What a tragic death taught me about organized religion

As a Native girl, I learned the difference between spirituality and dogma when we mourned my aunt and uncle

Published November 12, 2013 11:59PM (EST)

A photo of the author at her First Communion
A photo of the author at her First Communion

Sister Benedict said we’d be attending the funeral of a prominent realtor. That’s how she said it, like he was an appendage to his successful career. The other kids in my third-grade class waved their arms with questions. How had the realtor died? Why’d we have to go to his funeral?

Our classroom had a long window overlooking the old part of town where the divey restaurants, turquoise pawn shops, and Indian trading posts existed in a faraway galaxy. I put my finger to the window: E.T. phone home. There were few Native kids at my school, no silver, coral or bright beadwork designs. The only color in that space was Sister’s anger.

The questions continued. When was the funeral? What would it be like?

She paced like a caged cat in front of her desk. Then she told us to put our arms down and launched into a story about her own first funeral: “Suddenly my little sister was on fire, she shot out the back door and ran into the yard and it was windy and I yelled at her to stop but she wouldn’t stop and the flames grew bigger and bigger.”

Sister had been heating metal tongs on a gas burner to curl the little girl’s hair. The tongs smoldered against her thin cotton collar and the fabric burst into flames. Sister emphasized the word "thin" as if the gossamer quality of the fabric was the most important detail, the one her family had used to assuage her guilt after the funeral: “The baby’s pajamas were paper thin — if she’d been wearing a better pair they wouldn’t have caught fire so easily.”

Despite being tiny, Sister Benedict had muscle and spunk. Her hugs were a vice. She used a windmill pitch to strike us out in softball. I’d shot up over winter break — a stocking full of candy, tamales and green chile stew — by the time I returned my forehead had reached her nose. Yet her presence remained gigantic. She spoke with fervor; her conviction made her grand.

Her childhood story crept over me like ice. At first it was the gore that unsettled me — the way she described the charred skin that slid off her sister’s body — but in the end it was the way Sister Benedict had tried to save her. “I tackled my sister with a blanket and rolled her around in the grass to smother the flames but her hair had melted against her head and she looked unrecognizable.”

Sister Benedict’s face, glacier pale, receded into her black habit as she paced. Her breath came jagged and uneven.

She’d often spoken of her childhood: some grassy Midwestern place that felt geographically vague. My life, tucked into the far northwestern corner of nowhere New Mexico, was limited yet Sister Benedict managed to conjure solid images. I could see her in an old car’s rumble seat, walking to the “picture show,” shining silverware for gentleman callers who failed to arrive. She claimed that God spoke to her, more than once, in moments of great despair — “Quit shining silverware for suitors and start shining your soul for Jesus” — his voice blasting down the chimney like he was on the roof with a bullhorn.

Now Sister stared at us with a pitiless gaze. “There was nothing the doctors could do for Sissy and they sent her home to die,” she said.

I dug my fingernails into my palms and waited. I could hear some of the girls start sniffling but didn’t dare to look around.

“It took her a week to die and I was sitting right next to her when she saw the angels come. Stop sniffling!” She rapped her desk with her knuckles. “There is nothing simpler than death, no reason to hide it from children, and you will open your mouths wide when you sing at the funeral.”

My eyes were dry bones. Sister sat down at her desk and seemed suddenly aware of me appraising her.

“Let’s get out our math books,” she said pleasantly, speaking directly to me. Refusing to blink, I saw her eyes narrow.

That night when I brushed my teeth for bed I looked in the mirror, frightened that Sister had seen the divide, the two halves of me, the way the left side of my face was lower than the right. I was a feral child and the left side of my face contained evidence of the fact. The wilderness, the howling, the dry heat and exposed white bones picked of their meat, blanched by the sun and crawling with ants in the desert, everything we fear — the animal in us — lived in this half of my body.

Of course, certain parents complained about the curling iron story as well as the upcoming choir performance at the funeral. The following week the principal, Sister Michael Ann, a young nun with gentle eyes, came to visit our classroom. Several kids, including Robert, didn’t show up on the day of the funeral and Sister Benedict was peeved but she gave us orders like it was up to us, the brave ones willing to join the archangel army, to march over to the church and sing like fierce celestial warriors.

“You’ll have to come down from the choir loft to receive Communion and I have to warn you, the casket may be open.” Most of us had never seen a dead body. “If it is — don’t stare — but don’t avoid looking either. A polite glance as you walk by, his family will be there watching you. Remember, this is an important businessman who was loved by many people.”

