.

So there my wife and I were, sitting in one room with all these WASPs, knowing that somewhere on the premises Frank E. Campbell's guys were putting the torch to the man named Gus. Then things got really weird. A barbershop quartet dressed in those old-fashioned costumes entered the room and the leader pulled out a pitch pipe and started humming "MMMM . . . MMMM . . ." It seemed that Gus had been a charter member of a barbershop quartet and in his memory the group was going to sing a few songs. It was odd for my wife and me, a couple of kids from Brooklyn, sitting in a fancy Manhattan funeral parlor listening to "Down By the Old Mill Stream" and "Sweet Adeline."
That's when I lost it. I got the giggles. You know, the kind of giggles you get when you're in the third grade and you can't stop laughing even though the teacher is getting pissed off at you.

Finally I took a handkerchief, put it up to my face and pretended I was crying and dashed out of the room. I guess they thought I was strange. No one cries at a Frank E. Campbell funeral.

When my grandmother died many years ago, my brother and I were standing outside of Our Lady of Grace Church on a cold, snowy day, waiting to go into the church for the services. I realized this would be the first time I was setting foot in a church for many years.

I said to my brother, "I wonder what it's going to feel like walking into church after all these years?"

Someone gave the signal for the bells to start tolling and we started up the steps of the church. Just as we reached the entrance of the church the reverberations of the bells dislodged a great big chunk of ice. The piece of ice fell two stories and cracked me right on the top of my head as I was going to take my first step into church.

The impact knocked me face forward on to the ground into the vestibule of the church. My head was bleeding. From the ground I looked up at my brother and said, "Well I guess things have changed. It used to be he would throw lightning bolts at you. Now he's throwing snowballs."

My brother and I laughed hysterically all through my grandmother's service.

I would like to think my Grandma would have enjoyed the irony of the moment and laughed, too.

If you wish to comment on "Jerry's Ink" please send your message to jerry@dfjp.com.

  1. print email
    touching base
    April 22, 2014 | 03:38 PM

    Jerry,I want to hear about your experiences in the ungraded class.You give the impression that your a regular guy.Sure wish I could meet you.I spend four years in a retarded class and managed to get out,and became a NYC school teacher.Lets touch base,we are from the same neighborhood.Im Italian born ENY Brooklyn 1931.This story should be told

    mike boccio
  2. print email
    Funerals Can Be Fun
    April 22, 2014 | 06:36 PM

    Beautifully written Jerry. Try a Jewish Funeral...lots of food and funny stories about the deceased..but I'm sure Judy knows this. Still, my favorite funeral is the one depicted in "Love Actually" for the wife played by Liam Neeson.

    Really enjoy your stories, hope all is well,
    Jan & Mike Zimet

    Jan Millner Zimet
  3. print email
    Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
    April 26, 2014 | 01:51 AM

    Hard to have fun at a funeral when you know you might be next! Still and until then, old memories and anecdotes are always great when whistling past the grave yard. Another day just to have more fun before it's all gone.

    So make the most of every day my friends, because as Walter Peyton once famously said, "Tomorrow is promised to no one". BC

    Bill Crandall
  4. print email
    Hey did you hear the one about?
    April 27, 2014 | 03:49 AM

    The late night janitor who was cleaning up in the morgue, and half way through his shift, a corpse sat straight up.
    He was never heard from again.

    Mack Taylor
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