Back in the early eighties, I moved into a metropolitan funeral home that had a small apartment. In less than a week, I had my first remarkable experience. It seems I had left a back door unlocked one night, and my boss had forgotten to advise police of the new, living tenant. Awakened about midnight by the sound of jangling keys and muffled voices, my courageous reaction was to yell, “Who the hell is out there?”
“It’s the police!”, a gruff voice responded.
“Okay”, I stammered, “I’ll be out when I change my shorts!”
As a motorcade was forming up to leave for the cemetery, the hearse had a flat tire. Until that day, I had never changed a tire wearing a suit and tie. In another trip to the grave site, a funeral director led our entire procession through the wrong cemetery. And in still another crazy moment, one of the motorcycle escort riders was stung in the face by a bee.
One of the funerals I recall back then was for a prominent businessman, and it came with a tall order. His will requested the highest monument in the cemetery, and one already there was 26 feet in height, so his ended up being 26 feet, six inches. But that wasn’t the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey often said.
His widow insisted he be buried clutching a pack of Kool menthol cigarettes. I know this to be true because they were my smokes.
Another service I vividly remember was a military funeral attended by four ex-wives and all four girlfriends who replaced them. Everyone remained calm and dignified, but there was a floral arrangement with a broken vase, and that was no accident.
My father, who served his country, community, and family with a flammable mixture of diligence, pride, anger, and humor, passed away in 1980. The memorial service, attended by 200 of his closest friends, reflected his life with an equal number of tears and smiles, and none of it happened on schedule. During one particularly boring eulogy, my mom leaned over and said softly, “Ya know, a good looking young man like you could spend the night with a woman like me.”
“Oh no!”, I whispered back, “You remind me too much of my mother!”
Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t think it was all that funny. I didn’t think it was a big deal. But mostly I didn’t think she’d burst out laughing.
Fast forward now to her own memorial service, during the week of her 95th birthday, which morphed into open-mic night at a comedy club. It wasn’t supposed to, and shouldn’t have, but the son tasked with her eulogy spent the whole 30 minutes talking about dad. Then he blew his nose without turning off the sound system.
Next up was a granddaughter, scheduled to sing a solo, who broke down crying and ended up cussing. And trust me, it’s a phrase you won’t hear even in a church like that one. Still, I believe mother would have loved every moment of it!
I learned a lot during those years. There is a lot of laughter at some wakes. It’s often a family reunion, after all. Funeral directors can get lost just like the rest of us, pallbearers don’t always dress as they should, and some women do look good in black.
Most of all, I came away with a sense of admiration for the grounded funeral professionals who would walk so many families through their most trying moments of grief.