All of them were old, and all of them wore hats. The hats varied in size, shape, and style, but not color. All of them were black. The hats, routinely retrieved from their hooks and boxes and closet shelves, signaled a solemn occasion: only black would do.
Most of the hats were simple, because they were worn by practical people. Kitty Mae Quarterman’s hat was stout, with a round top and a short brim, her initials embroidered neatly on the back. The brim of Doreen Brainerd’s hat flopped low over her face, like the straw hats of her childhood, so low she had to tip her head far back to look you in the eye, although she was a tall woman. Frances Louise, a short woman, wore the tallest hat of them all, with enough puffs and plumes and frills to add six or seven inches to her natural height. “Bitter” Bea Forrester’s hat was simpler, except for the gauzy, black veil that hung low over her shoulders. Esmeralda Hemp, who had been alive as long as anyone could remember, may as well have started the tradition, with her antique bonnet and full head wrap. Lastly, there was Mary Boswell’s hat, the simplest of them all: old and worn, graying faster than the wearer’s hair.
The women attended every funeral. It didn’t matter who had died. There was a Lutheran church on Second Street, a Methodist church on Third, a Baptist church on County Lane, and two Catholic churches on either end of town, one on East Street and one on West. There was a Mormon temple not half a mile south of town, and they all supposed they’d like to go there sometime — if only to see for themselves that the Mormons, too, were susceptible to death.
During the services, the women would sit as close to the front as possible — half of them were losing their hearing, the other half their sight — and mourn quietly for the deceased and his or her family. Occasionally, when one of their friends or relatives passed away, they would fill the frontmost pew of whichever church they were in, and mourn less quietly. The Baptist church was the best for these funerals. The minister, a solid black man with round spectacles and a rounder face, would stand before the congregation and preach vigorously of the dearly departed. He preached until his face turned purple and his lungs reached their ultimate capacity. The women would clutch at their chests, tears streaming down their faces, opening up their souls to the Lord. Best of all, Esmeralda never had to ask what he was saying.
Most of them were women. Sometimes a man would join them, if he had known the deceased. This was always exciting; most of the women were widows. Mary’s husband was the latest to go, last July sixth. His name had been Carl, and his funeral was a good one. They were Catholic, but not strictly so, and the service had been held at the East Street church. How Mrs. Boswell had wailed! Loud enough to wake the dead, Kitty Mae commented. What a shame, Doreen murmured. He was only sixty. And Mary, at 65, was the youngest of them all.
Sometimes Edwin joined them. They loved it when he did. Edwin was a flirt, and he knew how to make the old ladies feel young again. He would tease them, and goose them, and make them giggle until their faces turned red. His back was hunched, his teeth were crooked, his beard was white, and his face was creased like the pages of a well-loved book. But he had a strong body for a man of eighty-two, and the twinkle in his eyes betrayed his age to the handsome boy he had once been. Only Bea Forrester could ever reject his charms.
All of them cried when Edwin died. Rumor had it, his heart gave out as he slept (in the company of a twenty-year-old Norwegian named Nadia). Some argued that she was a Pole, others a Ruskie, but no one doubted that she was a blonde whore. “You’re a bunch of jealous children,” Bea Forrester accused, but she had mourned as vigorously as the rest of them at the funeral. It was a lovely service.
Most of the funerals they attended were for old folks like themselves. It was generally agreed upon that the Baptists had the best sermons, but the Methodist church usually provided an open reception afterward; and because it was connected in part to the Good Hope Nursing Home across the street, the food was always suitable to the elders’ tastes. Additionally, there was a priest at the East Street church who was nearly as old as the women, and knew almost everybody and everything in town. His homilies were pleasant and entertaining, and when they were finished, he would sometimes join the women for a coffee and a round of gossip.
