Fiction

Shannon Kenny: The Funeral Singer

funeral
Image: Nicolette via Pixabay

I don’t advertise much. The functions I get to organise come from word of mouth recommendations. And when it comes to finding singers for funerals, I always offer the same advice to my clients: Don’t rely on the congregation to carry the music. Yes, have an instrumentalist but do have a soloist – a proper singer. Someone reliable who’ll hold it together and sing the introductory hymn, so-and-so’s favourite song and the closing hymn, usually also so-and-so’s favourite song and who will do the songs justice and honour the deceased. And often, for an extra fee, there’ll be another set or two at the ‘vigil,’ ‘tea,’ ‘wake’ or ‘after-tears’ (or whatever that family calls the pre- or post-ceremony gathering of mourners).

When it comes to congregational singing at funerals, the congregation very rarely sings, even when it’s packed with professional singers. People are often overcome with such grief that it’s the very last thing they really want to do or are even quite capable of. I know. I’ve attended enough funerals to know.

Some of my earliest memories are of attending family funerals. Big, momentous occasions that were at once times of collective mourning and joyous reunion. Clan gatherings of relatives and relatives-you-had-no-idea-were-relatives; parents and grown-up children with their own families; uncles and aunties; cousins; grandparents; great-uncles and great-aunties; second cousins and soon-to-be-cousins-by-marriage – from far-flung cities and corners of the country, sometimes the world. All come to share in the commemoration— a celebration of sorts – of someone’s life.

Most of these were open-casket affairs and I think that perhaps I’d like my own funeral to be an open casket too – budget-permitting, of course. It costs extra to store the body for longer, and if you’ve got family flying in from abroad, that’s at least a week or two you need to account for. Then there’s the embalming and make-up and your family having to choose a suitable outfit, all of which are quite unnecessary if you’re having a straight-from-the-morgue-to-furnace cremation. And I really hate a waste of money. Still, there’s something quite reassuring about seeing the dead body of someone you once knew. That you can say with certainty that they really are dead.

When I was about six, we attended Auntie June’s funeral service at St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. My parents, aunts and uncles had all had a hand in the arrangements, and had followed almost to the letter Auntie June’s instructions for the occasion. She was laid near the holy water font at the church’s entrance. The gleaming, ivory-painted coffin with matching ivory velvet-lined interior was one that Auntie June herself had chosen from the undertakers’ catalogue just a few days before she died. A few of us kids hung around the entrance and foyer with our parents and older cousins whose job it was to greet and hand out the specially printed order of service leaflet to the mourners who filed in to view the body and take their seats in the church. Every now and again, when there was no-one else around, we’d run up to the coffin and take a peek at our great-aunt. The undertakers had thoughtfully placed a set of steps alongside the coffin so that little ones like us – and very short grown-ups – could get a decent look in. My cousin Jo, a few months younger and slightly shorter than me, even reached over to touch her wrinkled hand.

“She’s cold,” he said, as he wiped some orange spit from his mouth with his shirt-sleeve. Jo was one of those dribbly kids. Always slurping back spit. Especially if he was chewing gum or sucking a sweet, which was almost all the time. “Why don’t you see for yourself?”

I couldn’t bring myself to touching her, but I did run my hand along the gold rick-rack that covered where the coffin’s velvet lining met the wood. My little fingers scrunched the slippery folds of white and peach coloured satin that framed Auntie June like a new-born baby in a Moses-basket. The embossed gold letters and peach roses on the front of the order of service leaflet matched the coffin’s lining and Auntie June’s outfit. Some older aunts remarked that that was so like June, always organised and co-ordinated, things just the way she would have them. Even to the very end, to the grave.

A squabble ensued amongst us kids about whether Auntie was really dead or whether the doctors had made a mistake and she was just in a very deep sleep. Our older cousin Grant, who’d started the argument, was just messing with us but we little ones took the bait. Jo and I again climbed the white steps – which were like the first, second and third place rostra you get at a sports day. I was absolutely certain that she must be dead since she had cottonwool stuffed up her nose and she wasn’t breathing. And to prove just how dead she was I would exhale really hard over her to show that her eyelids wouldn’t even flutter. Jo did more than just touch her ice-cold hand this time, he shook it. Nothing. Grant came up behind us while we peered in at our great-aunt’s lifeless body, whispered that he was about to flick holy water at her and then, with just enough gusto and loud enough to startle us, went “Boo!” Jo let out a high-pitched squeak, my heart jumped to my throat and stayed there for a good few moments. Most of the droplets of holy water landed on Auntie June’s nose and cheeks. Two landed on one of her eyelids, on the shimmery eyeshadow, and then ran down the length of her lash before damming at the corner of her eye like a lone tear-drop.

“See, you’ve made Auntie cry,” said Grant nastily and went off to talk to some older cousins who’d just arrived.