We lined up at the door single file and walked across the school grounds to the church. It was a windy day and I shivered in my hand-me-down school uniform. We curled up the spiral stairs to the choir loft, genuflected alongside the pews, and scooted our way down the bench until we arrived at our assigned places. My seatmates and I, in unison, pulled the kneelers down to the floor and knelt on their hard wood. We said a prayer before sitting, as Sister had taught us to do. I had a spot in the front row from which I could gaze down over the congregation and easily see everything.

The old brick church had long stained-glass windows that filtered drowsy light. The building always made me calm. There was something about the vaulted ceilings, the buttressed arches, the altar out in front with burning candles and incense. Today I saw the mourners dressed in black. They sat in the front two rows. I imagined their suffering, remembered our catechism’s claim that there was an eternal value in it. I examined the paintings we called the Stations of the Cross: Jesus being crowned with thorns, Jesus being scourged at the pillar, Jesus falling to the ground with the cross on his shoulder in a puddle of blood. The paintings hung along the wall at eye level, closer than usual since we were upstairs in the loft.

Sister Angela Marie, Sacred Heart School’s resident organ player, appeared on my left. She was ancient. She barely lifted her feet when she walked, always moving in a shuffle, but she came to life in front of her keyboard and had taught us a gazillion hymns. We listened to the readings, followed by the gospel and the eulogy, standing and sitting and kneeling on cue while we punctuated the service with song. We opened our mouths wide. “You shall cross the barren desert but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. You shall speak your words to foreign men and they will understand.”

I stared closely at the family of the dead as we sang, the wife, his adult children. It was impressive; they held their grief with austerity. Their suit jackets, from our vantage point above, looked perfectly pressed, without wrinkles, and when they cried they lifted their tissues up and down, cleaning their noses in a controlled manner that muffled the sound. When I went down for communion the casket was closed, a fact I had noted immediately upon entering the church. At first I’d been disappointed but now, relieved of the command to look at the body as we filed by the casket in the center aisle, I had the chance to observe the oldest woman, the man’s wife, at a close and personal proximity.

As I came toward her in her pew I could see her shoulders shimmering, almost (but not quite) trembling under the fine black cloth, as if an earthquake wanted to escape her body but she knew how to keep the rumbling deep inside so that only the faintest, smallest trace of the shuddering escaped her core and made it to the surface. I stuck out my tongue for the Eucharist, saying, “Amen,” to Father Ben and then hung a left and crossed right in front of her. I kept my face forward but could hear her choked sobs as I passed.

There was no way to get inside it. No way to see what death taught. My clothes felt scratchy. My button-up choked me. The collar was too tight, as were my French braids, and my hair was pulling at my face making it feel taut as a hardened mask.

The following week my sisters and I were lounging in front of the TV — in that sacred time on Saturday morning when no parents appeared and no nuns chased us down, when we were free to watch Hanna-Barbera cartoons and eat as many bowls of Lucky Charms as we wanted, when we were happy to have escaped the tall scratchy socks and the perfectly lined desks of our Catholic school education — when our mother appeared in the middle of our sock-strewn mess.

She had mascara smeared around her eyes like a raccoon. I looked at her mouth as she spoke, the wrinkles around her lips radiated in a pattern that reminded me of an overripe apple. I instinctively knew and reached out to grasp my little sister’s hand as she delivered the news. She said, “Your Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita died last night. They flipped off the bridge between the reservation and Yuma and drowned in the car."

I don’t know how long the idea sat there, obscured by the image of murky river water and inhaled algae, before I thought of our cousin Tonya, Uncle Johnny’s only child, a 4-year-old girl with glossy eyes and a helmet-like bob. Tonya collected small things from people, the people she liked most. The tinier the better, she kept the collection in an old cigar box under her bed. My sister Joan had given her a fancy bobby pin with a small glass butterfly at the tip. When we saw her during Christmas and summer break I always tried to illicit a request, thinking maybe she’d ask me for something, but she never did.

Mom had shut off the television and was sitting in a crumpled heap on the couch. She said, “I’ve already started packing. I don’t want to hear a peep from you guys. Your dad was up all night on the phone with his brothers and sisters and he barely fell asleep. When he wakes up we’re taking off.”

