October 24, 1969. It was a Friday. Forty-six years ago. Lowell, Mass, Jack Kerouac‘s funeral – Archambault Funeral Home to the service at St. Jean Baptiste Church (presided over by Father Morissette) then off to the leafy graves at Edson Cemetery.
Bill Tremblay‘s perceptive poem about the occasion can be read here
Here’s Allen with John Clellon Holmes at the grave-site (and, on the right, in shadow, Gregory Corso)
John Clellon Holmes (from his notebooks): “I didn’t want to look at him, at whatever some mortician had thought to fashion of what was left of him, but knew I would. . . Anyway, up I went, not wanting to, scared I’d be revolted, scared it would all crash in on me if I had to see that face, and through the dark, moving shoulders, I saw him. Laid out in the flowers, in the proscribed attitude of peaceful sleep, hands folded with rosary entwined, in a yellow shirt, a natty bow-tie, and a sport-jacket! (No need to say no one ever saw him that way since he was Harcourt-Brace’s soulful young Thomas Wolfe damn near twenty-years ago.) And the face? Made to look as peaceful as a babe, the brows slightly knotted but with perplex rather than pain, the mouth not his mouth at all, the color pale pink (Jack’s sweaty, creased, florid, fleshy face), thin and boyish, choir-boyish (and Jack was once choir-boyish alright, but this was a prissy, I’m-alright-Jack Jack, no Jack I ever knew, waxen, calm, mannikin-like…
Then there was a rush to grab flowers and put them on the casket… I went up and took a white rose that lay about, and put it over the part where perhaps his head was, I didn’t know, I wanted white rather than red (he’d become pure at last, after all; that is, all the compassionate dense involvement was over for him, the knotted forehead of meanings no longer necessary, the strange odyssey of conscious life had found its end, he was purely himself now, he was gone, all the contention & sorrow & questions remained with us), and I wanted a white flower to rest on his head…”
Eric Ehrmann & Stephen Davis (from their contemporaneous account for
“Jack Kerouac’s people were all there in their Sunday best, sharp-featured French-Canadian people. Old ladies gushed and moaned in French patois, their heads bobbing up and down as they gossiped about what Father Morissette had told the young Kerouac many years before. They were cordial enough….
They had laid out his body in a grey hounds-tooth sports jacket (at least one size too small), a yellow shirt and red bowtie with white pin dots. His face, heavily madeup, waxy and dull, had been molded into a cheery, vacant smile. The silver rosary clutched between his hands was faintly discolored by the heavy makeup caked upon his fingers.
“Touch him”, said Ginsberg. “There’s really nothing inside”
Not surprisingly, Kerouac’s forehead was quite cold to the touch.
“This”, Ginsberg continued, “Is exactly the way he wanted it. Listen.” He read aloud from Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. Ginsberg’s manner was entirely reverent: This was his service over the body. (Peter) Orlovsky fought back the tears.
Among the wreaths was a very special one that Ginsberg and Orlovsky had brought. A typical wreath, really, except for the senders, whose names – Bill, Terry, Allen and Peter – were spelled out in glittery sequins (William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Ginsberg and Orlovsky)…
The following morning, Friday, was the day of the funeral, in the Eglise St Jean le Baptiste. The weather was unseasonably cold for the New England October: In fact, it was the coldest day in months. The pallbearers (Kerouac’s relatives, Ginsberg, and a man dressed as an Italian gangster who was uptight at the sight of so many cameras, from Gregory Corso’s Bolex to about twenty Kodak Instamatics and Brownies that kept flitting about) all wore overcoats. Corso was filming the entire funeral, panning up and down the sub-Gothic facade of St.Jean and back to Ginsberg carrying the coffin…
The gunmetal black casket was trundled toward the altar on a good-sized coffin dolly with the trademark Eureka embossed on its side. A nice touch..
In his address to the congregation, Father Morissette said, in part, “Jack Kerouac embodied something of man’s search for freedom. He refused always to be boxed in by the pettiness of the world. He had what Allen Ginsberg called “the exquisite honesty”, the guts to express and live his ideas. Now he is on the road again, going on further, as he said, “alone by the waters of life”. Our hopes and prayer is that he has found complete liberation”…
As the mourners poured out of the church into the blinding reflection of the sun on the stone steps, Corso (was) filming every move…. TV cameras caught the action at graveside: the cranes lowering the casket into the freshly dug earth. Corso filmed it too, right on top of it, two feet from the grave. He tilted the big sixteen millimeter camera right down into the hole, all the way, until Kerouac’s casket settled into place.
Ginsberg lofted a handful of dirt onto the coffin as workmen shoveled away. A few other mourners followed with their handfuls, but most simply watched…”
Bill Morgan (in his Ginsberg biography): “Allen, Gregory and Peter flew to New Haven, where Allen was scheduled to read and then they all drove up to Lowell with John Clellon Holmes for the funeral. They saw Jack laid out in his coffin in the Archambault Funeral Home on Pawtucket Street. He was holding a rosary in his wrinkled hands and looked large-headed and grim-lipped, with a tiny bald spot on the top of his skull that Allen hadn’t noticed before. The furrow on his brow was familiar to Allen but his middle-aged heavy appearance reminded Allen more of Jack’s father, Leo. To Allen, seeing the corpse was like beholding a Buddha in a Parinirvana pose who had been on earth only long enough to deliver a message and then leave the shell of his body behind. Allen turned to Ann and Sam Charters, Jack’s bibliographer and her husband, and said, “I have the feeling now that Jack has imagined us all”
Vivian Gornick (another participant)’s brief remembrance:
“I met Ginsberg only twice, the first time at Jack Kerouac’s funeral in 1969. I was there for The Village Voice. It was my first assignment as a working journalist. Here is the scene as I remember it:
At the head of the viewing room stood the casket wih Kerouac, hideously made up, lying in it. In the mourners’ seats sat Kerouac’s middle-class French-Canadian relaives – eyes narrowed, faces florid, arms crossed on their disapproving breasts. Around the casket – dipping, weaving, chanting OM – were Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. Then there was Kerouac’s final, caretaker wife, a woman old enough to be his mother, weeping bitterly and looking strangely isolated. I sat mesmerized, staring in all directions. Suddenly Ginsberg was sitting beside me. “And who are you?” he asked quietly. I told him who I was. He nodded and wondered if I was talking to people. Especially the wife. I must be sure to talk to her. “Oh, no,” I said quickly. “I couldn’t do that.” Ginsberg nodded into space for a moment. “You must,” he murmured. Then he looked directly into my eyes. “It’s your job,” he said softly. “You must do your job.””