The essay, “A White Man at a Black Man’s Funeral,” appeared in the Sunday, Sept.14 Chicago Tribune. It was published in a perspective column, written by Dr. Cory Franklin. It reminded me of the time my girlfriend and I were the only blacks at a Jewish burial.
Dr. Franklin implied that he had a pleasant experience when he attended the funeral in one of the “roughest neighborhoods” on Chicago’s South Side. I, on the other hand, had an unpleasant experience when I attended a burial in Skokie and a repast on Chicago’s Gold Coast.
My experience started when Gloria, my girlfriend, asked me to attend a Jewish man’s burial and repast with her. The daughter of the deceased man asked Gloria to attend because she had been her father’s caregiver for several years before he died.
This was the early 1980s on a bright sunny Sunday afternoon, the day of the burial. Gloria relied on me for directions. We ended up taking the wrong expressway and we were late. When we got to the cemetery in Skokie, the Rabbi, standing by a simple wooden casket, had already started the eulogy. Gloria jumped out the car and ran to the burial site. I followed running behind her. I stood a few feet behind the 15 or so people gathered at the burial site. An elderly woman with red-dyed hair left the gathering and moved back to where I stood.
She said to me straight out, “Who are you! What are you doing here?” She said it in such an authoritative and arrogant tone that she surprised me. I told her I came with Gloria. “So you’re Gloria’s friend, huh? I’m the sister of the deceased,” she said. I thought she was unkind. I thought she knew I was Gloria’s friend. She seemed to me to be the type of person who would never pass up an opportunity to insult and belittle another person — especially if she believed the person was someone less important than herself. I didn’t think she cared about my feelings at all. To her, I was just a black woman who provided her with the opportunity to be mean. When some black women acted the same in similar situations, it was no less hurtful. The Rabbi said a prayer, the casket was lowered into the opened ground, and the burial was over.
The ride back to Chicago was shorter than going to Skokie. The repast was held at the daughter’s apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast. The daughter met us at the apartment door. We followed her through the small apartment. I sat down on the couch in the living room. The daughter said “no” to me and gestured with her hand for me to follow her. I was supposed to know better than act like a guest. I was supposed to know my place. I felt very uncomfortable being in the wrong. I knew nothing about the etiquette that dictates behavior in that situation. I had never done “day work,” i.e. black women who cleaned, cooked, and took care of other ethnic people. If I had been allowed to stay in the living room, I would have felt more uneasy there than in the kitchen. I got up and followed the daughter into the kitchen where the black cook was setting the table.
Gloria knew Mable the cook and told the daughter that we would stay there in the kitchen and talk to Mable. She cleaned up my mistake.
While Mable set the table with bagels and cream cheese, deviled eggs, cakes, a casserole, smoked salmon, and onions and tomatoes, we chatted with her. The family and the guests ate in the living room. Gloria and I ate in the kitchen. It was early evening when Gloria said her goodbyes to Mable and the daughter, and we left for the West Side.
I understood from the experience that people don’t always say and/or do things because of who they are. I concluded that opportunity, fear of what others may think, and traditions were also factors.
In Dr. Franklin’s experience and mine, it didn’t matter which ethnic family is having the funeral — people will be people.