The Blue Light Special

I never thought I’d get experienced at planning funerals, but somehow I’ve done that.  Three times I’ve worked on arrangements for family (mother, brother, father).  Once I helped a friend make the plans for her mother-in-law, going to the funeral home with her and walking her through the process.

It’s a strange experience to say the least, and none have been alike.

My mother’s funeral was the first.  By the time Mother died, we’d had several close calls, and the first one of those was when Dad turned to me and said something like “This is where you’ll have to help.”  The problem for him was that while he knew where Mother wanted to be buried, he had no clue about how to go about planning her service.  You see, she wanted to buried in the small cemetery connected to Antioch Church of Christ near San Augustine, Texas, where Dad’s parents are buried, as well as many of his relatives.  Mother, however, was Roman Catholic.

Their marriage in 1948 had been in a different era, when Catholics and Protestants weren’t allowed to marry in the church itself.  Instead, Mother and Dad married in the priest’s home and a small reception followed at the home of my Grandmother Adair and her husband.  By the time Mother died, in 1993, many things were different.

But Dad was still clueless when it came to what she’d want, to what her family would expect.  I talked to a priest about her desire to be buried in a Protestant cemetery, with a Church of Christ minister at the graveside, and he said there’d be no problem. As I told Dad, her family would just have to accept that.  On the other hand, his family would have to accept that we would have a rosary, a visitation, and a funeral mass at the funeral home in Crowley, Louisiana, prior to the burial.  He was relieved, I think, that I had dealt with this angle of her funeral and burial.

It was several years, however, before we actually had to follow through with the plans.  Mother died very quietly at Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana, early in the morning after my brother Phil had arrived from Florida, where he lived and worked.  I’m certain she was waiting for him before she left us.

Dad and Phil were with her; they’d stayed in the hospital with her.  I’d stayed most nights until then, and Kay and I were in Egan.  So that very morning, we went with Dad and Phil to Geesey-Ferguson Funeral Home in Crowley to make arrangements.

We sat and talked with the funeral director.  I started writing the obituary –another thing I could relieve Dad of handling.  And then we were brought to another room, one filled with caskets, to make a selection.  That’s when the surreal element kicked in.

One thing I have in ample quantity is a sense of humor.  Perhaps it’s a bit warped at times, but it’s mine.  And Kay often shares it, as she did that day.  Dad and Phil were off in one part of the room, solemnly examining one casket after another.  Kay and I were wandering in another area, looking at various caskets and then at the notices/prices on each.  One was on special, and I leaned over to Kay and whispered “Attention K-Mart Shoppers.”  Suddenly, we realized that we were both caught by a particular absurdity on one label:  “Life-time Guarantee.”  Excuse me?  Just how does that work?  It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from laughing right then and there.  We’ve done it since, and often, and all I need to do is say the magic words:  “Attention K-Mart Shoppers” — she understands exactly what I’m referring to.  

Dad and Phil never heard us.  We joined them in a much more solemn discussion of which casket to pick out.  Phil really did the selection — a pinkish hue that would be as close to Mother’s favorite color (red) as we could get.  Done.

We’d also brought makeup, nail polish, and clothes.  Mother had a white pantsuit and red blouse (of course!) all picked out and set aside.  She’d never forgive us if we didn’t send her off in style, complete with beautifully done nails and red lipstick.  The polish helped, of course, in hiding the yellowed, cracked nails that were the wrecks of her once-elegantly manicured hands.  Later, Phil and I went out to find a scarf to hide the many bruises on her arms since her blouse and jacket were short-sleeved.

Later as we had the rosary, I met friend after friend, relative after relative, and walked with them to her casket.  I found myself saying that yes, she looked good, all the while fussing at myself silently for falling back on the cliches.  Yet what else was I to say?  

We’d lived in Egan since 1957, and my mother’s family ties were there long before that, so between relatives and friends, from Dad’s Sun Oil co-workers and our school friends, there were a lot of people.  I told someone later that I felt like a social director to the universe.  And I guess that’s what got me through it.  It gave me something to do, to focus on, and I could see the grief and weariness in Dad’s face and Phil’s and Kay’s.  Mine was there too, but Mother knew and expected me to step up and keep things on keel.

