Bouquets of roses and daisies stand on either side of the casket. The left half of its lid is open. Overhead, eight-inch stained boards slant toward the crest of the ceiling. The Cypress View Chapel looks to seat 200 mourners in its pews, but now, except for my edgy presence, it is empty. I sit in the middle of the right bank of pews and wonder how I will proceed.
After a while, I approach the man in the casket to pay my respects. Dark-rimmed glasses perch over his closed lids. He appears to have been in his 70s, and elevated behind him in the casket lie what must have been favorites of his, a beige jacket and blue cap with the word "Paris" on it. The man's hands fold together on the lower part of his abdomen. They have a look of abiding strength, as though they could still twist one of the tools he once used in his long career at Subic Bay, the Philippines, as a Navy heavy-equipment mechanic. Nobody is looking, and I have an urge to touch his skin. But the event this afternoon is called a "viewing," and I am a stranger to the deceased.
Out in the lobby, the chapel attendant tells me about the long and beautiful loose-fitting shirt the man wears. It is peach-colored and embroidered in a pattern of small flowers. "They call that kind of shirt a filipina," he tells me. But I ask a friend about it that evening. He says that "barong tagalog" is the more traditional Filipino name for the shirt, which is made from the leaves of the pineapple plant.
Suddenly 10 to 15 people are walking into the chapel's foyer. Among them is an elderly woman clinging to a boy's arm and facing straight ahead in a sedated stare. She walks slowly toward the chapel's open doors. I see, too, a bouncy, smiling fortysomething woman who has a take-charge look.
Not wanting to lose an opportunity through hesitation, I quickly approach her. After verifying that she is the deceased's daughter, I tell her I want to ask a few things about her father.
"Are you writing another obituary that costs money?" she inquires with some hostility. Apparently relieved at my denial, however, she agrees to provide information at a later time. As I start to write her name and number on a card, she says, "Here, let me write it." She gives me back the card, which I put in my shirt pocket without looking at it.
Later I inquire into the prices for an obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune, where I first saw information on the deceased, including this viewing and a funeral Mass scheduled for the following morning. It is $7.25 per line, and a photo counts for ten lines.
While waiting for the arrival of others this afternoon, I walk toward the mausoleum section of the building. There, on both sides of a long hallway that ends in a stained-glass window, are written the names of the dead who stay there, sometimes in containers of ashes that look like vases or books and sometimes in coffins stashed into the walls. On the outer faces of many crypts, one sees a last name above, with a first name below on the left and an empty space on the right for the name of a spouse in the future. One marble face, twice as large as the others, grabs my lingering attention. It identifies a man and a woman, aged 28 and 27, on the left, while on the right, the lettering spells the names of a boy, 2, and a girl, 1.
Upon returning to this afternoon's viewing, I glance at the card I took minutes earlier. The deceased's daughter has written only her name on it. There is no phone number. A quick call to directory assistance confirms that her number is not listed. Already feeling like the invader of too private a moment, I take this as subtle communication. It seems to tell me, "Not only have you barged in here uninvited, but you are so rude as to bother us too." For the next funeral service, I resolve to take a different approach.
A few yards beyond the entrance to Glen Abbey Cemetery, as the hillside rises up, you come to a fork in the road. Arrow-shaped slats with people's names on them point you toward the funeral or burial you are seeking. Not long after you've gone up one road, another set of slats narrows your search further. The nameplates slip in and out of ridged metal rails that hold them to wooden surfaces. Tomorrow a new set of names will be on the boards.
At the right side of the curving road I take stands the cemetery's Little Chapel of Roses. Nearby, a woman in her 40s irrigates the lawn and some flowers near one of the graves. In a can with a spout, she carries water to the gravesite from one of the faucets on the grounds. Looking for directions, I ask her if she works at the cemetery.
"No," she says. "The sprinkling system doesn't reach this far, and the ground around my mother's grave gets dry." It turns out that she performs this filial duty for her mother each weekend.
On the other side of the chapel, photographer Darlene Platt sets up her camera on a tripod. She asks me whether a service is about to occur in the chapel shortly. She would like to take pictures inside it. I am surprised that she is a wedding photographer and will shoot a wedding in the chapel the following weekend. People can get good deals on weddings at Glen Abbey, she tells me, after recollecting a $50,000 wedding she worked several weeks earlier on a yacht. In addition to funeral advisors, Glen Abbey has a wedding coordinator too.
