Two weeks ago my cousin died while on vacation overseas.

He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a biological brother and when I was in high school and he was a college dropout we did more than our share of running around getting up to no good. He bought me my first illicit alcohol. We and a friend of ours once got near-busted in a fallow field near our preacher’s house, the truck full of cheap toilet paper and plastic forks meant for the preacher’s yard, when a sheriff’s deputy happened by the moment we got out of the truck. To get us out of it I ginned up, on the spot, a complicated story about waiting to meet one of our other cousins. The deputy mulled it over and decided to let us go and as the deputy drove away my cousin turned to me and said, “Why’d you mention Other Cousin X? That guy must be new; if he’d been a deputy for any time at all he’d know how much trouble Other Cousin is always in! You might as well have claimed we were waiting for Al Capone!”

So, yes, we were those kinds of cousins: Dukes of Hazzard-style cousins, running around like crazy and doing stupid shit at every opportunity. I miss my cousin. I miss those times. I don’t want to rewind time and have to live all those years over again but those were good times and I don’t regret them in the least.

When I got the call that he had died I was pretty floored. He’d had health issues, we knew he had some heart problems, but I hadn’t really expected that they would ever lead to this. It was bad enough to lose my oldest sister but here I was, down another member of my generation of my family, down another major contributor to who and where and what I am today. That was one of the first things I said in reaction when discussing it with my father: “I’m the last person left in my generation who’s under 40.” That’s a weird way to think of it but for me it expresses a lot of context about my generation always having been the “kids,” even when my generation had kids of their own. There’s a lot going on in that statement I don’t have time or inclination to explain: elders who’ve never let go the reins of being the generation in charge, half my generation’s perceived overall failure to jump the hurdle into adulthood by becoming parents, that kind of thing. It’s not really worth talking about and it’s not what this post is about anyway.

I had been through my sister’s death several years ago and so I figured I had a pretty good grasp on how things would go once the lengthy process of formal Southern mourning began but right out of the gate there were complications: he’d died overseas and no one could find out when he’d be sent back. So, I went to work that morning and told my boss that I needed to take a couple of days soon for a death in the family but that I didn’t know when. My boss, luckily, was very understanding. I spent the rest of that week waiting to find out when exactly my cousin’s body would get back to the US. My family began drumming its collective fingers, holding its collective breath.

He got flown back to the States four days later, the day my fraternity’s alumni weekend began.

I spent that weekend partying with fellow members of the Hall. I didn’t talk about it much because, you know, I’m not Brigadier Buzzkill here. Around the events of that weekend I was dashing hither and yon to get everything ready to go spend a couple of days in my hometown. I had to get in my report at the Board of Directors meeting for the alumni organization, all that jazz, plus buy a new suit (my old one had something weird on the arm and wouldn’t quite button in the front anymore) and get the pants cuffed, etc. The Boyf was incredibly warm and supportive and understanding as I swung between manic and freaked out, listening patiently while I demanded of the universe why it was that every time I bought a suit it was because someone I loved had died.

All this means that I had to miss the private, family-only viewing on Saturday. Frankly, I was OK with this. As I told my parents later, seeing a dead body doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. I hate staring at a corpse. I hate it. I know they are dead. I realize some people need that to make it final and real, or need it for closure, or need to say their goodbyes, but I don’t. I don’t want or need that experience and it just serves to make things worse by further traumatizing me at a time when I’ve already got enough to deal with.

That Sunday I got up early and was out the door and on the road before eight in the morning to get to my hometown by noon. The Boyf had laundered my dress shirts and approved my neckties and given the suit a thumbs-up and wished me strength and I felt pretty well put together to face what I still figured would be a pretty predictable, understandable situation. I got to my parents’ place just in time to get dressed and load up into my parents’ car to go to my cousin’s church for the visitation and memorial service.

My cousin’s family’s church, for the last few years, has been a church in a nearby town called Nearby Town Community Church. The billboard for it has a lot of green and all the text is lower-case and it advertises a casual atmosphere. I was quietly grateful for the suggestion that these people would not beat me with a King James Bible on my way in the door. We got there to find it was a building that obviously didn’t start as a church but had been converted (no pun intended) to that purpose. The sanctuary was enormous and filled with chairs rather than pews. On our way to what we had thought would be the main entrance a gentleman stepped out of a side door and asked if we were with the family; I wondered how on earth he had guessed but was grateful for the shortcut he showed us. We got up to the sanctuary and I realized how he had known: we were nearly the only people there who were not in jeans.

