Whiskey-filled wakes, post-mortem poetry

This week's Mail Tribune story about the cleanup at the Central Point Cemetery took me on a trip down memory lane to a dedication ceremony for my great-great-grandfather William Cooper, held at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Calif.

I never met the brave, bewhiskered gentleman. But I grew up staring at a life-size portrait of this fellow who had been a palace guard to Queen Victoria, a veteran of the Crimean War, and a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade — in which he lost his right hand. He was later fitted with a hook.

"I remember he used to drive his team of horses with the reins looped around his hook," said my mom. "He always gave me the cookie from his lunch box."

It turned out that this early 1990s afternoon ceremony was no simple dedication memorial. It was also a marker service.

My family is mostly Celtic. We're not big on graveside mourning. We lean more toward whiskey-filled wakes. Pathetically enough, our family had never deemed it necessary to buy a marker for the old guy's grave.

Now, many decades after his demise, some Light Brigade aficionado — a total stranger — had voluntarily done so.

There were at least 30 family members gathered about when I discovered the unknown Good Samaritan would be marking our relative's grave. I commented that perhaps the clan elders could take up a collection and handle this within the family.

There were no takers. Maybe they didn't want to offend the good-deeder.

We sat under a tent, shaded from the hot summer sun, while one of my uncles led us on a meander through days long gone. Things were going yawningly well when the cemetery hostess (now there's a fun job) stepped up to the podium. The big-haired woman gleefully announced she had "a big surprise" for us. With a yellow-toothed grin, apparently channeling Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," she bellowed: "Heeeeere's William Cooper!!!!"

Nothing happened.

Speaking surreptitiously into her walkie-talkie, the scary woman then started hissing.

"Send him down! Send him down now!" she sibilantly ordered.

Huh? Just as I was wondering who had the strait jacket, a golf cart came careening down a grassy hill carrying an old geezer dressed in a faded old uniform, hook and fake beard included.

Grandpa Cooper? Is that you?

Leaping out of the cart, "Grandpa" was hustled to the podium and proceeded to read Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." Hand to God, this really happened.

Only one thing was ruining the amazing realism of it all. At regular intervals, the man's beard kept getting caught in his mouth and he'd stop his recitation to spit and fuss at the errant hairs.

Afraid to look left or right, I just kept praying the fellow was not an actual relative.

"Please God. Please."

I looked at the giant portrait of Grandpa Cooper my mom had schlepped to the ceremony. I swear the old cuss looked back at me and glared.

"Well! You buggers never told my story! How else are they to know!?" he seemed to say.

Okay. Good point, Grandpa.

When the bizarre scenario mercifully ended, we all assembled in the chapel for tea and scones. During this bit of civilized noshing, a cousin informed me our grandparents, too, are buried in unmarked graves.

What is with this deadly anonymity? Are we all descended from the original witness protection crowd?

I informed my beloved mother, who had guilted me into attending this odd event, that the cousins and I were taking up a marker collection for Bomp and Ditty.

Mom would have to wait until her grandkids took similar measures on her behalf, when her own time came, since this reverence for the dead seemed to skip a generation or two, I told her.

Turns out mom preferred a simple cremation followed by a breeze-filled scattering.

"Someplace lovely," she said.

Mom died two years ago at age 93. My sis honored her cremation wish. But I haven't the heart to let her ashes take that final trip on the four winds.

Someday. Maybe.

When I go to that Great Newsroom in the Sky (which hopefully won't be owned by Rupert Murdoch), would someone please wrap me in the Sunday paper, then roll me down into the nearest gully? I don't want to risk any reenactments.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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