Celeste Donohue is a comedian and writer who contacted me because she also happens to have grown up in a funeral home in Philadelphia. As you can imagine, she has lots to recount.
People have asked me if I was scared growing up in a funeral home, and the answer has always been no. It wasn’t scary for any of us, because we never knew life without dead people. I always looked at the dead as though they were temporary guests in our house — and I guess they were. My dad always treated them with respect, so we followed suit. They were like guests I’d never met before, but was completely comfortable around — and they seemed to enjoy my entertainment. I kind of liked them in a way; I didn’t know anything about their lives — whether they were nice or mean or crazy — each one was just someone who died and ended up in our basement.
Above the morgue, on the first floor, was the “parlor” and showroom. It was the parlor when a funeral was in progress and a showroom for caskets when there wasn’t. Above that, on the second floor, were our living quarters, including the kitchen, bedrooms, living room, laundry room, etc. On the third floor was the attic, which had two small bedrooms and a bathroom. I moved up there when I was 11.
The worst part about living in the funeral home was not the dead bodies. It was how restricted we were — we had to be quiet all the time. If a funeral was taking place downstairs, naturally we couldn’t be going hog wild upstairs. During funerals we had to shut the hell up or my dad would come upstairs in the middle and tell us to shut the hell up. So there we were, my mom, my 2 older sisters, my younger brother and me, all huddled upstairs like little Anne Franks. When we were little, my mom would give us chewy candy to keep us from talking during funerals. It worked. Dad was happy and so were we.
When we got older, if there was a funeral going on downstairs, we would be upstairs with the TV on at a very low volume, tip-toeing around. If we dropped anything heavy or made any loud noise, we’d all stop and look at each other with that “Oh shit, Dad might come up” look. But if we started hearing something crazy happening downstairs, all of us would hide at the top of the stairs and listen. A person can go a little nuts at a funeral because it’s such an emotional experience, or maybe because they’re just a dramatic weirdo. But, whatever the reason, sometimes you have to stop and listen. The Italians really lose it at funerals, and I have to admit, some pretty funny things happened. One time we were upstairs and all of a sudden we heard someone yelling. All of us ran to the top of the stairs and heard a big Italian man yelling at his dead mother, “Ma, Ma! How can you leave me? Who’s gonna cook me peppers and eggs on Sunday? Maaaaaaaa!” We were laughing, of course. You know it’s sad, but it’s funny, too.
My dad would kill me if he knew I was telling you that, sometimes, after a dramatic funeral he would come upstairs and laugh about it. I know that probably sounds mean, but you develop a weird sense of humor when you’re constantly surrounded by death and sadness; it’s a coping mechanism. Besides, there’s no way you can’t laugh at an Italian funeral if you’re not Italian. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Fatso” with Dom DeLuise, then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the movie, then you should go to an Italian funeral, but be sure to wear black and yell at the dead person. No offense, Italians.