Student Poem

Stranger at a Funeral
Eliot Johnson


Who was this guy? And why
am I at his funeral? Some friend
of my grandfather, godfather of my uncle,
whose name I hadn’t heard until yesterday
when my mom searched my closet for a dress shirt
because my dad wanted me to see this.

We stand in the back with the less-related, the second class mourners,
nearer to the daylight and the fresh air. Someone passes out candles. In the front,
the priest, obscured in thick smoke, recites verses in Russian,
or Latin, or something, the auctioneer for the corpse. A woman in a pink shawl
whom I caught a glimpse of as she disappeared behind the stage
cuts into the priest’s recitation with disembodied chants.
As he talks, the priest swings his incense ball on its chain
like an exterminator fumigating an apartment. The smoke holds back
whatever light penetrates the thick curtains and obscures
the saints staring vacantly from the walls. Was the church always
this dark, or did years of incense leave stains like cigarette smoke?
(When was the last time they aired this place out?)
The dead man in the open box barely registers as
a sideshow against this smoky cave they’ve put him in.

There are no stories, no memories, just the smoke, the blue hands crossed
on the motionless chest, and the quiet sobbing from the first row.
The bereaved file past the casket and kiss the metal icon
laid on his forehead. The priest asks us to pray that the dead man
chooses not to become a ghost. The woman in front of me
crosses herself for the hundredth time. Then, finally,
it’s over. We blow out the narrow yellow candles, the pallbearers load the coffin
into a scuffed black hearse, and the mourners disperse, squinting, into the grey
Seattle drizzle. Everything appears normal again as I slide into my dad’s SUV,
and we leave the church behind to go see Nana at the hospital.

A moment important for those close
just sort of sailed by me, noted, but without impact,
another death on the news.


Eliot Johnson is 21, lives in Okanogan, and is earning a transfer degree at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak. Eliot writes, “I’ve messed around writing fiction for most of my life. I actually started this poem several years ago after the funeral of my uncle’s godfather, but didn’t make much of it until recently, when I re-worked it for the poetry component of a creative writing class.”

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