I ask Platt her opinion of weddings held in a cemetery chapel. "I was thinking about that earlier," she says, "and most of the people who end up here were married and had families. So it's a good place to have a wedding, because the dead will be cheering you on."
Near the top of the hill, I spot people of all ages gathering around chairs under a small canopy. Thousands of flat grave markers, not the rising monuments of yesteryear, cover the surrounding slopes. Scattered among them are a few here and there that have bunches of flowers and personal items on them. The day is bright with sunshine, and the people gathering appear cheerful with each other in a subdued sort of way.
Only a few people wear formal dress. But a middle-aged woman in a blue suit looks inviting, and I ask her if I might stand in the back of their group and listen once the service starts. I say that I may have to plan something like this for another person someday. "Sit or stand anywhere you like," she says. "It might seem a little unusual to you, as the minister of my brother's church is officiating. Are you a Christian?"
To wait, I wander 30 yards away, not far from a cemetery groundskeeper noisily operating a backhoe. He seems to be loosening up the grass and topsoil over a new gravesite.
Several days later, it occurs to me to inquire into the cost of plots. I call a woman at Greenwood Cemetery for a sample price. Thirty-five hundred dollars buys the plot. The cemetery then charges $900 to dig and close it and $800 for the concrete vault required by law to seal the coffin in the grave. There is a $95 fee for processing paperwork. A 28- by 16-inch headstone costs $625, and its installation, including engraving, is $350. Taxes on the taxable items are $110.44. The total, the woman at Greenwood says, is $6380.44. That does not include the cost of a casket or of the funeral service.
When the backhoe operator pauses and looks from his machine perch toward the gathering mourners, I ask when he plans to stop his work. "I usually drive away about ten minutes before the services start," he says -- and he does.
A young man drives up the road in front of the mourners, stops, and backs up against the curb, screeching his tires in the process. He jumps out and joins the gatherers. A silver hearse with a black top pulls up shortly thereafter and delivers its passenger. The sounds of soft music now tell me the service is about to begin, and I move to the back of the crowd of about 80 people. We are at the crest of a hill looking over a picturesque canyon, the flower-covered casket in our immediate foreground.
Standing now next to the coffin, the minister prays and reads from a Bible. But his role seems to be mainly to introduce testimonials, which start with friends of the deceased, who had five grown children and scores of grandchildren and was 79 at the time of her death. A middle-aged woman steps forward. Her husband died several years earlier. She explains how much comfort she then received from the deceased. "The lady we are honoring here today could relate because of how much sorrow she endured at the death of her own husband," says the woman.
A second woman stands and speaks of the "dysfunctional family" she lived in as a child. She says that the deceased taught her the real meaning of family. Another person gets up to talk about his own dysfunctional family. It is the young man who screeched his tires shortly before the service began. He recounts how the deceased invited him into her home and showed him, too, what "family" means.
At last, family members begin speaking. After stepping forward, the older of the deceased's two sons points back of himself to the casket and says that his mother "is here, but she's not here. She wouldn't dance in life, but she is dancing now." He has written for today's occasion a song called "Working My Way Back to You, Lord." He and a friend take guitars over to a microphone at the gathering's left side and play the song. The mourners listen with reverence to its soft tones and message of hope.
Now the oldest of three daughters stands. She is the woman who welcomed me before the service started. "It seems like Mom invited the whole U.S. Navy into our house," she says, to chuckles in the little congregation. "My sister and I thought they were our brothers. That's why we married Marines instead."
"I'm the baby of the family," says the last family member to stand, a trim man of 40 with sandy hair. "Mom believed in the power of prayer and the scripture. She taught us the importance of spiritual things. I remember that Mom would pray for my brother and me, especially at night. She would come into our rooms when we were sleeping and lay hands on us and pray over us. I remember pretending to be asleep so I could hear those prayers. I miss those prayers.
"She made going to church a priority. You couldn't miss even if you were sick. She said, 'You better not be breathing if you're planning on not going to church.' " There is subdued, poignant laughter among the mourners.
