Alum Josh Gross confronts estranged father in ‘The Funeral Papers’

Josh Gross, a Portland State alumnus from 2008, is a journalist, playwright and now published author of four books. His most recent, a memoir called The Funeral Papers, is the story of Gross and his estranged father who died two years ago. When Gross attended the funeral and was given a packet of his father’s writing, work he previously didn’t believe existed, he was inspired to use it as a means of exploring and perhaps reconciling what had been a difficult relationship.

“We didn’t talk for a long time and there was this huge gulf between us,” Gross said. “So can this be the thing that solves that? And at the same time is it a way to potentially find him some recognition that he didn’t get when was alive?”

The idea for the book came to Gross on the train ride home from his father’s funeral. “I knew the moment I opened that envelope it was just going to be this Pandora’s Box,” Gross said. “I was trying to process how strange the funeral had been and I started writing it out like a journal entry.”

This journal entry turned into a story and then he realized it would be interesting to juxtapose it with his father’s work. He finished the project within a year, but even though the writing process went quickly it posed many challenges for Gross, especially facing old wounds and memories he’d tried to put out of his mind.

“It’s an intense book. There’s a lot in there,” Gross said. “Some of it is just balls out rage because there’s a lot of issues, and some of it is having that feeling completely reversed because I found something that I didn’t even know.”

He struggled with trying to understand his father, a person he couldn’t seem to connect to in life, and be fair to the material. This was especially hard because in the middle of writing the book he moved back to his hometown of Ashland, Oregon, where he was subject to criticism from his father’s friends.

Gross refers to the book as a co-memoir. Much of it consists of his father’s writing and accounts of his father’s life, which Gross acknowledged is fascinating in itself. “He was a cool dude, but not a very good parent, which is part of where our struggles were,” Gross said. “But he lived through some really strange parts of American history.”

For example, according to those who knew Gross’ father, he was stationed on the same Army base as Elvis Presley. He was also part of the beat poets in New York and California, and was among the bohemians who lived in the Sausalito houseboats.

“That was his life. He went through all of that,” Gross said. “There’s a lot of really interesting pieces of very real life.”

As a writer, Gross said he has been influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, but that this books was primarily influenced by music, especially punk rock. A major tension throughout the story is the cultural gap between Gross’ father, who was a flower child and lived in a hippie commune, and himself.

“I was a black pants–wearing, middle finger–waving, screaming my balls off little shithead,” Gross said. “We saw the world through entirely different lenses.”

This rift is illustrated in a scene that takes place in Portland (which Gross described as its own character in the book), as the various generations reacted to the impending Iraq War in 2003. Gross recalled that as the baby boomers staged a peaceful sit-in on the Burnside Bridge, he and his cohorts responded differently.

“We all took off and stomped through the city and we shut down the 405 and blocked traffic,” Gross said. “I remember that being this moment of ‘that’s your generation and this is my generation.’ And this is the moment where I’m breaking off fully and saying, ‘We’re our own thing. We’re doing something different.’”

While few have read the book so far, those who have read it have responded well. “The reaction has been really, really positive. There seems to be interest in the concepts and topic,” Gross said.

“I’ve never read a memoir quite like it before,” said Tori ElBalazo, Gross’ publisher. “Because the book skips from Josh’s writing to Arnie’s and back, it is both a conversation with a dead person and a journey through the type of pain that can only be caused by a family member. I was moved and intrigued by both the humorous writing style and Josh’s ability to temper his hatred for his dad after having spent time diving into his father’s writing.”

When the book is released to the public this summer, Gross hopes that readers will not only enjoy it, but that they’ll find a deeper understanding of the ways we do and don’t get along with the people in our lives and why.

“A lot of the problems we have are manufactured. They don’t need to be there. A lot of it is meaningless and stupid and totally unnecessary,” Gross said. “When you see it laid out you look at yourself and go, ‘Why do we do this to ourselves?’”