“Rest in peace, Gram. So happy you’re finally home. We love you!” read my Aunt Patty’s Facebook post. I was sitting in LaGuardia airport with my cousin, Shauna. I read it aloud to her.
We were confused. We had buried “Gram,” my great-grandmother, in 1987. I remember all the funerals I went to as a kid because Gram was on the Irish side of my family, and at Irish funerals I made approximately zero dollars simply for showing up. This was in direct contrast to funerals I attended for the Italian side of my family. At those, every relative I said hello to told me what a beautiful young woman I was becoming, how I looked just like my mother, and then slipped me a five dollar bill. At my Italian grandma’s funeral, I walked away with $150 dollars. It would be my most successful funeral ever.
Shauna and I couldn’t resist. I wrote back below the post on behalf of both of us, with a slight giggle: “Ummm, where has she been?”
I received a text immediately. “I took your post down so Jane Smith doesn’t see it,” my aunt wrote. “Call me.” Jane Smith was the current director of the Mary Smith funeral home, the place where my family has had all of its funerals (we’re from a rather small town). Jane took the funeral home over from her mother, the titular Mary, a few years ago.
I looked at Shauna. “Well, this should be good.” We dialed.
As it turned out, Jane was doing some routine spring-cleaning in the funeral home when she came across a little-used closet in the back. Inside the closet were a number of boxes, and upon inspection it was discovered that inside those boxes there were... people.
Apparently Mary had been quite a drinker later in life—enough of one that it led to her (forced) retirement. During some of these lost years, she had apparently not shipped the ashes for quite a few of her patrons to the various cemeteries to which they were headed. Instead, the ashes were stored away. My great-grandma had been in the back closet of Smith’s funeral home for nearly 26 years. There is no standard response to hearing something like that. Shauna and I hung up the phone.
We took moment and looked at each other to digest this strange, ridiculous news. We were feeling punchy—we were headed to my sister’s 30th birthday party in Atlanta, and we were in the mood to go out and get drunk already.
After a moment, trying my hardest to hide a giggle, I asked Shauna the most pressing question I had on the matter. “Would it be accurate to say that Gram has been trapped in the closet?”
Eyes wide, she whispered back without missing a beat. “Oh my god. Is Gram R. Kelly?”
We couldn’t help it. We cracked up. And then, because we are terrible people, we kept going.
“I think R. Kelly owes Gram some serious royalties. There are, like, 26,000 parts to Trapped in the Closet.’”
“Do you think there were any...wait for it...skeletons in those closets?”
“Yo, what if grandma had a boyfriend in there? The whole graveyard is going to be talking about this!”
“What will great-grandpa say? He’s been chilling in peace for, like, two decades! Anyone want to even ask him what he thinks about this mess?”
At no point did we stop to question if we were going straight to hell for making fun of what is a pretty grievous clerical error. Apparently, according to my other aunt who went to pick up the ashes, there were enough people in the closet to fill a two-page, single-spaced Word document. That’s a lot of people not to be in their final resting place. And yet, we laughed anyway because seriously, what a strange thing to have happen to your great-grandma.
Several weeks later, a very beloved aunt—the matriarch of our family, really—passed away. She had been ill for a long time, and while we were sad, we also didn’t want her to suffer.
So we all entered Smith’s Funeral Home with heavy hearts to say goodbye to one of our favorite people. But as we talked and hugged and remembered our aunt, the mood brightened. We realized our aunt, who was so full of life and laughter, would hate to see us so sad. Eventually, the wake evolved into more of a remembrance. Before long, the room’s mood had lightened as we shared our favorite stories.
A few of us gathered in the hallway at one point to use the restroom and grab some water. As a group of us cousins stood around, Shauna made her way over to the coat closet.
She called out to get our attention, opened the closet, cupped her hand over her mouth and called out, “Gram? Hey Gram, you in there?”
The silence was complete for a beat, and then we lost it. We erupted. I laughed so hard and for so long, I swear I peed a little. I laughed about it for weeks.
Since then, I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I can take away from this story—aside from the obvious fact that my cousins and I are the worst. I feel there must be some lesson when you learn your relative’s remains have been in a closet for nearly three decades. I’ve come up with a few.
1.) It’s not like Grams knows. Or maybe she does. Does it matter? I believe in an afterlife, and from the somewhat embarrassing number of television shows I watch on death, dying and what happens after, I’ve learned that it seems no one on the other side is really worried about anything happening here on Earth. I mean, some people don’t cross over because of residual issues, and some people just want to stick around to haunt the living, but for the most part, the majority of beings seem pretty content with the great beyond and just want to chill. My Gram liked to stuff bourbon in her couch cushions and drink it when she was home alone, and then lie when someone asked her if she’d been hitting the bottle, as if being a drunk elderly person is something that can be easily hidden. I’d like to think that if she was aware of not being in her final resting place, that same cool attitude would mean she’d be okay with getting misplaced for what equates to a millisecond in the grand scheme of time.
2.) You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather. (Thank you, Outkast.) Maybe the point of my Gram’s ashes being in a dark closet for 26 years is a reminder that death is no different than life. You can make a plan, but that doesn’t mean the plan is going to unfold the way you want it to. As in: Sure, you can plan to go to a cemetery, but that doesn’t mean you will get there. Some things are just out of your hands. Literally, your hands (or the ashes of them, anyway) are sometimes in someone else’s hands and that person may be drunk. What can you do?
3.) It's better to have a family that laughs instead of litigates. I’m sure there is a more litigious family out there that would have seen this error as a major payday. A family that could have made some serious dough off these shenanigans and then taken the group trip of a lifetime to Hawaii. The fact that my family simply went and picked up the ashes, took them to the cemetery, and then made a series of terrible jokes is probably the same reason why my family has no millionaires.
However, I’d much rather have a family that makes me pee my pants from laughing than one who would take a daughter to the cleaner’s for her mother’s mistake. And with a family of our size, we’d really only be able to take one nice trip to Hawaii as a group, anyway. I can pee my pants anytime with them for free.
Previously: Conversations With Old Men
Lia LoBello works in public relations and marketing by day, but spends her nights crafting, cooking, and watching real-crime television. She tweets at @lialobello. If you know of any good shows about murder, revenge, or psychic children, please let her know immediately.