Let me take this moment to say that the sign for the place had explicitly advertised a casual atmosphere and that anyone who knows me will readily agree that I would rather wear jeans than a suit any day of the week. That the people who go to the church had worn what they normally wear to church is in no way a mark against them; it’s simply not what I expected and so it threw me for a loop. I was already plenty off-balance and that was just one more rock in the road. We got there just in the nick of time, basically, so that I greeted a couple of cousins and my aunt and uncle and then we had to line up for the visitation line.

My brother-in-law, my remaining sister’s husband, is a really incredibly awesome guy who did not grow up in the south and grew up isolated from what few relatives he had. He was, I’m afraid, completely wigged out by the experience of Southern mourning. We were all quite accustomed to this – lining up at the front of the church so that the public can walk down the line shaking hands or hugging and talking to the family – but he was immediately so freaked out that he had to leave. I am no great fan of the visitation tradition, either, to be honest, and had made it plain when my sister died that I hated having to mourn in the spotlight. More than once during my cousin’s visitation I simply had to walk away, shove past whoever was in the line and go stand outside with my brother-in-law. The first time I walked out there, he told me a little of his family history and why all this made him so uncomfortable (beyond the visitation tradition being a little fucked up, to be honest). The second time I walked out there we were joined by my nephew who was having his first experience of a family death during adulthood.

“I hate standing up there,” he said, “It just makes it worse. I don’t know any of these people.”

“I know, and I hate it, too,” I said. “When your aunt died I had to go outside and just hide from everyone basically every ten minutes. I spent as much time hiding around the corner at the funeral home as I did standing in line.”

“So why do we do this?” Nephew asked.

“It’s not that anyone here is malicious,” I said after some consideration. “It’s not that they enjoy seeing us mourn. When someone dies, especially a death as unexpected and far away as this one, everyone wants one last chance to reach out and touch the life of the dead. They want one last opportunity to let the deceased maintain whatever bonds they maintained between the people here. We don’t know these people, but they knew Cousin and they want to touch what’s left of him. That’s us, his family. I know it’s weird, and I hate it, I hate the suffocating pressure of all those people, but it’s how things are done here. So, when it’s too much, take a break. If you don’t want to be up there, don’t be up there. No one’s going to criticize you. We all have to handle these things in our own way.”

My nephew and I then returned to line, where he stayed for a while before ditching entirely. I didn’t want to make him feel pressured to stay or not stay; I just wanted him to know that someone understood how he felt. The truth is, I think there is some malice at funerals. This is a terrible thing to say, but my experience is that the very young and the very old grin like idiots at funerals. Kids simply don’t know any better; the very, very old, I suspect, are thrilled to have outlived someone. Well, OK, I don’t believe that. I think they’ve experienced so many deaths and been to so many funerals that they’ve had a lot of experience handling that sort of thing and it doesn’t clock them the way it does someone who’s 30 or 20 or 15.

I still hated everyone who got to me in the visitation line and smiled and shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you.” Really? Do they hope more members of my family drop dead so they can see me again sooner rather than later? I would look daggers at those people and usually the smile would fall off their face and they would mumble something more appropriate. I never said a thing to those people. Those people weren’t there when Cousin and I were going fishing up in Huge Private Nature Preserve and left at a dead run after finding a fresh set of mountain lion prints crossing a trail we’d just taken five minutes before. Those people weren’t there when Cousin and I were on road trips, vacations, walking around Bele Chere, hiking, camping, telling stupid stories. Those people kindled a flame of unexpected anger in me that I couldn’t quite put out; I could only try my best to ignore it.

For the first thirty or forty-five minutes of the receiving line I saw no one I had met previously. I got so stuck on auto-pilot that eventually I shook a guy’s hand and said, “I’m Robust, I’m Cousin’s cousin,” only to blush purple when the guy smiled and said, “I’m Other Cousin X,” whom I had recognized immediately after speaking. “Of course you are,” I sighed. “I’m so sorry, it’s just that you’re the first person I’ve recognized.” He smiled back and shook my hand and said not to think twice about it and moved on.

