This past Thursday my wife and I attended the wake of a family friend who had passed away earlier in the week. While standing in line waiting to see the family, I spotted the usual photo tributes to the deceased, propped on easels in various corners of the funeral home. As we approached one, I had to smile. Instead of a photo of the recently lost person, there was a photo of Minnie Pearl. “Oh!” I heard someone ahead of me exclaim, “That was from her trip to Nashville!” The mood lifted slightly as people began to quietly chat about the trip. Other photos posted along the line included pictures of her children, grand-children, grade-school friends, and trips she had taken. At one point my four year-old tugged on my hand. “Is this the story of how she die-ed?” (She always over-pronounces the “ed” on words). “No,” I smiled, “This is the story of how she lived.”
Every time I attend a wake or a funeral, I can’t help thinking about family members that have passed away, and how we handled their deaths. It seems that we laugh as much as we cry.
When my mother passed away from cancer the year after I graduated from college, we held a graveside service for her. Two rows of chairs had been set up in front of her stone for the family to sit upon during the service. As friends and family approached, my cousin Aunt Lily (that’s a story for another day) went to sit down in the front row. Somehow she missed the chair, landing square on her backside in front my mother's urn. There were a few horrified gasps from the crowd behind, but Aunt Lily was laughing hysterically, which made the rest of the family laugh as well. We all agreed, as her last prank on one of her favorite relatives, mom had somehow pulled the chair out from under Aunt Lily at the last moment.
Many years later, at the same cemetery, we laid my grandmother to rest. Once again we had a graveside service. The ceremony itself was casual and somber. Rain had soaked the ground, and the sky was still overcast. After the service, my cousin and I were standing near the grave, sort of idly watching the men from the funeral home prepare to bury Gram’s urn. When they removed the carpet from over the pre-prepared hole, my cousin glanced in, spotting several inches of water in the bottom. She gasped, looking at the undertaker with wide eyes, “You’re not going to put her in there are you?” The undertaker looked nervous. “Well, yes,” he mumbled softly. My cousin slyly grinned my way, “But, Gram never learned to swim!” I had to walk away, chuckling at the shocked look on the poor man’s face.
A couple of years ago, the man who laid both these women to rest also passed away. He had been a family friend since long before I was born, and he had performed weddings, baptisms and funerals for our family. During his life, he had been a lay-preacher at our local church, and his stories were always entertaining, making church services much more than just learning written scripture. Before he passed away, he planned his own funeral down to the last detail, including writing his own eulogy. Like his church services, we knew upon entering his funeral service that we were in for something different. Sitting at the front of the church, on a small platform behind the alter, sat a bluegrass band, complete with banjo, fiddle and red plaid shirts. His eulogy was read by his cousin, who delivered it exactly as he would have had he been with us. As always, his stories made us cry, laugh, and remember. It may be the only time I’ve left a church saying “That was the best funeral I’ve ever been to!”
While funerals are generally thought of as sad, somber affairs, filled with mourning relatives dressed in black talking in shushed tones around perfectly constructed flower arrangements, it’s nice to know that they aren’t all that way. As we approached the casket of our family friend a few days ago, I was once again given a chance to smile. Hanging in her casket lid, among other tokens of her life, was a small sign referencing two of her idols. It summed up her personality perfectly. “Unless you are God or George Straight,” the sign read, “Wipe your feet and take off your boots.”