The next day, we had a funeral mass in the chapel before heading to Texas.  I’d picked out only one hymn, “Ave Maria.”  It was one of Mother’s favorites, and I can still hear her lovely alto voice singing it.  The four of us and Kay’s family sat on the first row, holding hands and trying to hold it together.  Around us were Mother’s sister and her family, and Dad’s sister and her family, along with my dad’s aunt and her family, and Dad’s sister-in-law and family.  I had friends from Lake Charles.  There were so many Sun Oil friends, our other family. It was a full chapel, a real delight to see.  As I  walked out that day, I remember seeing my cousin Carolyn, my mother’s niece, who is more like my older sister than a cousin, and when I saw her I just lost it.  I also vividly remember my friends’ shocked faces at that sight.  I guess they’d not seen me break down that way before.  But I recovered, and we got through the rest of the day.  After going to Egan, Dad and the rest of us went to Texas, for the second part of the services.

There we simply went to the small church that sits near San Augustine, the county seat of San Augustine County.  Antioch Church of Christ is the oldest Church of Christ church in Texas, if I recall correctly.  The graveyard is in fact on land that my great-grandfather William Henry Richards donated.  We were met by the preacher, a family friend, and had a very touching graveside ceremony.  Then we went to the farm, just down the road, and had coffee and food for visitors.  By the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I almost fell asleep lying on the front porch.  It was the end of July, and it was hot.  We only have one window air conditioner in the house, in the living room, and believe me, it wasn’t enough.  At some point, my cousin Mike’s wife came out in her shorts, announcing that Mother would understand.  I had to grin at that one.  She certainly would.  She hated to sweat.

We’d survived.  That was good.  

In January 1996 we were back in the same cemetery, this time for my brother Phil.  Phil died of cancer (his fourth round) and had drilled me for three months on what he wanted and didn’t want.  I had to repeat the drill every weekend that I was at MD Anderson with him.  As confused as he was, he was clear that I had to follow his wishes.  He was adamant:  he wanted to be cremated, and he wanted to be buried at Mother’s side, and he did not want a funeral.  And we followed his wishes, mostly.

It was a cold, damp, wintery day when we drove in from Egan.  Phil’s fiance Darcy and Kay and I and Dad drove in for the day only.  Each of us women held the box of ashes at different times.  I still remember the shape and heft of that plain white cube, and wonder at holding it.  

Texas has no restrictions on burying ashes.  Thus we simply went to the farm so that Dad could get a shovel.  Then we went to the cemetery.  Dad dug the small opening.  We had family members with us — not a huge group, just the immediate family.  I read the psalm that I’d read frequently to Phil in the hospital.  I had always liked it, and Phil came to request it a lot.  So I felt safe in reading it.  If you’re not familiar with it, here it is:

Abiding in the Shadow of the Almighty
1  He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High

        
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2  I will say of the LORD,

        
He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.
3  Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

        
and from the noisome pestilence.
4  He shall cover thee with his feathers,

        
and under his wings shalt thou trust:
his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5  Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;

        
nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6  nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

        
nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7  A thousand shall fall at thy side,

        
and ten thousand at thy right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.
8  Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold

        
and see the reward of the wicked.
9  Because thou hast made the LORDwhich is my refuge,

        
even the Most High, thy habitation;
10  there shall no evil befall thee,

        
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11  For he shall give his angels charge over thee, Mt. 4.6 · Lk. 4.10 

        
to keep thee in all thy ways.
12  They shall bear thee up in their hands,

        
lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Mt. 4.6 · Lk. 4.11
13  Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:

        
the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Lk. 10.19
14  Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him:

        
I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15  He shall call upon me, and I will answer him:

        
will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him, and honor him.
16  With long life will I satisfy him,

        

and show him my salvation.”

I read it using he New Testament that Grandmother and Granddad Ware had given me on my 7th birthday. Yes, I grew up reading the King James version of the Bible as well as the Douay-Rheims Bible that Mother had.  And this psalm still comforts me.

After I read the psalm, Dad simply covered the small grave opening, and that was that.  We went back to the farm briefly, for coffee and refreshments, but didn’t stay.  It was far too cold, and we were exhausted.  We drove back to Egan that same day.

Somehow I never got my New Testament back.  Dad kept it on his headboard for the rest of his life.  Only after he died did I retrieve it.

When it was time to plan Dad’s funeral, Kay and I had no real problems.  We’d talked about it, made choices and decisions, and knew what we would do and what Dad would want.  

