Today we finish Dad's funeral arrangements. I accompany Mom and Uncle because I speak English better than them. We don't know how to bury the dead the Western way, Uncle says. Help us.
First we drive to a megachurch, a big gated complex featuring a huge auditorium, a high school, a cafe, a bookstore, and a three-story building dedicated to administration. This is the same church Mom stopped attending after the head pastor had prayed for Trump in the election run-up. Afterwards the church sent letters stuffed with tithe envelopes for every missed week, which Dad had hidden.
Mom returned to the church, because of Gary, a pastor there. He had sponsored my family when they were refugees, helping them establish their lives in America. Now he'll facilitate Dad's burial, providing the Christian elements for the funeral service or, rather, what is now “a celebration” of Dad’s life. That’s more positive, Gary says. Tall and gangly and stooped, he looks familiar, a much older version of the man whose face peers out from a gold-framed photo in my parents' living room. Studying his kind-looking face, I wonder what he thought of our president.
As we design the programme, I insist that anything said in Khmer would precede the English parts. I will read the eulogy I’ve written for the program, as well as make a tribute. “Amazing Grace” will be pre-recorded because most of the attendees are not Christian, says Uncle, grimacing. There is a prayer before and after the meeting. Mom wants to give the church money for its help, but memorials are free for members. Don’t ask about weddings! They're expensive, says Gary, chuckling. As we leave, the cheerful blonde receptionist chirps, You have a blessed day now.
Afterwards we head to the funeral home, which is surrounded by a "memorial park", a neologism that coopts the terminology of leisure. Lush slopes are sprayed by hissing sprinklers, rare in drought-afflicted California. The dead lie under wilting floral arrangements, incandescent mylar balloons, and pinwheels that spin slowly in the stifling heat and light up at night. Smiling with candy-pink lips, a receptionist escorts us into a chilly, air-conditioned, oak-paneled room, hung with paintings. The subjects are all arcadian landscapes, ephemeral realms of the good life. We're supposed to feel comfort, looking at these paintings.
Angelica, the funeral director, has been busy all morning with other clients. She is brisk, not brusque but firm and gentle, as she fills out Dad's life insurance paperwork, a service provided for 500 dollars. Do you want a lump sum or an IRA? She finalises the last of his arrangements, a matter of ticking off boxes and noting special requests. Dad’s Khmer navy buddies want to order a wreath. Have them contact me directly, Angelica says.
The plenitude of options reassures Mom, who wants the power to choose and refuse. She insists she doesn't want candles printed with his photo. I have too many memories, she sighs, and Angelica nods before moving on to the next item.
Then we're ushered out into the too-bright, hot world, dazed and blinking among the other, unhappy families.
In The American Way of Death, published in 1963 and revisited in the late 1990s, Jessica Mitford excoriates the commericalisation of death by the American funerary industry:
"Gradually, almost imperceptibly, over the years the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying. The same familiar Madison Avenue language, with its peculiar adjectival range designed to anesthetize sales resistance to all sorts of products, has seeped into the funeral industry in a new and bizarre guise. The emphasis is on the same desirable qualities that we have been schooled to look for in our daily search for excellence: comfort, durability, beauty, craftsmanship. The attuned ear will recognise too the convincing quasi-scientific language, so reassuring even if unintelligible."
Such language offers "peace of mind protection", which appeals to Mom, obsessed with giving Dad's memory the peace that remained fugitive when he was alive.