After each funeral, the women would gather together at a diner or the buffet on North Street. They would eat a light supper and discuss the ceremony. They always ate the same foods, regardless of the venue: Frances Louise ordered quiche, Esmeralda Hemp ordered a garden salad, Kitty Mae (who was getting fatter by the year) usually ordered a couple scoops of ice cream. Bea Forrester ordered a tuna melt. Doreen Brainerd ordered shepherd’s pie with a side of corn bread whenever it was available, and when it was not, she’d have a slice of apple pie with whipped cream and a cherry on top, pick at it tentatively, and leave it practically untouched by the end of the meal (much to Kitty Mae’s disdain). Mary Boswell ate a ham sandwich.
During these meals, they would review the funeral service. Topics included: whether the preacher was loud enough; if the sermon had been good or out of the ordinary in any way; if there had been music and if it had been good; which of the loved ones were relatives and which were not; which of the loved ones had cried and which had not; if any of them had cried and at what.
Occasionally, they discussed the deceased. Often, they knew the dead person, or had known of them in some detached way. It was a small town, and most of the people who died had been dying for a dozen years or more. Once you made it to the nursing home, you got to know all the folks who were on the “way out”, as Frances Louise put it. But there were some deaths the old women couldn’t predict.
That’s why they never attended the funerals of anyone under fifty, unless he or she was a family member. They learned their lesson from a funeral at the West Street Catholic Church. It was the funeral of a young man who’d stayed out too late and driven into a tree on his way home. Some said he was drunk. Others disagreed. There was a lawsuit in progress; the women had read about it in the local paper. “What are they going to do?” Bea Forrester asked, “Sue the tree?”
When they arrived, the first nine pews were completely filled. They had come half an hour early. That was the first sign. The old women should have turned around and gone home right then. They should have known they were out of their league. Instead, they settled themselves into the tenth row. The entire church was filled by the time the service began. The vast majority of the mourners were girls between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two. Very few of them wore hats.
Before the service began, the girls were sniffling quietly into tissues and kerchiefs, dabbing at their eyes and willing their makeup not to run. Within the first ten minutes, however, the congregation had broken into inconsolable sobs. The preacher, a stout man who stood barely taller than his podium, mumbled his sermon tearfully in a high and wavering voice.
“What? What did he say?” asked Esmeralda Hemp.
“Hush, you old coot,” Bea Forrester snapped.
“You can’t expect me to hear him over all this fuss. Speak up, man!” Esmeralda demanded. The man in the row in front of them shot a hostile glance in their direction. He had an arm around his weeping daughter.
After the music, the eulogy, and the sermon, the preacher sat down in the front pew with the family of the deceased. The women rose to leave, as did the other mourners; but instead of filing out in an orderly fashion, the weeping girls converged on one another to form a huge mob at the center of the church. The old women were sucked straight in.
The girls were touching and hugging and crying, mascara cascading down cheeks like black satin ribbons, everyone crowding in and in and in.
“Good Lord, young ladies! Control yourselves!” Doreen Brainerd exclaimed. Someone hugged Frances Louise. Kitty Mae Quarterman laughed out loud, a shrill, hysterical sound. Before long, Bea Forrester had turned quite green, and Mrs. Hemp kept shouting, “What? Who’s that? Where are you, Kitty? What’d he say?” and so forth.
They decided to skip lunch that afternoon, and instead proceeded to Mary Boswell’s house for tea.
“Well, I just about died in there,” said Doreen Brainerd, and they giggled shakily; all except Bea Forrester, who was still a bit green, despite having lost her breakfast in the church lavatory.
They didn’t talk about the funeral any further that day, and no one had cared to bring it up since; but they talked an awful lot about the dead boy. He’d been on the football team, which explained the weeping girls, and an altar boy, which explained the weeping minister. He volunteered regularly at The Salvation Army. He got good grades. He never smoked and, as any of his friends would tell you, never drank.
It isn’t right, thought Frances Louise, that boys should have to die. It’s a man’s job, not a child’s. It’s only fair that Death should claim us old folks, us sick and weary. We’ve lived our lives. The young have no business with Death.
Months passed, and eventually they forgot the boy’s death, either by choice or because Time had stolen away their memories along with their ears and their eyes. All of them knew Time, just as they knew Death. Time was the force that wrinkled their skin and weakened their bodies. Time was the noose they felt tightening, ever slowly, around their frail and delicate necks. They understood Time, and they thought they understood Death as well.
