Open or closed? His question hung in my head, a mental metronome undulating. Open or closed? It did not serve as a mantra used to focus the mind. No, the attendant’s question precluded focus and only intensified mental molestation as it required an answer. One would think we could agree upon an answer with relative ease. For me, though, still reeling at the thought of another funeral, the question hung weightless. I knew before asked I preferred closed; yet, there was my mother and sister to consider as well as those only a few months ago dad shunned after the nuclear Thanksgiving not yet four months past but who were certain to come, understandably, to bury their boy. Open or closed?
After mom decided we would have a “proper” funeral, after struggling with the patriarchal Gunns on the funeral’s location, and after, against my wishes, a cremation was vetoed, open or closed was the last pressing question. We already viewed the casket show room, kicked the tires if you will, and settled on a practical and accommodating model. We perused the menu of services and opted for the large chapel as we anticipated a crowd. Though dad was not religious, I did not object too harshly when my maternal grandmother offered up her preacher to perform the service. It was yet another peace offering of sorts to the other family who would most assuredly object to a more secular service. Open or closed, though, remained unsettled.
My steadfast closed opinion was due to the ghost of funeral’s past. I still remember the first time I touched a dead body, a husk of what was. I was seven or eight years old at my great-grandmother’s funeral. I was intrigued by death as the too young often are, and my cousins and I dared each other to touch her one last time. I remember only cold. Over the intervening years, I attended other great aunt’s, uncle’s, grandparents, and eventually friends’ funerals with some regularity. Coming from a small town as I do, when a teenager dies, you know them even if you don’t, and you attend the funeral in any event as you would any other social or church function. There is no question. You go.
When I was 15 a friend shot himself with a .22 caliber rifle ending his relatively young life—he was 22, coincidentally, I believe—and I vividly remember his lifeless body and how obviously different he looked. I cannot see his animated face for the memory of his death face and the obvious attempts to mask the bullet in the head. Four years later after other suicides and drunk driving tragedies, at another open casket affair after my 20 year old friend killed himself and his girlfriend in a drunken single car wreck, I watched his father wrench his carcass from the coffin attempting to shake him back from Tartarus or wherever. I was a pallbearer and even at 19 understood this father’s grief at the loss of his son though I was unnerved by this large and strange man’s sudden grief-epiphany.
Closed. I am decidedly closed. My mom and sister both want to see dad, to say goodbyes, to grieve in their own way. I am sure others want the same. Who am I to selfishly deny others what may bring some peace? We reach a compromise. Visitation for family and close friends is open, but the funeral itself is closed. I attend the visitation, but my last vision of dad remains the day he left my apartment three days before his murder, and I never see him lifeless and still. Closed.
The visitation and funeral itself could have been one like any other but for the facts of dad’s death, the media frenzy which followed, and the freak southern blizzard of 1993 which significantly impeded what otherwise promised a SRO funeral. In fact, many people I later met and subsequently befriended told me they fully intended to come to Tennessee for the funeral but were snowed out.
Before we even confronted the impish funeral director’s open or closed query, the media landed, a harbinger of the coming real storm. Back in ’93 I still had some fairly strong illusions of privacy, and we were amazed at the speed with which the press located us in Winchester, Tennessee when dad was killed in Pensacola, Florida, and my sister, mom, and I lived separately in Birmingham, Alabama. Yet, they sherlocked us down looking for the human interest angle to a controversial and promising long term story. They started calling, obviously, the day the assassination occurred. It did not relent as we prepared for a memorial and funeral. Open or closed, indeed.
Press from all over the country flocked to the Moore-Cortner funeral home. People magazine grabbed mom, Wendy, and I for photos and an interview on the funeral home steps. Print reporters mingled with the visitors looking for us and others to quote hoping for bi-lines and copy. I do not recall video cameras at the visitation though I spoke with as many of them as I did friends and family or so it seemed.
The media presence and my heightened stress at seeing the patriarchal Gunns lent a surreal air to the proceedings. As if out of ether, they were in the home. I spoke but do not remember what was said and whether it was comforting, remorseful, or cold. Now it seems I felt only a sense of sadness bordering on pity for the parents who lost a son twice before his time: once while alive after the prior fall’s Thanksgiving fiasco and once more with violent finality this time. As the visitation spectacle continued, the family stress mounted, and weariness turned to exhaustion. A caravan of friends from Birmingham was staying at my grandmother’s. We retreated to her house where the proper adults congregated upstairs and the “kids” (we were 22 and younger) hit the finished basement as we had on so many reunions in the past to comfort each other with our company and contraband, “Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…”
Snow covered the new spring grass and fresh oak tendrils on the day we buried my dad. The freakish blizzard almost postponed the burial, but we soldiered on through the real and metaphorical storm inside and out, open and closed. I have almost no memory of the chapel service. Hollow words and “only God knows” pedestrian rationale from a holy man I did not know held no meaning for me whatsoever. All I knew was my dad was gone; the world as I knew it ended, and beyond there seemed nothing. My mom asked me to deliver a eulogy of sorts, but I was steadfastly closed and refused this request. It may be my one regret from those two days which seemed a lifetime.
Of course, the carrion crow cameras flittered about as we were graveside. I laid a last rose on the coffin which was now firmly forever closed. We said graveside goodbyes to those who were not snowbound and stranded and returned to grandmothers for more comfort of one sort or another. In a paper somewhere is a photo of my then partner and I sharing a graveside embrace.
The next morning I received a call from a woman I’d never met but who seemed warm enough. She explained she owned the clinic in Columbus, Georgia. This clinic was about sixty miles northeast of my second Alabama home town, dad worked there for years, and it was the first clinic I visited with him. That shared bond gave trust to the conversation. She explained how a friend of her and she were invited to appear on the Donahue show to discuss dad’s murder. She relayed the producer’s interest in having a family member attend as well. I had mixed emotions about discussing such a private matter in public, but also felt a responsibility, a naïve one perhaps, to share dad’s story in hopes no other family would be forced to answer the riddle of open or closed as a result of anti-abortion hatred, fear, and moral superiority. On this point, I opted for open and an ending proved a beginning.
David Gunn, Jr. is the son of David Gunn, Sr., the first abortion doctor to be assassinated by an anti-abortion gunman, and blogs for Abortion.ws
Photo by mike krzeszak released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.