The first funeral home fan that I remember (probably from the funeral of a great-aunt or uncle, my attendance at which, as a child of four or five, would never in that time have been considered inappropriate) had a stock painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on the front. On the back would have been the name and address of the funeral home and a tasteful slogan along the lines of “Here when you need us” or “Treating your family like family for over 50 years.”
In the years since, I’ve wondered about things like whether there were dyes in the first century to make robes such a deep shade of blue and such a rich shade of red, but back then my wondering was limited to how long I was going to have to wear the crinoline.
These days funeral home fans don't always invoke the divine. Instead of Jesus standing at the door and knocking, some of my more recent acquisitions have featured bucolic scenes of a meadow, impossibly green, impossibly verdant, and necessarily generic. The unnamed locale could be an Appalachian valley, a New England orchard, or the Mississippi Delta in spring, just after a soaking rain.
Where it most definitely is not is where I am today – a sun-scorched cemetery in south Georgia where wiregrass and cockleburs fight for space with the gravel rocks that tumble against each other under the tires of the hearse. Where I stand just outside the perimeter of the green tent under which the family is seated in metal folding chairs that still look exactly like metal folding chairs despite the fabric covers. Where I fan with the finesse of one bred to the task – elbow tucked against my ribs, wrist bent at a 45-degree angle and twisted slightly so that my palm is facing my chest, fingers curled loosely around the handle. Down and up, down and up. A regular beat. Like the one I’ve been taught is proper when administering CPR. The beat to “Stayin’ Alive.”
The fanning does little more than stir the hot air. My arms grow damp and a cling like Saran Wrap forms between my skin and my clothes. There is a kind gentleman standing next to me who pops open a black umbrella and moves a step closer. “This will help a little,” he says, and it does. The shadow from the umbrella is dark and round.
The preacher reads a psalm, sings a hymn, shares a few remembrances of the departed. I can’t make out every word from my vantage point where I’m trying very hard not to step on someone else’s grave. He says something, I think, about comfort for the grieving and that word – comfort – catches my attention.
A comfort. That is what the fan is. Not in a physical way, but in the way of being a solace in an uncertain world. It is a promise that, in a world in which so much has changed, is changing, will continue to change, some things haven’t, don’t, and won’t. “Here,” says the kind face in a dark suit. “Take this thin yet sturdy piece of cardboard with a balsa wood handle and be reminded that some things last. It won’t keep you cool, but it will keep you sure.”
The preacher says amen and I walk toward the car where a quick blast from the air conditioner vaporizes the sweat and replaces it with chill bumps. I slip the funeral home fan up over the visor where over the next few days it will slip and slide back and forth until, eventually, it will fall gently to the seat beside me.
I reach over and pick it up, think back to the funeral, the heat, the gentleman with the umbrella. And I feel it again, the comfort. I turn off the air conditioner and fan, fan, fan.