As the line – hundreds of people shuffling past, almost none of them known to me – finally started to wind down my sister pointed out that ex-brother-in-law and his wife were there, in the very back, looking around like they weren’t quite sure what to do. Ex-BiL is our oldest sister’s widower. He is such an incredibly nice guy.

“I want to go say hey,” I said.

“So do I,” my sister said. Her son, Nephew, had already gone.

“Let’s go together,” I said, and the two of us stepped out of the receiving line together to go greet ex-BiL.

I’ve only seen him a couple of times since my sister died and that’s a terrible thing but it’s true. It’s not because I have anything against him at all; it’s just the way things have worked out. I hugged him and my sister hugged him and then we hugged his wife and we stood there exchanging greetings over and over for lack of what to say. Ex-BiL and I briefly agreed that Cousin is the very last person we would have expected to die so young and then, out of nowhere, I turned to his wife – the woman who very much stepped into my dead sister’s life when someone really, really needed to do so – and blurted out, “I want you to know that the time we met at my parents’ house and we sat in the living room talking about UNC was really great and I think back a lot on how wonderful that was.” I was, abruptly, sobbing. She hugged me and Ex-BiL hugged me and then they asked whether they could cut in and go down the receiving line even though the church ushers had stopped letting people get in line so that the funeral could start sooner rather than later. I assured them that I would make this happen and so we set off, them behind me, me decked out in my brand new pinstripe suit with shoulderpads that make me even bigger than I am and we started right up the center aisle towards my family.

An usher lifted a hand and opened his mouth to stop us and I simply gestured to one side as though scooting something out of the way – the way I might move one of the cats off of a book – and said, “Move.” He closed his mouth and got out of my way and I showed Ex-BiL and his wife to the front of the church where we all hugged again and I realized abruptly that I wanted to hug Ex-BiL’s wife because it was a little like getting to hug my sister. That sounds creepy when I say it but it’s true so I’m saying it.

Finally the receiving line was over and everyone staying for the memorial service had been seated and we had filed into the family rows at the front. My cousin was on a group trip overseas and on the other side of the aisle the church had placed a reserved section for that group of people. I know that they were there and their support was incredibly important to my cousin’s widow but a greedy, selfish part of me was insulted that they were treated with as much importance as we were: a terrible thing to confess at a time like that but, again, it’s what I felt so I’m saying it. As my sister and her husband and my nephews and I were settling in for what I figured would be a pretty standard memorial service one of the ministers came over to where we were and asked that everyone follow him. We stood up and walked behind him in little clumps, out a side door, through the parking lot, over to an old house next to the church that, it turns out, is owned by the church. On the way there my nephew, my brother-in-law and my sister all asked me what we were doing, where we were going. Finally I said, in full voice, “I have no idea where we’re going or why.” No one from the church replied with an explanation.

We all piled into the kitchen of this former house and some of the church people set out cookies and started making coffee. My nephew, with panic in his eyes, asked again if I knew what we were doing. “I don’t know,” I told him, “But whatever it is it can’t take long because there are hundreds of people sitting in that church waiting for us to get back, so don’t worry.” It turns out they’d brought us there to let us relax for a few minutes. I tremendously appreciated the chance to sit down where no one was staring at us. I cannot express how much I appreciated that, in hindsight. Something about the house set my teeth on edge, though, every nerve ending overstimulated, and I found it smothering at the time.

I sat down in a not-terribly-comfortable chair and crossed my legs and tried to let my mind wander. My sister sat down next to me and, her voice very quiet, asked me point-blank: “Do you believe anything at all of what we were raised to believe about religion?”

I looked at her – she had been a wreck since Cousin had died; he was more a brother to her than I’ve been by pretty much any measure – and said, just as quietly, “No. Not a word of it.”

“Wow,” she said. “Neither do I.”

We sat in silence and then I said, “You know what? If I still lived here, I’d still go to church with our parents just to avoid a fight.” I said this knowing my sister still goes to church with my parents.

“I actually like Parents’ Minister a lot,” she said. “He’s a professor. He’s very well-educated, very philosophical, very genuine. He isn’t phony. I feel good about him. I just don’t believe anymore.”