Dad died at home, very peacefully, simply drifting off in his sleep.  Kay and I sat there in the living room with him, waiting for the friends we’d called, and soon Billie and Charles were with us.  We waited for the hospice nurse, and then for the crew from Geesey-Ferguson Funeral Home in Crowley.  When the crew came, it was led by one of my cousins, which was so touching and comforting.  

Later that morning, Kay and I went in to begin the process.  Since I had power of attorney, I had to sign things, had to handle the paperwork and finances.  But Kay and I made all the decisions together.  It was pretty straight-forward.  We’d have a small gathering there in Crowley for friends and family and Dad’s former co-workers from Sun Oil.  Then we’d have the funeral in Texas, in San Augustine.

As with Mother and Phil, I wrote the obituary.  Once more, I could use my abilities to serve my family in some small way.  Searching out what was important, what I wanted people to remember, what would speak to Dad’s personality (or Mother’s, or Phil’s) — that allowed me to honor each of them.

Selecting the casket this time was easy.  Kay and I had exactly the same ideas, and found a beautiful wood casket.  In looking at the possible additions, we grinned when we saw that there were small deer heads with antlers for the casket corners.  Yes, that was perfect — Dad the deer-hunter would like that.  

Selecting music and photographs for the memorial DVD (a new twist since our previous funeral planning adventures) took some time, but again proved how much Kay and I were on the same page.  No problems.  

The visitation went well.  Again, because we’d lived in Egan since 1957, there were many people whose lives Dad had touched, and he was clearly well respected and loved.  There were older people, men Dad had worked with.  There were neighbors.  There were people we’d gone to school with, guys my age who’d been on the baseball teams Dad coached.  

We drove to the farm.  Dad’s sister and sister-in-law and their families were with us.  The funeral home in San Augustine was packed.  My mother’s niece Carolyn and her husband came — no surprise.  When a friend of mine from Houston came, though, I was touched — he is a young man I’ve known since he was barely out of middle school, a former student now an attorney, and his effort to be there meant so much to me.

We sang the hymns we’d selected, hymns we’d grown up hearing Dad sing in his baritone, hymns we’d sung along with.  I’ve never been so aware of loss as then, I think.  But not just for me.  For my aunts, my dad’s sister and sister-in-law.  My dad’s sister, in particular, broke my heart.  As a sister who’d lost a brother, I found myself identifying with her in ways I’d never done before.  

There were lots of tears that day at lunch following the graveside rites, and at the farm after that.  But there was also tremendous laughter as we sat around and told stories.  

That’s really the healing, I think.  The tears, certainly, because they cleanse us somehow, releasing sorrow and anguish and grief, at least for a while.  They will come again, and again, but that first communal tear-fest (if it can happen) allows for much-needed relief.  

And the laughter?  Why not laugh?  Why not be joyful?  And so thankful for all the wonderful times.

As we sat there that day, we told stories about Dad and also about Phil and Mother.  Silly things, funny things.  That Mother could talk like Donald Duck (but we didn’t know what she was saying for years until she told me — “Son of a bitch!”) — and laughing about the first time she did that after she got her dentures.  We all tried our best to sound like Donald, and then Mother opened her mouth and the top dentures nearly flew right out!

Or about the time Phil and Mike and Sis and friends were fishing down in the pond, and one of them cast the fishing hook right into Phil’s scalp.

Or how when we were kids we’d run all over the farm, and how Grandmother always knew when we’d been where we weren’t supposed to be.  

I don’t think we ever think about funerals when we’re young, certainly not about planning them.  But as we get older, we go through funerals and begin to assimilate all of the cultural baggage that accompanies them.

Mourning rituals in other cultures offer the grieving family and friends some pattern to follow, some designated form and time for formal mourning of loss.  Our own culture, it seems to me, has in many ways distanced itself from mourning.  Once the funeral’s over, we’re supposed to have “moved on” and “beyond” it somehow, almost immediately.  Talking about the person who has died often makes people uncomfortable.  

Yet how realistic is it for us to simply cut that person out of our life, out of our memories?  Isn’t it much better to remember them and enjoy those memories?

And as we age, too, I guess, we find ourselves moving to the head of the class, so to speak.  For as our elders die, we move up.  Where they were the family memory-keepers, we take over.  And we must, inevitably, think of our own mortality.

One friend of mine lost her husband to cancer a few years ago.  She had a memorial service for him, playing his favorite music, and friends sat around and told stories.

That’s what I want.  A party.  I’m already working on the music list.

 

 

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