The car Uncle Johnny had been driving was a long, sporty bullet with electric windows that seized up and stopped working once they sank in the water. The windows trapped them in the car, refused to roll down. When Dad woke up, bloodshot and heavy, he made us help load the van with our bags. We piled inside and drove home with him bug-eyed and staring. We crossed the border from New Mexico into Arizona and started the long journey across the Navajo reservation to our grandfather’s reservation in Yuma. Dad stared out the window until it grew dark. When my sisters and Mom fell asleep I moved to my spot on the ice chest between the two captains seats, like I always did, and he started talking. He said Johnny should have waited until the water inside the car rose all the way to the ceiling and the pressure outside matched the pressure inside, maybe then they could have got out.

When the divers first went down looking for victims or bodies, it was dark and they came up saying there was no one in the car. But the day grew lighter and the sky turned pink like it does in the desert, a full half-hour before the sun actually peeks, and the divers found Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita at sunrise, hugging each other in the back seat of the car. They were locked together—their long hair floating around them in the water like streamers.

The traditional funeral on our reservation was nothing like the one Sister Benedict had us sing for at Sacred Heart School. First there was a Mass at St. Thomas Indian Mission, a formality of sorts, and then Father Rusty looked over us and all our tribal relatives in the congregation. I saw in his eyes that he knew — of course he knew — he had been invited to attend. An old Franciscan up on the Mohave reservation had rebelled against the papacy back in the day, the story went, and submitted to a tribal cremation when cremation was still considered heresy by the Catholic Church. Before the pope had heard God say something new when he called down the chimney and therefore changed the law.

“Go your way now,” Father Rusty said grimly as we filed out and headed down to the tribal cemetery, Cry House, and cremation grounds.

We piled into the van, looking around at our cousins as they filed into their own jalopies, and drove onto the cemetery grounds in a long procession. The grounds were and are a dirt-and-rock lot with white stone graves at one end and a single building with a large ramada and attached kitchen at the other. The grounds are gated and the big iron wrought gates locked behind us after driving through. We went into the Cry House, the big room in the long building. It had pew-like benches like those at Sacred Heart. My Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita were laid out on two long tables in the center of the room, their bodies bloated, swelled up by the water they had drowned in. We sat with their bodies all afternoon. We leaned on our parents and whispered with our cousins. It grew boring. We asked if we could go outside and play.

“If you stay away from the graves,” Dad said. “Go back behind the kitchen.”

My sisters and I went with the herd of cousins and second cousins; we had eight remaining uncles and aunts and were therefore an enormous gang. We hunted around for frogs but we were too far from the canals to find any. We looked for clouds shapes in the sky but they were rare in the desert, it wasn’t the right kind of day, and all the clouds we saw were stretched too thin to be anything. We decided to play tag. The question “Who’s going to be it?” was resolved with a game of fists in the center: one person knocked out at a time, by the song’s final word as it landed on an outstretched fist. Our favorite sing-song went like this: “My mother and your mother are hanging out clothes. My mother pops your mother right in the nose. What color was the blood?” “Purple. P-u-r-p-l-e! And you are not it!”

Then we dodged and ran. We laughed and pushed each other down and fought and made up. We had fun until it grew dark and our parents brought us back inside. The gourd rattlers, men from the bird clan, picked up their instruments. It was starting. They stood in two long lines at the far end of the drowned bodies, moving their feet and hips slightly but staying rooted to their place. They sang songs in the Yuma language about the journey after death, the three days the spirits roam, and the lives of my Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita in particular. All night they sang.

All night the women in my family danced the clothes. Neat piles of clothing — an outfit for Uncle Johnny, an outfit for Aunt Anita, an outfit for Grandma, an outfit for Grandpa — folded and sitting on a corner table. There were outfits for other greats and one baby outfit for my dead brother. Grandma’s dress was flower-printed with a button-up breast and collar, just like she used to wear. The shoes looked like nurse’s shoes, soft rubber soles, the pantyhose were caramel, lighter-than-her-skin, the type that she preferred. Each deceased member of our family had their size, measurements and style set out with the shoes on top and bright scarves tying the bundles together. Then my aunts and female relatives picked the clothing bundles up and started dancing the clothing to the gourd rattler’s music.

They swayed side to side, lifting and lowering the clothing bundles with their feet planted in place, all night they did this movement, without setting down the bundles. After hours of this subtle dancing, the earth-bound women holding the clothes always fade. As an adult holding the clothes, I have felt myself fade. I disappear beneath the bundles as the people the clothes represent return to us. Their movements say: This is the way I ran pigeon-toed across the field, this is the way I turned at the waist and shot a grin over my shoulder. Remember how my eyes curved into crescent moons when I laughed?

They say this is the way we argued, first with arms folded determined to stay calm, and then pushing each other harder and harder.

