"She was a child of the Depression. Each of us kids wore clothes that she made. Even today she's wearing clothes that she made."
The service ends and mourners disperse down the side of the hill in their cars. As I walk back toward the Little Chapel of Roses, I hear -- then see -- the cemetery worker on his backhoe moving slowly in the direction of the gravesite we had surrounded moments ago.
I come to a garden in back of the chapel with a fountain that, according to the sign, "illustrates the eternal quiet strength of nature." The sign goes on to quote Goethe: "Nature goes her own way, and all that to us seems an exception is really according to order."
Before the service, Buddhist monks in saffron robes begin gathering outside the chapel at Greenwood Memorial Park and Mortuary. Scores of Laotian people are arriving, all of them dressed in black or gray with white shirts or blouses and black ties. But about 10 to 15 girls are wearing long, solid-white chemises.
As we wait, I make conversation with a friendly gentleman in his 70s. "What caused the man's death?" I ask.
"Liver," the man answers tersely, a sardonic smile coming to his lips. "I knew him in Laos," he says. "We both worked for the Laotian Army. When he came to this country, he started to drink Hennessys and Heinekens. You and I might have a beer or two, but he drank a lot. Every day. In Laos, people don't have money to do that. Here, people drink all the time.
"The guy bought a house here but decided to sell it not long ago to go back to Laos for a while. But he got sick right before he was ready to leave. In about five months he was dead."
We talk too long. The service has already begun. Outside the chapel doors, however, a number of men remain to finish their cigarettes and visit with each other further. A cloud of smoke hangs in the air around them.
Inside the chapel, the monks are chanting Buddhist scriptures in a deep baritone. A large group of them sits on the floor in the front of the chapel's left side. On the same side, in the pews, sit all the men in attendance. The women have the other side to themselves. In the front of their section sits the deceased's family. Directly behind them are the girls in white.
During the monks' chanting, neither men nor women have much compunction about talking, occasionally loud enough to be heard at a distance. Some of them turn to people in pews behind theirs and carry on their conversations.
After a while, the monks stop their chanting and three men on their right, not wearing the saffron robes, take it up. Then all chanting stops and one of these men ascends the podium. It has a large picture of the deceased man on its front. The dead man himself is visible in his coffin off to the right, surrounded by several sprays of flowers.
The mourners pay greater attention to what appears to be the ceremony's homily. It is in the Laotian language. After the speaker finishes, the monks begin chanting again. They stop for a few more prayers by the three men to their right. The monks take up the chanting one last time and continue until the service's end.
Afterward, I ask one of the monks to tell me what the chanting is all about.
"For some extraordinary person," he says, in more direct comment on today's chanting, "it would be an appeal for him to enter into nirvana. But for most ordinary people, we pray for them to have the best possible rebirth."
Tomorrow the deceased's body will be cremated according to Buddhist custom, which was established by the cremation of the Buddha himself.
Tamara Burke, a preschool teacher for the Neighborhood House Association, was not pleased that the newspaper obituary cited her mother's memorial service as a day later than it was. As a result, several people missed it, including me. I barge in on a potluck dinner at Good News Missionary Baptist Church in City Heights the following evening. Burke and her fiancé Tyrone King are in the group. I can do nothing other than confess I want to ask questions about the service. This time, I am told they'd be honored to speak with me. I sit down with Burke and King in their pastor's study.
Despite the snafu, Burke found the service in the church basement to be meaningful. Her mother did not want "a wake or regular funeral," she tells me. "So we had only family and friends and church members here. Flowers and her picture were displayed, and we played her favorite song, 'Angels.' Tyrone sang a song he wrote. And the pastor put things in perspective for us."
Mona Dunn met a quick and unexpected death from a brain hemorrhage, according to her daughter. "The doctors performed surgery," she says, "but the swelling wouldn't go down. So they wanted to do another surgery that would have destroyed half her brain. We didn't let them do it. My mother's will stipulated no revival by extraordinary means anyway.
"She had gotten HIV from bad blood in a hysterectomy about 20 years ago. Although she didn't have full-blown AIDS, she also had emphysema, blood clots in her legs that would travel to the lungs, and a tiny hole in her heart. Toward the end, she carried oxygen every time we left the house. She had started to improve, going from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane."
"Her mother had a thing with her hairdo, her teeth, her eyes," says Tyrone King. "Everything had to be perfect. Then, too, she was a comedienne, with jokes and being sarcastic. But she was not a mean person. She was very loving.
"Our tradition for a funeral in this church" -- King has been a member for 19 years -- "is a going-away-home celebration, nothing for us to feel sorry about. Mom's going to a better place. She doesn't have to live on this worldly plane anymore, where there is all this stuff going on that God doesn't like. She won't have to deal with that anymore. She doesn't have to take her medication and have the pains in her legs, none of that, and I'm happy that, if it had to be this way, then it is God's way. I feel good about it, and I'm at peace with it."