“Telling people from birth that they are inherently bad – from birth – is fucked up,” I said after several extremely long seconds. “I believe in something but some days I’m not sure what. ‘Wiccan’ works as an umbrella term for what I believe but I’m not what you’d call an orthodox practitioner of anything.”

“There’s a big tree in Nearby City,” my sister replied. “A bunch of them went up there and did a ritual around it because someone wants to cut it down and you know what I thought when I read that? I thought, ‘Well at least someone’s doing something.'” She paused again and then said, “You know, I think the Victorians really screwed us.”

“That’s what I want,” I said, “I want to believe in something that makes me do something. All this,” and I waved a hand, “Is pie in the sky, by and by. I can’t believe I’m supposed to feel guilty for everything I enjoy. I can’t believe I’m supposed to go to Hell for falling in love. I don’t think if that were the case that whatever created us would have given us a capacity for joy.”

We chatted briefly along the same lines and then a minister I realized might have been in earshot stepped into the middle of the room and loudly called everyone to prayer. My sister and brother-in-law and nephews and I all stood there watching him while everyone else bowed their heads. Then we went back into the church and along the way I said to my sister, “Not to dwell on it, but suffice to say I could jettison all of this and spend an hour up at the lake remembering Cousin and feel I’d done as good a job.”

The service, it turned out, involved a band. There were guitars and singers and a drum kit. The music minister wanted us to stand and clap along to a hymn known only by members of the church in question – thus cutting out the members of Cousin’s family who didn’t go to church with Cousin, namely me, my sister, my brother-in-law, my parents, etc. It was a song they said my cousin counted among his favorites so I’m glad they sang it but I didn’t know it and I didn’t sing. The music minister started off by saying, “Cousin loved to clap along to this song so if you don’t want to clap then that’s between you and God but it’s what he’d want you to do.” That took the little flame of anger that had sprung up when a few hundred strangers told me it was nice to meet me and threw gasoline on it. My hands stayed in my pockets and I glared through the rest of the service.

Someone from my cousin’s “home group” came up and talked about how they’d “circled the wagons” when they got the news. The overall minister was a slicked-up guy with a wireless microphone who talked about “doing life together” and how he was jealous of Cousin since Cousin got to go to Heaven now and I thought to myself, Mister, you can join him anytime. The minister then pointed out that “real” Christians don’t have funerals, they have celebrations. He exhorted us to set aside our sadness and focus on how thrilling it was that Cousin had gone to Heaven. I lost track of how many times he’d used the word “awesome” to describe various aspects of theology. He told us the greatest gift we could give Cousin was to get saved so we’d see him again when we died. He gave everyone the hard sell and it was so hard that I stopped feeling sad and thought to myself, to whom is he speaking? Everyone here goes to this church already… except for us: my immediate family. My cousin’s family all go there.

The minister tried to shake all our hands on our way out of the service and I childishly didn’t let him shake mine. I didn’t say anything, I just walked right past him, hands in pockets, and out the door. My family and I piled into the church’s fellowship hall for a meal. My sister and parents and I sat at the far end of a row of folding tables and ate and spoke to no one we didn’t already know. I had managed to choke down about all I could take of these people as they made it increasingly clear that for all the jeans and t-shirts in the world they were still highly evangelical fundamentalists.

All of a sudden, there was the minister whose yard Cousin and Friend and I had tried to roll the night I’d made up the story about Other Cousin X. I hadn’t seen that minister in probably fifteen years and there were hugs all around and there were her family and the kid I used to take off his parents’ hands sometimes and take to bookstores in Nearby City or whatever, just palling around and trying to be a role model, and he’s introducing me to his wife. I was stunned and elated and I could feel the tension of a bunch of guitar-strumming stealth fundies trying to smother me with their evangelism lifting from me the moment I saw them. We all hugged and cried and everyone else kept their distance. It occurred to me rather abruptly that the people at this church might have figured out that the minister in question was a she and not be comfortable with that. Well, fuck ’em. This lady did a lot to keep me sane at a time when my sanity needed all the help it could get.