"She had lots of her own favorite sayings, like 'Oh, hogwash' or 'Fiddlesticks' or 'Don't put your cart before your horses.' After her stroke, she had to learn to talk again. She kept saying 'beautiful' to everything you said to her. You'd announce, 'It's bedtime.' She'd say, 'Beautiful.'
" 'Be sure your sins don't catch you out' was something she told me a lot when I was growing up. For the longest time, I thought it was a scripture. I can't find it, but I think it is in there somewhere.
"She loved dominoes and Scrabble. She'd come up with words I'd never heard of. Then, sure enough, they'd be in the dictionary.
"She loved gospel music. She'd listen for hours and hours and rewind the tape and play it again, songs like 'The Old Rugged Cross' and 'The Power of Love.'
"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."
"We miss her, though," says Burke. "But her spirit is still with us, especially in her room, the way she had it set up. She worked hard on it, setting out dolls, a nightlight, her cane, trinkets, angels, and pictures. You couldn't find a speck of dust in there, all the way down to the bottom of the TV stand. Everything was in a position where it shouldn't be moved. It was not easy to go through her stuff yesterday. The people who came to visit took some of her things home with them, and it was hard to watch them take it. All her personal things were meaningful to her."
King says that he and Dunn became close after he decided to give up his shipyard job and become her county-sponsored caregiver. "Both Tamara and Mom were having stress problems, and no one was there to take care of them," he says. And without someone by Dunn's side, he adds, the blood-thinning medication she was taking could have caused her to bleed to death after a fall.
Burke and King are grateful for the support they got from Pastor Floyd Brown after Dunn's death. For one thing, he helped them with mortuary arrangements. "Those can be more expensive on weekends," Brown tells me later. I call Goodbody Mortuary on El Cajon Boulevard to learn their fees. A full church funeral costs $3800. It includes picking up the body at the site of death, taking it to and from the church and then to the gravesite, and processing the death certificate. A price of $1435 covers a similar full-service cremation. A family can purchase cremation only for $595.
Brown helped Burke and King spiritually too. "During the service he made it clear that everyone's got to go someday. But before you do, make sure you get yourself right with Jesus. If you don't know Him, then you should get to know Him," King remembers his pastor emphasizing.
Referring to Mona Dunn's youngest son, Burke says: "He was touched by some things the pastor said. My brother has an anger problem but is learning to control it. He wanted my mother's Bible. I told him there are places in it where she has dried flowers, and those are the places where she had read, and maybe he should read every area she marked, because it might mean something to him. And she had made a keepsake box for him. Each of the smaller boxes inside had a cross in it, or an angel. So he said, 'This must be telling me something.' I said, 'No, God is telling you something along with this being what Mom wants for you. In order for you to be with her when you pass, you need to be with Jesus.' "
Good News Baptist Church is a predominantly African-American congregation, with a few white and Mexican-American members. Both the Reverend Brown and Tyrone King are African-American, while Burke says she is French and Native American.
A few minutes later when Pastor Brown and I speak alone, I ask him how he helps people through grief when their family members die.
"To console people," he says, "I try to use methods to take them away from the actual thing. You talk about things that will distract their minds. It seems to work. The biggest thing when someone passes away is that people's minds close in on the thought, 'I've lost this person.' The agony of missing them takes over, so you have to relieve that by detouring them.
"And then you give them the Word. And you've got to rotate their minds to know that this is not the end, that they're going to meet their loved ones again, and you use the Word to do that. You'd be surprised; people don't think about that. Everybody's wrapped up in their daily lives, and sometimes these things happen so suddenly.
"The funeral we do here is basically the same as our Sunday-morning worship service. If you think about it, that makes sense, because Sunday-morning worship is all about the Resurrection anyway.
"One of the things that woke me up and helps me now was the death of my wife. I was 29 years old, and she was too. She was pregnant with my fifth child, and she suddenly passed away. The doctor gave me some medical terms for what happened. He used the word 'shocked'; it was a shock of some kind, and he couldn't pull her out of it. So she passed away.
"After her passing, I had no problem with death, and I've tried to use my situation to help people when they lose loved ones, because I came into the knowledge of what living and dying is all about."
I ask, "Were you already a pastor when your wife died?"
"No," says Brown, "I was unsaved. And through the death of my wife, I got saved. I think it was something to prepare me for what I had to do. I did my mother's eulogy and all the services for my brothers' and sisters' relatives and close friends. I've never had any problem with it. It was the preparation I had that let me do that. In fact, I've had many requests from people to do their services if they go before I do.