I put my arm around Jo who had actually begun to cry. I turned and stuck my tongue out at Grant who was with the others, giggling and pointing at us.

“It’s okay, Jo. It’s okay,” I tried to console him.

“No, it’s not! That was my last Beacon Sparkle,” he said, pointing at a glistening orange disc resting on Auntie June’s hairline, where her forehead and middle-parting met. The translucent sweet sparkled with spit and the afternoon light that streamed through the stained glass. Just as we were both about to reach for it, my mum caught our arms and helped Jo and I away from the coffin “so the other people could also say good-bye to Auntie June.”

We didn’t get another look at Auntie June in the foyer. The stragglers and late-comers had formed a long queue of teary-eyed mourners and with all the leaflets handed out, Jo’s parents and mine ushered us into the church so we could take our place in the pews marked “family.” The coffin was brought to the front of the church and remained there until Father Kevin announced that the family would have a final opportunity to view the body. Jo and I watched as our relatives filed past and giggled as their expressions sometimes changed, though we had no idea whether it was grief or whether they had noticed the Sparkle on Auntie’s forehead. Finally, it was our turn and I didn’t try to retrieve the sweet. I actually liked that it matched the colour scheme and looked like it belonged where it did. I was the last one to see the Beacon Sparkle and Auntie June before the undertakers closed the coffin forever and Father Kevin conducted the final commendation. The soloist sang ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’

 

I’ll never forget that singer, either. Shenise Cunningham. I’d been building Lego under the dining room table while my parents, Auntie Violet, Uncle Collin and Uncle Paul paged through the neat flip-files Auntie June had left with instructions for exactly how she wanted her funeral to be conducted.

“Yissie! Auntie June mos thought of everything,” said my mother. “Violet, the flower arrangements are your department. And you must get the flowers from Bloomingdales. Not from Fresh Flowers who think it’s okay to give you verlepte blomme because they just see us as coloureds and to their minds, coloureds won’t complain about substandard flowers. Like hell. But we don’t need that stress, nê. Just make sure you get the flowers from Bloomingdales. Auntie June sal ons almal kom spook if you don’t.”I giggled at the thought of Auntie June’s ghost hovering about our house, eerily repeating: “Bloomingdales. Whoooo? Bloomingdales. Whoooo? Who didn’t get the flowers from Bloomingdales. Who? Whoooo?

“Are you sure about this coffin?” asked Uncle Collin. “It’s damn expensive and Auntie June’s getting cremated, anyway.”

“That’s what she wanted. In fact, she insisted on it. It’s part of her ivory, peach and white colour scheme,” answered Auntie Violet. “Also, it’s included here in her funeral and burial plan with Benjamin Funeral Services. Auntie June taught all four of their boys in primary school and as far as I know, the coffin’s actually a kind of parting gift. But I will check with them. A person doesn’t want to make assumptions.”

Quiet Uncle Paul chipped in, “It would be nice to send the Benjamin family a cake to say thank-you. I’ll also make sure to add them to the list when I do the vote of thanks at the service.”

“But don’t say that the coffin was free or discounted or anything. You know mos what people are like,” cautioned Auntie Violet.

“As if I would be so stchoopit,” retorted Uncle Paul tersely.

I always loved how Uncle Paul said the word ‘stupid’.

“Stchoopit, stchoopit, stchoopit,” I mimicked, and reminded the grownups of my presence.

“What’s that you’re saying there?” my dad asked as he leaned down to check on me. “It’s bedtime for you now, anyway.”

I crawled out and crept into his lap. “Daddy, may I please have some milk?”

Dad poured some milk and offered me an Eet-Sum-Mor shortbread biscuit from the tea tray Auntie June had given my parents for their anniversary.

“Who is Shenise Cunningham?” asked Uncle Collin.

“That’s Praline and Lionel’s daughter. The one that’s studied music at the South African College of Music at UCT. Opera, nogal. Remember Auntie June organized that fundraiser for her to pay for her first year’s board and lodging in Cape Town because, shame, Lionel got retrenched from GM, Praline was boarded from work and Shenise’s bursary only covered tuition,” explained my mum.

“Oh ja, them,” nodded Uncle Collin. Good family. I remember their three girls. Always very polite, such nice manners.”

“Shenise is the kroeskop one, hey?” asked Auntie Violet.

Yirre Vi! What’s her hair got to do with anything?” chided my mum. She took a dim view of anyone – which was most of the women in the community – who obsessed or had anything to say about their own or anyone else’s hair. “Do you have to be so coloured?”

“I was just asking,” said Auntie Violet defensively. “Two of them have straight hair and one has curly hair.”

“But you said kroeskop. And we all know that’s not exactly the most flattering word for curly hair. You couldn’t have asked whether she was the tall one or the short one, the youngest, oldest or middle child now, could you? Honde kak ook hare,” snapped my mum.