Shortly after that, someone came and told me that the parents of Friend, the same friend who was with us on that same stupid expedition, were outside and wanted to talk to me. I went out and chatted with them for a few minutes about this and that and then Friend’s mother said, “You know, all I could think about was that time you and Friend and Cousin were out at Preacher’s place and that deputy stopped you.” I had no idea anyone outside the three of us had ever known; Friend’s parents and I roared with laughter.

At some point in all of this, my mother and I were sitting off by ourselves and my parents’ minister – the same one my sister said she really likes – came up and asked how we were doing. No sermon, no prying, no statement that he envies the dead; he just asked how we were. “Freaked out,” I told him. I glanced around, then, “I don’t know any of these people and I feel like I’m auditioning for the part of Grieving Relative. Plus it opens a lot of old wounds from when my sister died.”

“What wounds?” he asked.

“That sense of being vulnerable and on display at the same time. I hate that, I hate it more than anything else about the way we handle death in the South. I wasn’t ready for that part of it.”

My mother looked at him and said, simply, “We’re very private people.”

“This is the diametric opposite of ‘private,'” I said.

He said some words of sincere comfort and spent a couple more minutes with us before moving on. That was that. I still don’t believe but I do like my parents’ and sister’s preacher, too. He asked how we were, got us to talk about what we were feeling and then left us alone. The next time I see him I need to thank him for not being a fire-breathing fundamentalist.

As we were leaving, my father pointed at the house where we’d had coffee and cookies and my sister and I had talked. “You know, a lady I worked with used to live there. You remember the one who had a haunted house? That’s the house.”

I blinked at him. “The one who had the ghost in her house? That she could see? That used to watch TV with them?”

My father nodded. “The ghost was named Fred.”

That house, right there?”

He nodded again.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “I need to take some pictures.”

“No need to hurry,” my father said, “Your mother went to use the ladies room.”

I walked around the house taking pictures with my iPhone. I tried to get decent shots but the sun was in my eyes part of the time and it was hard to tell what I was shooting. My mother came out of the house as I was wrapping up and said, “Oh, did you take some pictures?” I said yes and she smiled. “Did your father tell you whose house this was?”

“Yes, I take it he told you?”

“Of course, that’s why I was in there poking around. You want to go look around?”

I said yes, of course, and my mother and I immediately turned around and marched into the house and started opening doors and looking around. “Maybe these are Fred’s clothes,” my mother said as we looked into one of the closets packed with choir robes or somesuch. The house isn’t a home anymore, it’s an outbuilding of the church. We didn’t feel that we were necessarily trespassing. We looked around, I took more pictures and then we walked out feeling exhilarated. We went back to where my father was waiting for us and as we left my mother and I begged him to tell some Fred stories.

“I don’t remember any,” he finally said. “I just know that if you ever said you didn’t believe in Fred that woman would set you straight. He was just as real to her as you are to me.”

“I take it you learned this first-hand?” I asked, smiling a little for the first time in what felt like a million years.

“You bet I did,” my father replied, not looking back. “I cracked a joke the first time she mentioned Fred to me and I never cracked another for all the years we worked together.”

“I don’t guess Fred’s there anymore,” my mother said with a sigh. “I called to him a couple of times but he wouldn’t answer.”

The next day was the graveside service. It was mostly attended by people who had gone to the church I went to when I was growing up, people I knew and who knew me and knew Cousin from childhood. I was a lot more comfortable around them. My oldest Nephew, the one with whom I’d talked the day before, abruptly said, “I don’t know any of these people, either, and I feel like I’m supposed to.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. “If you don’t remember them all that means is that time has passed and the passing of time isn’t just no one’s fault, it’s a good thing. This isn’t a pop quiz. Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know anyone.” He agreed and seemed to stop worrying about it and again I was glad that for once in my life I was there to be Uncle Robust. The same slicked-hair preacher was there to do the service and he turned it into another sermon. More than once he had to ask the crowd to come closer, to pack in together, so they could hear him. People in that crowd didn’t seem to want to be closer to him. I like to think they could smell the fervor.

After the service, my nephews and I stood together, talking. My oldest has dropped into and out of community college a couple of times, dropped out of high school to get his GED early, etc. He’s very intelligent and learns easily and was incredibly bored in high school and then woefully unprepared for the local community college which is actually very rigorous and challenging. He wants to be a History teacher one day but what he really wants is to also get an archeology degree. I am unbelievably proud of that ambition. I told him I thought he was wise to weigh his options and take school at a pace that’s right for him, etc. I assure him that, though he probably didn’t notice at the time, it took me seven years to get my “four year” degree and that I had to screw up and then work to go back more than once before school really took for me after I had spent high school completely bored.

