Jason Reynolds’s latest novel, The Boy in the Black Suit, is about a 17-year-old boy who works in a funeral home in Brooklyn.
You know what sucks? Death. Straight up. And what blows about it even more than the inconceivable pain of loss, is the fact that it’s one of the few things in life that’s actually inescapable. It’s an all encompassing fact. The ultimate bummer. And as a person who has been force-fed this bummer far more than I would like, I have to admit that the only thing more fascinating than the end of life, is the banquet we throw to commemorate that finale. Yes, funerals. They suck too. But only sometimes. Actually, most times. But there are moments when funerals go from a stew pot of grief, to a well of inspiration, and when we’re really, really, lucky, a haven for a hearty, hearty laugh.
Here are three funerals that shaped my life.
I was ten years old, and, for me, Daisy’s funeral would be my introduction to the mystery of death and the tradition of the southern black homegoing. She was my grandmother, and I loved her dearly, like a grandson does, but admittedly, I had never known her as an image of health. By the time I came along, Daisy had already had her share of issues, her mind already failing and a severe stroke had left her bedridden. So most of my time with her consisted of sitting with my grandfather at the kitchen table as Daisy was being fed, or watching my mother warm the hot-comb on the stove so that she could straighten and braid Daisy’s thick white hair.
But when Daisy died, I had no idea what to feel. I hadn’t had the same relationship with her as the older members of my family, so as we sat in the church, listening to the senior choir trudge and wheeze through hymn after hymn, I watched my mother and aunts and cousins sniffle with emotion while I struggled to peel the crackly film from a strawberry candy. I kept looking at Grandpop. He wasn’t crying and he was sitting right in front of the casket. He seemed strong. Unbothered. Until we made it to the gravesite. And once they began to lower Daisy’s casket into the ground, my grandfather exploded. He belted the strangest, guttural sound from somewhere deep, deep like the memory of their first date, or their wedding day, or the birth of their three daughters. The sound was like a siren of sadness, and it pierced my ten year old psyche melting me on the spot. The tears came. And though I still didn’t have a close enough connection to Daisy to feel the pain that everyone else felt, I could feel the pain of their pain. I could be broken by their brokenness. I was being taught empathy, in a devastating and ultimately brilliant way.
The phone call came just after midnight. My friend, Darrell, was on the other end. His voice shaky and weak. “Randell is dead,” he said. I was eighteen, Randell, twenty.
We still don’t know what happened that night. All we know is that the police found his body in a cemetery, burned from the inside out. I had been with him a week before. I had been with him everyday in high school, laughing and joking in the hallway, and even after school, begging him for rides to girls’ houses in his beat up car that couldn’t go in reverse. I remember he had his own beeper code, 7730, which when flipped upside down, says, DELL, his nickname. His laugh. His strange but endearing, spaced-out disposition. He was embedded into the fabric of my life, like family, and just like that, he was gone.
Because of how badly Randell was burned, his mother opted to have him cremated but still wanted to have a casket at his funeral for symbolic purposes. She asked me to be a pallbearer — to help carry the empty casket. Of course, I agreed to do it. I helped carry it in to the church. And I helped carry it out. And everything in between, the actual funeral, was the most painful blur, a futile demonstration, impossible to spin into a celebration of life. Randell was snatched from us, and though it’s been over a decade, the pain still sits like a marble at the base of my throat, far too big to swallow.
A woman that everyone called Bud had to be awesome. No other option. She was my mother’s youngest sister, the handful. Rambunctious and gregarious. Extremely loving but careless in the best way. Nothing was a big deal except having big fun. But what was most fascinating about her was that she was legally blind and diabetic for most of her life. She had brushed against death several times, but bounced back unafraid, unrattled, refusing to let her somatic issues penetrate even a smidgen of her personality. She loved to party, and joke, and shop, and travel, constantly redecorating her house or reworking her chic and always trendy wardrobe. Simply put, Bud insisted on having the time of her life until her time was up.
Her funeral, despite the obvious fact that everyone who ever met her would miss her, was pleasant. I wouldn’t dare say it was easy, but the sentiment seemed to be that she literally rode her life until the wheels fell off, and therefore was victorious. Not that life could actually be a thing that can be won, but if that is at all a possibility, I think Bud showed us that perhaps one way to win at life is to choose joy daily. To choose to laugh, especially at yourself. To choose to love everyone around you. To choose to avoid self-pity, and instead engage in self-party. So we celebrated Bud’s life with jokes and her favorite songs, and the best crazy Bud stories we could think of. We honored her for bringing such light to our lives, and we continue to honor her by honoring ourselves simply by choosing happiness every single day.
There have been tens of funerals between these three, each one unique in its own way, each one giving me a different nugget, even if sometimes it’s only a new kind of pain. Often the gift of funerals aren’t clear until much later. Sometimes the lesson may never be illuminated. But for me, it’s important to think that the funeral is the welcomed soapbox for mankind to deliver a final reminder to the remaining, that love is powerful and real, that we are often tethered to each other by our pain, and most importantly, that life is precious and happening.
Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories. After earning a BA in English from The University of Maryland, College Park, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where you can often find him walking the four blocks from the train to his apartment talking to himself. Well, not really talking to himself, but just repeating character names and plot lines he thought of on the train, over and over again, because he’s afraid he’ll forget it all before he gets home. He is the author of the critically acclaimed When I Was the Greatest and The Boy in the Black Suit. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
The Boy in the Black Suit is now available.