Finally 4 a.m. arrived, that hour when the world is at its darkest, when the bodies look otherworldly and scary and I shrank against the wall afraid. Their watery appearance, the long wavy hair on their heads, the permanently closed eyes, felt like they were coming for me. Their bodies somehow ensured my own death. The other families, the ones not so close to Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita, started to help us, started to help Dad and his brothers and sisters with their grief. They start to help by crying. The women did it mostly, their voices deep and mournful in those cries, “Ah-ah, ha!” They started crying slow and then rose in unison, their mouths wide open, their cries rising and melding together in the dimly lit room. Outside the windows, the Sonoran desert was dark as it could be.

My father’s body started to shake when he heard them cry. I could feel it trembling where I leaned on it, the earthquake rising until his heart burst open and there it was for me to see. He was open. I saw his grief, his exposed bones, and heard his howling. I saw his suffering as he got up and went down the aisle toward that numinous altar of death, where, holding his baby brother’s hand, he took off his turquoise ring and slipped it onto Uncle Johnny’s water-swollen pinky. He stumbled back. The women cried, “Ah-ah, ha,” and the floodgates opened.

Then the sun started to rise. A pink hue began to appear on the horizon out the window. The Cry House doors were unlocked and thrown open. The men grabbed the corners of the caskets and started walking slowly towards the door. The gourd singers, the bird clan, grew louder in their song as they saw the sunrise approaching. They timed the procession, 15 steps and stop, gourds rattling, voices rising, 20 steps and stop. The men carried the bodies, starting and stopping according to the procession, out the doors and across the rock-and-dirt lot toward the cemetery, 100 feet away.

I held tight to Dad’s hand and walked beside his trembling surface. A pile of cottonwood stood in the cemetery: the funeral pyre. It was directly over where Uncle Johnny’s and Aunt Anita’s cemetery plots and white tombstones would be once it all burned away. Their bodies were removed from their caskets and placed directly on top of the cottonwood. The caskets were turned upside down alongside them. People stepped forward and placed the clothes from the dance on top of the pyre. My sisters and I stepped forward and placed gift blankets on top. Then we gave the ceremonial shawls we were wearing during the service as gifts, gifts that would go with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita to the next world.

The Cry House groundskeeper lit the cremation fires just as the sun showed its face over the horizon. The sun’s fire and the cremation flames leaping, the water giving itself to the smoke and the smoke rising, soon any proof that they had been here was gone. That afternoon my oldest cousins went out to the black ashes where Uncle Johnny and Aunt Anita’s tombstones, once purchased, would be placed. My cousins had whitewashed a pile of softball-size rocks and they carried them out there while we watched. They shaped the rocks around the two graves in the shape of a large white heart.

When I went back to school the following week, Sister Benedict made me stand at the front of the class.

“Tell them where you’ve been,” she said, in one of her moods.

“I was at my uncle’s funeral,” I said.

“Tell them how he died, tell them who was in the car with him,” she said. She looked at me, her eyes seeking a teachable moment about the dangers of excessive drinking, of raging against the pain.

I said, “It was a party and he wrecked the car.”

“Tell them who he was with,” she said.

“It was my aunt,” I said. “It was her birthday.”

I thought of the gourd rattles and the midnight criers. I thought of how the bodies looked in the dark. I thought of my own small body, already aged, frail and dying itself. I looked at Sister Benedict and I wanted to howl. I thought of the burning sun and the smoking barren desert we had crossed on our way back inside the Cry House after the cremation. I thought of the hymns we had sung in church and the bird clan and the way these words were spoken to a classroom of foreign men.

I turned away from Sister Benedict and felt her talon-hands shoving me back toward my desk. I leaned backward into her push, dragging my feet as she urged me along. I wanted to howl and howl loud but I shoved it all down, deep in my body. I felt the rumble and tremor but I refused to let it rise to the surface. I refused to let it rise because it was beautiful. I had seen that it was beautiful — and Sister did not understand — and Sister did not deserve to see.

This piece is the latest in a series by feminists of color, curated by Roxane Gay. To submit to the series, email rgay@salon.com.

By Deborah Jackson Taffa

Deborah Taffa's work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Drunken Boat, Best American Travel Writing, and beyond. A professor of creative writing in St. Louis, MO, she is finishing a collection of stories titled "Almost Yuman," a bildungsroman about her childhood on the reservation. She lives with her husband, children, dog, hermit crabs, and Venus flytrap in a house with too many Girl Scout cookies. Follow her on twitter @deborahtaffa.

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Catholicism Childhood Funerals Native Native American