It was springtime when the Lutheran minister kicked the bucket. It was a death of considerable importance, because he had been a holy man. Of course, all the women attended, and all of them wore black hats.
“Bitter” Bea Forrester began the day with little ambition. Her son had come to visit the previous night, and left her quite exhausted.
“Sometimes I think I raised that boy wrong,” she explained to the others before the funeral, “He’s too soft. He’s got this old mutt he took from a shelter, ‘rescued’ it, and now it’s got cancer. Well, the boy just won’t let the poor creature die, and he hasn’t got the money to keep it alive.”
“What a shame,” said Doreen Brainard.
Bea Forrester shook her head. “I don’t understand why he won’t put the damned thing out of its misery. Not like it’s doing anyone any good alive.” The women nodded their agreement.
“Bitter old Bea,” someone remarked quietly, but there was a smile in the voice.
The funeral had a large turnout. It seemed all the active Lutheran church-goers were there, along with the usual loved ones. The preacher had a wife and daughter, and each of them had friends close at hand. The women took their seats as close to the front as possible, just as they were accustomed. Bea Forrester rubbed her hands against her dress. There was a tingling in her fingers and toes — it was unseasonably cold that day.
The funeral began with a brief procession of the wife, daughter, and brother of the deceased. A preacher led them down the aisle; and as they passed, Mary Boswell thought she smelled lavender and a hint of vanilla off the young daughter. She smiled briefly at the youthful scent.
The preacher was a man of little more than thirty, but whose face held wisdom beyond those years. He smiled warmly when he spoke of the deceased, addressed the congregation with arms wide open, and told stories of the dead man’s life. Bea rubbed her arms. It was getting colder.
The man’s brother spoke next, with much less composure. Clearly, the loss touched him very deeply. They had been close as children, not just as brothers, he said, but as friends. The women exchanged sympathetic glances. They had known many broken men. Bea uncrossed her ankles. She was losing circulation in her right foot, and she was beginning to feel tired.
The ceremony was due to end. The mourners would continue on with their lives as the closest friends and family of the deceased followed the hearse to the graveyard. But not yet. The daughter had risen from her seat. She stood before the congregation, directly in front of the life-size cross behind the altar, and she sang. She sang “Amazing Grace”. Her voice was beautiful, angelic, even; unwavering despite her grief. Bea felt as if the whole world had slowed down, all of Time and his power halted in the face of her beauty. She closed her eyes and gave in to the sensation. Her body was numb. She felt a short, startling squeeze in her chest, and then there was only the music, rising around her, lifting her out of the cold.
Not one of them realized that Bea Forrester was dead until long after the ceremony had ended. The five of them stood together in the parking lot, already gabbing to one another about the girl and her song and the funeral as a whole, when Doreen looked around curiously and asked, “Where’s Bea?”
“Who’s what?” asked Esmeralda Hemp.
“I’ll go and find her,” Mary Boswell offered.
“I’ll go with you,” said Frances Louise. In the end they all went. They found the young preacher crouched in front of Bea Forrester. He held a phone to his ear and was speaking quietly but firmly to the 911 operator at the other end of the line. When he saw the women, he explained that an ambulance was already on the way. He might have been expecting something, some sort of reaction, but none of them spoke. They looked at the corpse of their friend with composure and only mild surprise. “Never thought I’d see the end of that one,” thought Frances Louise, but that was all.
Bea Forrester was a legend. All the old folks came to her funeral — not all of whom she had known in life — but all she had expected, as though it were her right, to outlive.
The service was an overall success. The preacher preached. The mourners mourned. The closest friends and relatives, her son and his dog among them, followed the hearse to the burial site, where she was laid to final rest. The women who wore black hats tagged along for this part, watching from a slight distance as her casket was lowered into the ground.
“Bitter old Bea,” someone said, and everyone chuckled quietly. Not one of them cried.