"My wife's death changed life entirely with me. Everything changed. Then I was transformed from the old to the new life.
"I remember grieving the night my wife passed away. I grieved hard that night. But after that night was over, everything was okay. I didn't have any more problems, fortunately. The thing I was concerned about was taking care of the family, raising my children. But my mother was around, and I've got a large family here and a strong faith that everything's going to be all right. And it was. Everything has been beautiful."
Brown has never remarried. "If you ask me why," he says, "I don't know."
From the back of Greenwood Cemetery's chapel I see a middle-aged woman approach the podium on the right side of John William O'Day Jr.'s open casket. At her appearance, another woman -- standing next to me -- gasps with apprehension. "The mother is taking it hard," I have been hearing people say in low murmurs alongside the rows of food spread for mourners in the hall outside the chapel.
But Bebian O'Day is well composed. It is the only thing about her that I detect with certainty, for she has a slight accent, and my hearing is not picking up her phrases at the distance I stand from her. Clearly, however, she is well loved among those in the congregation of perhaps 150. She begins to talk of the ways in which she and her son had communicated with each other, the teasing by the son and her own ripostes. The words are cracking her audience up. They have witnessed these interchanges between "John John" and his mother, and the thought of them again after his death gives relief from the heavy solemnity of the earlier, more emotional testimonials. It is getting toward the end of this four-hour session of testimonials to a 20-year-old submariner.
When she ends her stories, however, Mrs. O'Day turns in the direction of her son's open casket. She addresses him with several endearing exclamations, finishing at last, as she starts to sob, with "John John, I love you, John John." With that, she descends from the podium and starts to make her way back to the opposite side of the chapel. But the visible presence of her son wrests her from the path to her seat. In a moment she is over him sobbing and speaking to him. Her husband, a big man in a white shirt, comes up from behind and puts his arm across her shoulders as she bends further for one last embrace. For what seems a full five minutes, the congregation observes this private moment with deep respect.
Yesterday, during another four-hour session of testimonials, John O'Day Sr. eulogized his son. He cited many achievements of the boy's young life, from early karate classes, to becoming a member of the Young Guns All-Star Basketball Team and Junior ROTC at Mira Mesa High School, to joining the United States Navy. At his funeral Mass on the following day, Mariah Carey's rendition of "Hero" plays.
The Navy is still investigating the circumstances of John O'Day's death on a submarine in Florida. "I can tell you no more than that," says his father, who is a Navy veteran himself. "And that makes it all the harder."
After his funeral Mass, a procession of 65 cars leads O'Day to a service of military honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The Navy is to bury him there. "For a long time," says his father, "there were no new burials at the cemetery. But they've started accepting new people. I'm glad he can be buried there. He deserves it."
After a Wednesday-evening recitation of the Rosary by mourners, the body of 78-year-old Yolanda Aiello stayed overnight in Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on El Cajon Boulevard. "My mother got what she wanted," says her youngest son, Joey.
In the entrance to the church the following morning, the priest greets pallbearers wearing black with white gloves and leads a procession of the casket, followed by the family, up the main aisle.
As I am watching this happen, I wonder at the cost of caskets. The next day I call Cypress View Mortuary. I learn that the prices of their caskets range between $1045 and $10,045.
Immediately short of the altar, the priest stops and waits for Mike Aiello, his children, and his grandchildren to occupy the first several pews on the right. As soon as they are seated, he recites prayers and sprinkles holy water over the coffin. He then introduces a Mass for the dead and moves in a slow meditative walk up the steps of the altar to begin the Mass. The coffin has a white pall over it to signify hope. Years ago the palls always were black. They still can be if relatives of the deceased want them that way. But today they are usually white -- or sometimes purple, which signifies sorrow.
A soprano soloist gives a rendition of "Ave Maria," followed by the congregation's singing "How Great Thou Art." Then begins a Mass similar in most respects to other Catholic masses. After three readings from scripture and a homily, the congregation takes Communion, including a sip, by a few mourners, of white wine from a chalice, the transubstantiated blood of Christ.
