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  Select Poetry by James Preston Allen.

The Funeral of Gordon Wagner

By James Preston Allen, copyright 1987


The architecture of the Catholic church in Pasadena was in the traditional, Spanish-mission style, with pseudo Michael Angelo murals of biblical importance and vestibules with Christian iconography to this or that saint decorating the wide hall. Most of them I didn’t recognize. I could see where Gordon discovered his formats for his assemblages and his inspiration for iconography. While he never quite seemed to be devout at much except making art, this did seem like an influence.

The day was hot and smoggy for a December. As we arrived the ceremony had just started. With the head priest orating at the massive marble alter. Yet, never once eulogized Gordon except to draw attention to the fact that he was baptized (although not at birth) but surely much later and was now baptized into death. Amen.

The priests, there were at least four, in their vestments walked slowly around the casket counter clockwise shaking the holy water and chanting. And throughout all this ceremony we were asked to stand and sit down and then to pray or kneel and then to stand, sit and kneel all over again. I lost count of the number of repetitions.

All of the priests were on hand to make the holy pronouncements for Gordon to God, as though they felt he needed some help getting in the glorious front door to heaven. Yet I’m sure if Gordon really wanted in he would have constructed his own surrealist door and let himself in through the side or rear. That’s just the way he was.

As the funeral mass dragged on I sat there on the hard-wooden pew with these strange humorous thoughts of my own, but maybe the same thoughts as many of the other non-believers in attendance.  I watched as the priest poured and drank the wine, I wondered why he didn’t pass it around as my parched throat could have surely used a sip. He then “healed” the wafer and I started thinking it was getting close to lunch and there should be some salsa on those chips.

Then in a curiously Druidic move he fumigated both the alter and the casket with incense, which was draped in ribbons and wreaths of pine. The frankincense was not as excruciatingly pungent as I remembered, but just enough to make my nose twitch like I was going to sneeze.

Conspicuous among the attendees was Lieve in a sophisticated shear black blouse. At some distance this finely tailored fashion of black silk, with ruffles to the neck and sleeves, was elegant as it was discrete. Up close however, it was so finely shear and transparent, especially when the sun shone on it from behind. It’s the type of blouse that a sophisticated secretary might wear to induce her boss to give her a raise. Yet Lieve daringly wore it braless and yes if all the pronouncements of the priests of resurrection with Christ didn’t work in the afterlife for Gordon, her exquisitely formed breasts microscopically concealed so sheer under this blouse should have surely risen Gordon (or at least a part of him) from the grave!

The funeral was well attended by a who’s who of Los Angeles artists, close friends and acquaintances from San Pedro. The church was filled to almost half its capacity. Although hardly a sob or tear could be heard throughout the hour-long ceremony. Then as the pall bearers rolled the casket down the center isle in deathly silence with everyone looking quite grim the perfect words struggled up my parched, choked throat. “Courage Gordon” I blurted out the sound of it echoing off the walls and ceiling like I had shouted it. My lips grew tight and my eyes watered and the mourners in the great hall looked bewildered. Now with that the ice of emotions melted and the tears streamed with the relief that sorrow brings. It was said afterwards that those two words meant more than all the hocus pocus that the priests had laid down previously as these were the very words that Gordon himself used as a salutation. They were the only two words that I could say.

After the usual milling around that takes place at such events, the somber cordialities and the figuring out who, how and when to get to the cemetery to plant the mortal remains, the group commenced to disperse. Jess Morton, Bruce Houston and others packed up in a van with Gordon’s widow Virginia.  Lieve and her black blouse with the rest followed the hearse.

I for one had had enough and departed for a ceremony called lunch where I could actually drink the wine and eat the bread; sharing some thoughts with Suzanne about archaic rituals, so hollow yet hallowed.

Before we left the hearse drove out of the driveway for the cemetery as I stood next to John and Muriel Olguin and said silently, “Good Bye Gordon”, but he of course could not be heard to respond with, “Courage James”.

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