I giggled because the idea of a dog pooping hair was, actually, quite hilarious. And that my mum had said kak which was one of those simultaneously rude and funny words. Not so rude that adults couldn’t say it in front of children, but rude enough for children to know not to repeat it in front of adults.

Uncle Collin cleared his throat and cut in. “I was asking because Auntie June’s written here that she definitely wants Shenise to lead the singing with Make Me a Channel of Your Peace in the beginning and to sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot at the end of the service, after the commendation.”

“Child’s got a voice straight from heaven,” added Uncle Paul, “ma’ die mense gaan tjank.

“Of course they’ll cry. It’s a funeral. Auntie June’s funeral, so there’ll be plenty of sad people and some professional mourners putting in an appearance as well,” said my dad. “Crying will be good for us, though. It’s good to let out the sadness, isn’t it?” Dad spoke softly in my ear and hugged me a little tighter before flipping another page of the file in front of him.

Mum and Auntie Violet glared occasionally at one another when they looked up from their files. Uncle Paul offered them both more tea and they accepted. Mum offered an olive branch of a smile. Auntie Violet smiled back.

“Vi, I’m sorry for just now. It’s just, I know what that poor child’s had to go through. You know how hareverskrik people are around here. Rollers, straighteners, blow-outs, hours in the hair salon, all so they can have stick-straight blow-in-the-wind hair like those models in the shampoo adverts. And it doesn’t help that both Shenise’s older sisters have straight hair. People round here couldn’t care how bleddie clever you are – like those Peterson twins who are studying medicine at WITS. I heard the cashier at Butler’s Supermarket call them the kroeskop Petersons just the other day. You could discover a cure for cancer but lord help you if you are a girl and you didn’t have your damn hair straightened and styled to their satisfaction. You know, if it hadn’t been for people like Auntie June, there’d be many more little girls walking round with a complex about their hair. You want to know why it’s mostly boys from our community who go on to do amazing things when they get given an opportunity? Because no-one tells them they have to worry about whether their hair is kroes or straight. It’s enough the damn National Party thinks it’s their duty to tell us how not equally human we are to whites. But really, when coloureds actually believe that kak and burden themselves spending their time and money on hair products when our girls could be spending their time studying towards changing the world. That makes me so the hell-in.”

“It’s okay, Myrna. I’m sorry too. You know how we just get used to using words without thinking, slipping into old habits,” said Auntie Violet.

Uncle Paul added, “And as for being coloured, I think we are all in agreement that that’s not any of us around this table, classification be damned. And, for the record, we are not those people who don’t like to deal with the fact that we have black African ancestors and who think that we are something special because some idiot politicians told us that we’re special because we’ve got some white guy somewhere in our ancestry.”

“Auntie June always said we must never get tired of swimming upstream,” mused Auntie Violet with a chuckle.

“She gave that bit of advice to just about everybody she invested her life in. And that’s a lot of people, said Mum. You know, Auntie June had quite a fight on her hands getting Shenise to university.”

“Really? Didn’t UCT want to take her?” asked Uncle Collin.

“Nothing to do with the university. Praline and Lionel, actually. They wanted Shenise to take up nursing like her older sisters. You know, a good steady job, because the world will always need nurses. When Auntie June threw in something about Shenise making a terrible nurse because she couldn’t even stand the sight of blood, Lionel said she could go to Dower College to become a teacher. Auntie June didn’t miss a beat. She explained that with a university degree, the opportunities for her were almost endless, teaching included. But the parents were sceptical, mostly because they couldn’t imagine their daughter at university, in Cape Town, studying opera, with whites. Auntie June had to convince them that it was possible for ‘people like us’ in South Africa. She showed them the programme for Aida, with Virginia Davids in the title role, that we went to see when we were in Cape Town that year. Auntie June said it was not enough that there was only one Virginia Davids, one of us. She was going to make sure, come hell or high water, that that girl got to university, passed with flying colours and went overseas – to fulfil her dream and show this community there was a whole world beyond what they knew. But Praline and Lionel had to be convinced first. Shenise is their youngest, their baby and Cape Town is a long way from Port Elizabeth. They’d never even been there themselves. And they had none of ‘their people’ there.”

“And,” quipped Uncle Paul, “let’s face it, they probably thought they were on a winning streak. Their two older daughters had made it through nursing college without falling pregnant and they sure as hell weren’t going to leave anything to chance with their youngest.”

“Probably,” said my dad.

“But let me guess,” piped Uncle Collin, “Auntie June convinced them that settling Shenise into university would be the best reason for them to see Cape Town for the first time, got them to entertain the idea that their daughter could possibly reach great heights and assured them she had enough connections in Cape Town who could keep an eye on her?”

