I have a recurring dream about going to a stranger's funeral.
I do that, really, in life -- go to strangers' funerals. It's because I have this recurring anxiety (that's different) that no one's going to go to my funeral. And it's awful, just nauseating, physically, and I bet it probably would be for other people, too, if they could feel, if they could know it. So I go to their funerals, in case they can, and so maybe, karmically or something, someone will do the same for me if nobody I know ends up going to mine. Not that I think they won't -- I have friends, and still some family, or maybe vice-versa -- but just in case, you know.
It's not crashing, like crashing a wedding. I sit in the back and shut up. I never make up a name or a backstory or anything, just sit quietly and watch and think about what might have this person been like, back when they were walking around and talking and thinking and burping. If anyone asks me how I know the deceased, I say "I didn't. I'm a stranger." Completely honest. Like that. Sometimes they get mad. But sometimes they think it's sort of sentimental.
Anyway, what does any of that have to do with my dream? Just an explanation, that's all. Just giving you the background information you need to understand that when I say I have a dream about going to a funeral and not knowing the guy whose funeral I'm going to, that's not the funny part. That's something that happens, in the world. That's normal. Like having dreams or having anxieties or stealing hotel towels or dying.
Once I get there, there's no one else. This is significant because that's exactly what I'm afraid of happening at my own funeral. It means I can't change my mind. This is exactly why I'm here. Cause no one else is. Poor guy.
I take a seat in the back, like usual. I'm wearing my fake tuxedo like I wear for a magic show, when I'm doing a magic show, but no top hat. That's too much. But it's a little funny to be sitting all the way in the back when there's no one sitting up front, so bit by bit I move forward, maybe prompted by awkward looks from the rabbi. (Where I live, it's mostly Jews. Even some non-Jews get their funerals done by rabbis, though, because they've got a reputation for scrupulousness. Don't want anything left to chance, not at that point.)
When it comes time to give the eulogy, obviously, there's no one there to give it. No one's showed up. The rabbi looks around the empty hall and his eyes land on me. Since there's nobody else here, would I mind stepping in and taking their place?
Now this is quite the surprising proposition. The fact that they would continue to hold the funeral at all, given that nobody who actually knew the deceased bothered to show up, that in itself is already a surprise. Sure, I guess I was there, but I don't count, and even if the rabbi didn't know that, holding a funeral for one person is a bit like holding a funeral for no people. I once had to give a show to one person when only one person showed up for a show. And let me tell you, that was a bit like giving a show to no people. There was just one weirdo, just the type you think would show up except you would think there would be a whole room full. She didn't even gasp once, just clapped, and afterward when I tried to laugh off the weirdness of it all she didn't even want to go out for a drink. But I guess I did give the show after all, even just to the one weirdo, and I didn't cancel it because there was someone and not no one, so maybe that's why the rabbi does the funeral even when it's only me.
And how do you say no to a request like that? There's no one else there to give a little speech, it's only you, and the rabbi doesn't know about your recurring anxiety or that you couldn't tell the deceased from Yehudi Menuhin in a two-man lineup. It's a eulogy. At a funeral. And the guy asking you is a rabbi. How do you say no to a rabbi? I couldn't say no to a rabbi if he asked me to shave my head. That's why I don't go to temple.
But here he is, a genuine rabbi (in the dream, anyway, and even when I know it's a dream he's still a real rabbi in the dream, which is still real, in a way), and he's asking me to give a eulogy for someone I've never met. So I do it. So I stand up in front of the empty chairs (at this point, sometimes the rabbi goes and sits down in the audience, just so I have someone to give the eulogy to, so it's for one person and not for no one) and I deliver the most beautiful fucking eulogy you've ever heard. I say how this guy was my greatest friend in the whole wide world, how I introduced him to his wife (G-d rest her), how he was going to be the best man at my own wedding and now I can't think of anyone else who can ever do the job, etc. It's great. The rabbi is in tears. Maybe once or twice he even gasps. I bring up a couple of lines of poetry from Jonson or Pope (not a very Jewish-sounding writer, but I don't know any Ginsberg) and step off the platform all fuzzy thinking I was there for this poor nobody when no one else would step up for him. Then the rabbi asks me to be a pallbearer.
