Over the last 36 hours, I have been reminded not once, but twice, why I have chosen this career. The goal now is to be able to tell the story without it dragging on. The first reminder is easy. We were serving a family at George Funeral Home and the wife of the man who died, told Allen, the manager of the funeral home that she used to live in NJ and that I buried her mother and aunt when I worked at Quinn-Hopping Funeral Home in Livingston, NJ in 1990 and 1991. We come into people’s lives in ways that often cause them to remember us, even twenty three years later. For me, that was a great compliment and I had a chance to chat with her yesterday and thank her.
The second story is not so short. I live and work in a fairly sterile segment of funeral service. When I started what is now the South Caroliona Cremation Society in 2000, I did so with the intent of creating a funeral home that was simple and affordable. We did just that and colleagues scoffed and laughed at us. Today they are now trying to duplicate what we started. I talk to hurting people from all over the state on the telephone, send them e-mails and often never meet them face to face. Most of those clients report back that they are extremely happy with the ease and simplicity of how we do things and I have a sack of “fan e-mails” that would make my mother proud, but there are no hugs or fried chicken. It was not until yesterday that I was reminded that something was missing.
When we first came to Aiken in 1999, we soon met a couple, Tom & Mary. They were the age of my parents and our family got to know them at several levels. They were simple, country folks. Honest and hardworking as the day was long. They would give what little they had, asked for nothing in return and were appreciative of the smallest courtesy.
It was just last week that I finnished off my last bag of pecans that grew on trees in their yard. When our daughters were younger, they would go there and ride around the fields with Tom on his golf cart, picking vegetables and sometimes just exploring. Mary introduced them to “country cooking” I remember our family driving to Wrens, GA a few years back to join with them celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary with their family. Over the years, I assisted them with some business matters and eventually, we came to planning their funeral services in advance. As they aged, both Tom and Mary have had their share of health issues and close calls, but it was Tom that died Tuesday afternoon from complications of Lung cancer. I knew the time was coming and part of me quietly hoped that he would wait until I was away as I knew it would be hard for me….I was being selfish. As I get older myself, I tend to be more emotional when it comes to burying people I know well….maybe because it is a coming attraction for me?
Well, as providence had it, I was the only one there when the call came from Dexter, the hospice chaplain. The other staff members were at a funeral. It is just as well because if I did have an excuse and did not go, I would never forgive myself. I had no excuse and fewer options.
I prepared the vehicle and drove the ten miles to their house. I went by myself as I was confidant there would be lots of hands to help. As I arrived, there were cars all over the yard and relatives were actually smiling as I walked in. I was reminded about how it all started and how important our job really is. I knew that as soon as I walked in the side door, I would be in the same room with Tom. I took a few seconds to shed a tear, say a prayer for his soul and then turned and greeted Mary and a host of family members, most of whom I had met at least once. We stood around, telling a few stories and waiting for a couple of relatives that were on the way.
Death in the South is different. I have told colleagues from around the country that if I respond to a home death at 3am, several trays of freshly fried chicken will be brought to the home and on the table before we arrive. Fried chicken and Peace Lilly’s….iconic trappings of Southern Funerals. Those trappings were displayed for all..…plates of fried chicken, vegetables, pork chops in the most beautiful gravy you could ever hope to put in your mouth, pizzas, and gallons and gallons of sweet tea.
The last grandchildren arrived and we all stood around the bed, twenty or so family, holding hands while Dexter led us in a prayer of consolation. Then it was time and Dexter, Tom’s brother Fay and myself moved Tom from his bed to our cot. We covered him with our special, veterans quilt, in honor of his service in the Army during the Korean Conflict. There were lots of hands helping us as we placed the stretcher in my vehicle and I secured it inside and closed the door. I left a white, silk rose on his bed so that when Mary went back in the room, the bed would not be empty. I went back in to say goodbye and was asked if my wife and I were coming back to eat with them. I explained that Alicia was pretty much out of commission with a severe cold, but that I would be back with the guest book and stand. I took Tom back to the funeral home and then collected a few things and made my way back to the house. More smiles, more stories, more chicken and sweet tea…all good balm for the aching heart. I was participating in a family event and I was part of the family. It wasn’t sterile…..I cried, I touched and smelled death, I hugged sad people and they hugged me back. They knew that they were in good hands and that I would not let them down….they were correct. This morning we met to finalize the arrangements and decided that Tom’s golf cart needed to be parked at the front door of the funeral home on Friday as people arrive for his funeral. When I came home tonight and told my wife and oldest daughter what we were doing, Kelliann said, “Of course, it needs to be there. Everyone rode on it at least once. It will make people smile”
I feel good today. I cried, stuffed myself with fried chicken, made people smile and lessened their anxiety and fears. I even helped a new family with their death, using e-mails and websites. I may have all the technology at my fingertips, but I am just a simple, village undertaker at heart.