“Exactly,” agreed mum, “and in Shenise’s second year, Lionel was offered a job in Cape Town. He almost didn’t take it ‘because he is a PE boy and they didn’t have people there’. Auntie June threatened to slap him upside the head if he turned it down. After all, since his retrenchment he’d only had short stints doing panel beating here and there, their older daughters were completely independent, and who was Shenise if not their people? They found themselves a small place in Woodstock so Shenise could live back at home with them, with no worries about board and lodging anymore. Praline says they’ve been so happy there – like they found a new lease on life. Auntie June stayed with them when she went to attend Shenise’s graduation ceremony.”

“Shenise won a full scholarship to continue her studies in Germany later this year. They got the news just before grad. First university graduate in the Cunningham family, now the first in that family to go overseas. Auntie June must be so thankful she got to be there to celebrate with them. Our Auntie wasn’t one for false modesty, or for allowing an opportunity to gloat to pass her by, though. Lionel and Praline said they were quite sick of hearing “Ek het julle mos gesê! I told you so!” by the time she’d left to come back to PE,” laughed Dad. “Who would have guessed she’d be dead two months later?”

 

Shenise had attained a certain unexpected fame before she’d arrived for the funeral. Her cum laude graduation and imminent travels abroad had been publicised in the Evening Post. She’d arrived to St Francis before everyone to rehearse with the organist and sat quietly in the choir stalls, out of sight until the service began. There were gasps from the congregation when she stood up to sing – as much for their recognition of this minor celebrity in their midst as for the massive afro that adorned her head.

Uncle Paul and my dad were right. Shenise had barely finished singing the first line of “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” when the crying started – the many family, friends, catechists, colleagues and former pupils Auntie June had amassed over her eighty-seven years.

The ‘professional mourners’ as my dad called them, were on top form. They were old ladies, pensioners who spent most of their Saturdays attending funerals because they were at that age where you know a lot of people and when you’re old and know a lot of people, a lot of those people may be on their way out of this world. And if there was anyone in the congregation who was holding back any expression of grief, these aunties took it upon themselves to do the loud, expressive grieving, delicate white handkerchiefs in hand to dab at eyes, a stash of Forget-Me-Not Twinsaver tissues in their handbags and one tucked into a sleeve or watch-strap for that snotty-nose emergency. I was amazed at how these old ladies, who always smelt of Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass and Elnette hair spray, managed to keep the lace scarves that covered their perfectly roller-set hair from slipping off their heads.

Father Kevin made special mention of the fact that, for someone who had never married or had children of her own, Auntie June’s care and concern for people extended well beyond the bounds of her biological family. She had a love for justice and a desire and drive, in as much as it was within her power, to set the world to rights. And that those particular attributes were evidenced in the turnout at the church and the many lives across the city, the country and other parts of the world that had been indelibly marked by Auntie June’s presence.

 

As the pallbearers escorted Auntie June’s coffin down the aisle, the music rose over the sound of sniffles, nose-blowing and crying:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home 

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

The song seemed to emanate from Shenise’s whole body, a mellifluous declaration that convinced us that heaven was the only place Auntie June could possibly be headed – with a band of angels, in a chariot, because that’s exactly how she had planned it.

——-

Image: Nicolette via Pixabay

About the author

Shannon Kenny

Shannon Kenny is an actor and voice artist from Durban, South Africa. She was a writer-in-hiding for most of her life, until she plucked up the courage to submit a story to the Commonwealth Prize in 2019. The greatest encouragement in the form of an unofficial long-listing spurred Shannon to seek out more sweet rejections ever since.
She feels blessed that her words of poetry, cnf and fiction have found a home in the following publications: Peppercoast Lit @LPeppercoast ; 100 Words of Solitude (Rare Swan Press); Lockdown BabyBabble @LDBabyBabble ; @Janus Literary ; Rejection Letters @rejectionlit

6 Comments

  • Love love loved this story. Typically South African and it made me smile, chuckle and laugh out loud. Thank you Shannon!♥️♥️♥️♥️

    • That’s so encouraging, Louise, that you connected with the story – and laughed ♥️♥️ Thank-you ♥️♥️

  • Incredible attention to the little details. You painted a picture with words. You should do novels too.

    • Thank-you for reading and enjoying the story. I have a few long-length works-in-progress, so do hold thumbs I have the time and energy ahead to complete them. And most of all, the wit and imagination to make them engaging 🙂 Best, Shannon K

  • Shannon, so beautiful! Thank you for the tactile memories that streamed through me, as I read this. A mixture of loving beautiful grief for aunty June :), of pride of who we are, and a healthy longing for home as we grew up.

    Greetings from Germany
    Janine from Hillside

    • I’m so pleased this story resounded with you, Janine. I felt compelled to honour the ‘Aunty Junes’ and our mums and dads whose love and influence touches even the lives of our children 🙂 Best, Shannon

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