Finally our conversation turned to Cousin and I said, “To be honest, Nephew, all my favorite memories of Cousin are things I can’t reminisce about in earshot of my mother.”

“You can’t tell any Cousin stories in front of your mother?”

I smiled at him. “Nope.”

“I never would have guessed Cousin to be much of a mischief-maker.”

“Oh,” I said, “It was a few thousand years ago, it feels like. We certainly made some mischief, though.”

My nephew pondered this and then said, “To be honest, there’s not much anyone can say in front of your mother.”

We laughed. My mother is much, much cooler than that implies – as I hope is indicated by the fact that she had gone into the old haunted house to poke around and then invited me to do the same – he was just cracking a joke to break the tension, to bring me back to the here and now.

We went our separate ways to speak to other people and I made my way over to my Aunt, the mother of Cousin and my mother’s sister. She and I said ‘I love you’ for the first time I can actually remember. My parents and I left and went back to their house for an early dinner/late lunch kind of thing. My father and I took a shovel out into the yard and dug up some of my grandmother’s money plant and my great-great-grandmother’s Jonquils and my great-great-great-grandmother’s tiger lilies for me to transplant into my yard.

I drove back home that Monday afternoon/evening and on Tuesday I spent the afternoon cleaning up the flower bed and turning the soil, adding some amendments, transplanting flowers from my ancestors. By the time I was done I was drenched in sweat and my forehead was sunburned because in the middle of it the sun came out from behind a layer of thick clouds and I had to turn and face it and close my eyes, face turned to the sky, to say a prayer to the Lord and Lady, the Sun and Moon, or whatever it is I believed in that day, to bless that act of gathering up some of the lives of those who had gone before and carrying them with me to make new life from them. A little of the earth my ancestors worked is in my yard, worked by me. All the frustration with the stealth fundies and all the anger and all the disappointment was still there; it didn’t magically melt away. I could handle it just a little better, though, and that was good enough to get me through the day.

The thing is, no one at Nearby Town Community Church – which I learned eventually is a Southern Baptist church that doesn’t advertise its denominational affiliation and which is picking up cheap land by the multi-acre parcel nearby while the sagging development across the street loses value; in other words, that it’s a seedling mega-church – was trying to insult me or make me feel alienated. It was in fact not all about me. Those people had their own way to deal with death and they were doing that. More for them, I say. From start to finish, though, it wasn’t what I was expecting and I wasn’t ready to be bludgeoned with anyone’s religious beliefs at the time when I was most vulnerable. That’s really what this is about, for me, and what I mean by the title: these people were circling a herd full of weakened prey the whole time. Maybe they didn’t consciously realize that, but I certainly felt singled out for that hard sell every time Slicked-Back-Wireless-Microphone opened his mouth. These people knew my cousin, saw him every Sunday whereas I saw him twice a year, and it’s even possible to argue that they and I didn’t even know the same guy given how much time had passed and how much his life had changed since those old days I remembered, those old times that rematerialized completely over the course of the two days I was there.

Their good intentions and how much they mean to my Cousin’s immediate family, though, doesn’t have to shape how I feel about them. They wanted to put words in Cousin’s dead mouth; they wanted to sing songs I didn’t know with explicit admonishments that not singing was to fail at a faith I don’t share in the first place. They wanted to smile and welcome us and say “nice to meet you” while I stood next to a picture of the person who most taught me what it meant to be capable of having the capacity for joy, the ability to laugh at one’s self and to have a taste for adventure. I’m sure if they were asked they would quite sincerely say that I had misinterpreted pretty much everything they said and I’d believe they don’t even realize, consciously, the effect they have on people.

They do have that effect, though: turning people off, making people feel guilty for mourning the death of someone they love, expressing explicit and implicit judgements where they’re unwelcome. I’m glad I don’t live anywhere near them. I’m glad they don’t have my number or any chance to run into me at the grocery store and ask what I’m doing on Sunday.

I’m glad they bought a haunted house.