Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Raccoon Funeral

I had the honor of presiding at a raccoon funeral over my vacation. Since it was a moving experience that I’m not sure any of you have ever had the chance to experience, I thought I’d share it with you.

One beautiful Sunday after church during our vacation, my wife and I loaded up the car with our children and headed off to her grandmother’s house. We were accompanied by her sister (Sis-In-Law), who lives several hours away but had come into town to visit us.

When we got to Granny’s, the first thing we noticed was the horrid reek of death hanging in the air and a cloud of flies searching for this fabulous buffet of putrescence. Granny met us and quickly ushered us inside, saying that she thought something must have died under the porch but couldn’t find anything.

Inside we met Aunt P, Granny’s younger daughter (at a youthful 60), who was in the midst of nicotine withdrawal because she couldn’t stand the stink outside to go smoke a cigarette. After some polite conversation, Aunt P finally broke down and announced that, come hell or high water, she had to smoke a ciggie. So she went outside to brave the heat, flies, and stench to get her fix.

Some time later she came back and announced, “I found the smell. There’s a dead raccoon on the steps leading down into the crawlspace.”

Immediately, my two children announced “Can we see it?”

Being a good father, I took them around back to view the corpse, because nothing says ‘vacation’ like a dead raccoon viewing. Because of the prevailing winds the smell wasn’t as bad back there, so we were able to creep fairly close and see a very dead, very large raccoon laying under a blanket of flies.

At this point I took some issue with Aunt P, because what she describes as “steps” I would more accurately call a three-foot plunge onto cement, but I suppose if you were eighteen feet tall that’d count as a step. Nevertheless, the very dead raccoon was laying at the bottom of that fall.

My daughter asked “Can we touch it?”

“No!” I said, “Raccoons have diseases like rabies when they’re alive, and I can only imagine howl foul they must be when dead.”

“Can we poke it with a stick?” My son asked, holding up an example stick that was all of two inches long. An image like the scene from The Thing where the corpse grew a mouth and bit off the guy’s hands came into my head, and I couldn’t deny him fast enough.

I finally ushered them inside, much to their disappointment, and I found Aunt P waiting for me at the door. “So, which job do you want: haul the body up out of the crawlspace, or digging the grave?”

I opted for neither job. “What’s a raccoon need a grave for? Doesn’t Granny have a neighbor she doesn’t get along with? I saw a swimming pool down the street; can’t we toss it in there and let them deal with it?”

Aunt P just gave me a look, and Sis-in-Law chimed in: “You’ve gotta bury it, or some animal might just drag it back here.”

Outvoted, it was clear that the raccoon needed a grave. Having investigated the fallspace, full of creepy critters and a raccoon corpse of unknown decomposition, I decided to dig the hole. How hard could it be, anyway?

So at this point, still dressed for church, I took a sixty-year-old shovel and went into the backyard to dig a grave for a big, dead raccoon. Aunt P went to get a sheet of plastic to put the corpse on. My wife comforted Granny. My children ran back and forth between me digging and Aunt P fishing out the corpse with a hoe.

What did Sis-in-Law, who seconded the motion for a grave, decide to do? She fled at high speed back to her home state, mumbling some kind of apology about how she had work tomorrow and it was a long drive. Cowardly cur! Did I mention she reads my blog?

One thing you need to know about Granny’s yard: it’s three inches of soil on top of hard, red clay. Needless to say, I broke the ancient shovel on the third try. So I borrowed a much sturdier pick, dating from the Eisenhower administration, from one of the neighbors (all the while hearing the theme song from Deliverance as I stumbled through his weed-choked yard to get it) and, using that and a garden spade, spent two hours digging a suitable grave for a Labrador raccoon.

As I dug, my children peppered me with appropriate questions like “Can we touch the raccoon now?” and “When can we touch the raccoon?” and “Is this stick long enough to poke the raccoon?” and “How long does it take to dig a hole, anyways?” The last was from my wife, who told me she would love to help me dig but didn’t have the shoes on for it.

But the one that got me was this: “Shouldn’t we have a funeral for it?”

“Well, I would,” I said, “But I don’t know what religion raccoons are.”

“They’re Jewish,” my daughter said. She sounded certain, so I asked her how she knew that. “Because they don’t go to church, and there aren’t any churches for Raccoons. So they must be Jewish.”

Rather than argue theology, I just agreed. Finally, when the hole was ready, I dumped the raccoon in, poured lime on it (why Granny has lime but no shovels is a matter for the cosmos), and then filled the dirt in over it. Then I put some cinder blocks on it, because they only thing worse than burying a raccoon is burying a raccoon twice. Finally, my son laid some flowers on it.

“Now we need to have a service.” My daughter said. She wouldn’t accept that I didn’t know how to give a Jewish raccoon funeral service.

So we sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Then we prayed: “Dear Lord, whatever it is you do with dead raccoons, please do that with this one. Amen.”

Finally, the funeral service completed, we said a final shalom to our raccoon friend and went on our way.

So I learned three things that Sunday at Granny’s:

1) Raccoons are Jewish
2) It’s better to retrieve the corpse than dig the grave
3) Next time ride with Sis-in-Law