Toward the end of the service, a man named Richie rises from the pews to give Mrs. Aiello a eulogy. The priest sits in a chair behind him, gazing fixedly at the floor. "It may surprise all of you here," says Richie, "that my real name is Richard Alan Webber. I use the name 'Rich' in my daily business. But it was the Aiello family who turned me into Richie."
He takes note of the Lord's Prayer that the congregation had recited only moments earlier. "The daily bread is giving us exactly what we need to help us each make it through the day," he says. "I remember many afternoons and nights that I'd come in, weighing next to nothing, to Mom's table. And she'd grab me by the ear and say, 'Richie, you need to sit down and eat something.'
"The two most powerful words I can speak about Mrs. Aiello are 'unconditionally loving.' She gave the undeserved gift. I was one she blessed thousands of different times. I'd sit down with her when she was on the other end of my being confused and all of our ups and downs. And I was blessed to hear her truths and her feelings. She'd look at me and say, 'Richie, Richie, I don't understand why they do these things. I don't know what to do.' But as soon as she said she didn't know, she was given exactly what she needed.
"With each one of us she knew exactly what to do. What a super mom. How many children did she have besides her own three sons and myself? I think of Mother Mary and Mother Teresa -- and now Mother Aiello. I give her the ultimate respect. She's up there with the best of the best. There are kings and there are queens, and she's right there. She's with them right now. What a mom, what a grandma."
At these words, Mike Aiello's body shakes and leans forward. I learn later that he and his wife had been spending a lot of time taking care of their three-year-old great-granddaughter, Mariah.
Webber continues. "When any one of us was in trouble," he says, "Yola would go and light a candle for us and pray for us. And you know what? We've come this far. We're here to honor and respect her and give her the ultimate loving back. We need to do that for each other too. Because what I've heard since her passing is a lot of pain. And everybody wants to go at each other with their pain, and a lot of stones and things are being thrown in many directions.
"I'd like to turn to God for this one. When I visited Mrs. Aiello a few days before she passed, I said, 'Nothing in God's world happens by mistake.' If anything that has happened in the last month was a mistake, then God will tell us. I don't think so. So what we have to use against the animosities, or the bad feelings toward each other, is the most powerful thing that Yola gave us, her love toward each of us. And if we still doubt that, we can turn to the higher power each one of us has and ask for the forgiveness to move on.
"All of us can turn to each other and take the animosities and take the anger and give it to Him, give it away, so you don't keep it, so that the family doesn't go into a rift. We need to come together now like we've never done before. Don't beat yourselves up for what you think we could have and should have done during the last weeks of Mom's illness. Now is the time to do what we can for each other.
"I was so worried about not knowing what to say here this morning. But I've been given exactly what I need, especially the confidence. I'm not worrying about what I need to say, because it is not me. And I love this natural feeling of peace. I know that Yola is at peace right now, and I think we all can step up to the plate and give each other a lot of love, because we're all going to need it, and the thing we're missing is massive. She shared so much with us. Every time I hear the word 'Richie,' guess what? It's like a little bell with an angel that's there on my shoulder. I guarantee there is nothing to be sad about.
"In the past couple of weeks, Mom felt she had not been forgiven for certain mistakes. And I was blessed with something that came to me. 'What you have done,' I said to her, 'there was a reason and a purpose for. None of us have to figure it out now. You have to remember that love is always with you.' Sometimes I feel that she got lost in the tunnel somewhere and was looking for the light. She only had to look upstairs, and when she found it, she was all right.
"Mr. Aiello, my love will always be with you. I can never replace the years I have spent in your family."
On the phone several days later, Webber tells me that he and Mrs. Aiello had been confidants to the rest of the members of the family. But she worried about an "unforgivable" sin of giving too much money from a mortgage deal to one of her sons. But family members, according to Webber, were not holding it against her.
Webber and Joey Aiello go back 25 years together. "We were 'live wires,' " Webber says, referring to their crystal meth habit. "I went into treatment first. Afterward, Mrs. Aiello urged Joey to hang out with me. And she asked me to take Joey under my wing in Narcotics Anonymous. As a result, Joey got clean too."
In another telephone conversation, I confirm this with Joey Aiello. He says, too, that "my mother's legacy is overcoming animosities. Carrying her legacy will be a big job."