Because there's no one else there, you see. So of course I've got to do it. There's no one else to carry this guy from point A to point B, so if it's not for me there's no way he's going to get from the table here at the funeral to the grave site, and if I say no maybe he'll just sit here forever, or until he starts stinking.
So I say yes. I tell the rabbi, of course I'll assist in bearing my best friend from here to the hereafter. I can manage it on my own because in a dream the coffin only weighs as much as a chair or a book or a rabbit or something else I'm accustomed to lifting without too much effort. I pick up the coffin like a rabbit and carry it down to the car that's waiting outside. It's a hearse, with the long back and the trim and the curtains. You've seen a hearse.
It's just like every hearse you've ever seen, except where's the driver? Up in front, there's the black silk drapery, there's the leather steering wheel and the gold-painted wreathy decorations, but there's no chauffeur. The seat's empty. What, am I supposed to drive the car, too? If it wouldn't be too much to ask, says the rabbi, very apologetically. The driver never showed up, and there's nobody else, so if I would be so kind as to step in and take his place? Well, like I said, I can't say no to a rabbi, and after all this time and the speech and everything it would look pretty silly to come out and say "You know, this is a crazy situation, but I don't actually know the guy whose funeral this is. We've never met, and I made up all that in the eulogy about him being my roommate in college and giving his brother a kidney and everything. I'm just a stranger." You can't say that. So I say yes. (Say, why couldn't the rabbi drive the car? You never seem to think about that in the middle of a dream. Maybe his license got suspended.)
The rabbi sits in the back and gives directions. It's a lot of twists and turns -- sometimes I even wake up before we get to the graveyard, and then the dream's not so bad -- but eventually, somehow, we're outside of the city and it's nighttime or it's somewhere weird and I can't even tell. When we get to the graveyard the rabbi shows me where to pull over and we get out and I pull the coffin out of the back to start lugging it to the grave, which is right there. Only it isn't. There's the stone on top, but there's just flat grass in front of it. And a shovel. You guess what comes next.
"If it wouldn't be a terrible imposition," etc. Can't back out now. I'm still in pretty decent shape for my age, well, if you don't listen to my doctor, and I do the rowing machine at the Y, so I can dig up some dirt into a pile without thinking about it. Or I can in a dream, anyway. Dream-dirt is a lot lighter than real dirt, like dream-coffins. I can never run fast or punch too well in a dream, but nothing's too heavy to pick up, if you move slowly. It's like underwater -- sped-down, but there's a buoyancy, too. Anyway, I dig out the whole grave in about an hour. A dream-hour. And I pop up at the end, when I'm done, and the rabbi's still there, but now for the first time we notice the headstone. It's a great headstone, but it's blank. The engraver never showed up. You know the drill.
There's a little hammer and chisel sitting on the stone, or maybe the rabbi took it out from under his hat, but if you could just fill in the relevant details, I would be much obliged. And here there's a complication. It's all fine carrying things here and there, or driving a car, or even digging a big hole, but those are just jobs. I don't know this guy! There was no no one to talk to, and no guest book at the funeral, or I didn't check it. I don't even know the guy's name! I was the only one giving the eulogy, and I just made it all up, and if I even used a name hell if I can remember what it was now, here, after all that dream-time.
But I put so much work into the hole, and maybe the rabbi is checking his watch, and I just want to get out of there, so I take the hammer and chisel and figure I'll make something up again. Just for kicks, I use my own name -- it's not like the rabbi knows it. I chip in my name and put my numbers and everything underneath, and, just like with the eulogy, I don't just chuck it out but make a real effort and it actually ends up looking like a pretty nice, expensive gravestone. I even carve on some little flowers or a star-of-david, in a dream I'm as good an artist as Michelangelo lying on his back.
And, of course, if it were anything other than a dream, I would know exactly what happens next. But it is. So I don't. Even when it's happened a hundred times before. The rabbi opens the lid of the coffin to do some last ritual rabbi-thing, a special blessing, and there's nobody there. It's empty. The corpse didn't show up today. And the rabbi turns to me.
But I always wake up laughing because I know afterwards he's got to fill the hole in himself!