Now the priest gently swings a censer of burning incense. He brings it down to the head of Mrs. Aiello's casket and again swings the incense, this time over her. At the other end of her coffin, three altar boys in white have stationed themselves, one in the center holding a crucifix on a long staff, the two others on either side of him holding long, thick, burning candles. The priest picks up a wand with holy water in it and sprinkles the coffin. He then comes around its left side and begins to lead it in procession down the church aisle. The pallbearers take their stations, lift the casket, and follow with Yolanda Aiello's body. At the door of the church, the silver-and-black hearse opens to receive it. After waiting a minute or two off to the side, the priest pivots and continues a meditative walk, his head bowed, back to the sacristy at the front of the church.
The long, straight rows of white gravestones stretch the length of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery as far as one can see in both directions. Their orderliness imparts an additional majesty to this setting on Point Loma from which one looks over both the Pacific Ocean and the entrance to San Diego Bay.
A small group of cars is parked along a circular drive near the cemetery office. From here a procession will take today's mourners to the site of retired Commander Omar Keith's memorial service. Keith served in the United States Navy from 1934 to 1965. He was 89 at the time of his death from lung cancer.
The Navy honor detail is waiting for us at the gazebo where we will honor Mr. Keith's life. Eight male sailors are positioned slightly down the hill toward San Diego Bay. Six of them stand together carrying rifles, with a seventh, their drill officer, before them. The last sailor stands off to the side alone. He carries a rifle -- and a bugle.
Two female sailors stand a short distance before the gazebo, where the gathering is starting to assemble. One holds an American flag folded into a triangle. The other carries Mr. Keith's cremains in a rectangular box. All the sailors wear a uniform of white, with black boots, black belts, and black ties. A black, ropelike accoutrement is slung over each of their left shoulders.
The minister officiating today is Dr. Gary Coombs, president of Southern California Bible College and Seminary in El Cajon. As he opens the service, the two female sailors perform an about-face and begin a slow march to the edge of the gazebo. All eyes are aware of them.
Reverend Coombs cites the long career in uniform that, today anyway, is the defining characteristic of Keith's life. Then he speaks of his religious life.
"He realized that Christ died for him as He died for each one of us here," says Coombs to the gathering. "Not only that, but I know he came to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In those two events we find the essence of eternal life. But there was a decision that had to be made. It has to be made by each one of us if we are to know the Lord. He came to a day in his life -- very young -- when he placed his faith and his entire eternal destiny in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Him fully. The Bible says that Christians don't sorrow like others who have no hope. Yes, we have sorrows. There certainly is sorrow here today in members of the family. But it is not like those who have no hope. Because I stand here today knowing the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and many here know that as well."
The female sailors bring their deliveries to the low table at which Coombs speaks. Already on the table, Keith's light brown commander's cap faces the mourners. Now the sailors place the urn of ashes and the flag on the table as well. They stand at attention, facing each other across the small table for some time as Reverend Coombs continues his homily.
"If Commander Keith could be here today, he would encourage everyone to put their trust in the Savior, because he has a home in heaven. Any who trusts Christ as Savior has an absolute guarantee of a home in heaven. I can assure you -- I didn't get to know him personally -- but I know from what his family says that he trusted Christ and that he is with the Lord today. And his challenge to each one of us, if he could be here, would be, 'Put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ so that you too can be assured of eternal life,' " says Coombs.
At a prearranged signal that I do not detect, the honor guard down the slope presents arms. Over the top of them, we are looking at San Diego Bay. Now the guard's leader gives crisp and dignified commands. The sailors lift their rifles and point them in the direction of the bay. Their first volley startles me. They fire a second and then a third, 21 shots in all.
When they have finished, the drill officer marches to the front of his riflemen and picks up three of the spent shells. He leaves his men and marches to the gazebo. He inserts the shells into the folds of the American flag, which the sailor now holds again. After he leaves, she proceeds to the front of the next of kin, Commander Keith's daughter, Susan McIntire. The sailor bends on one knee and places the flag onto McIntire's lap. I am able to lip-read the sailor's first few words: "On behalf of the Navy of the United States of America..."
When she has finished, the sailor returns to her post. Shortly thereafter, the eighth sailor, who has waited patiently throughout the ceremony this afternoon, puts the bugle to his lips and blows taps. A sense of finality takes possession of our group. For some today, it is the first time the tears come.