Not Your Ordinary Funeral

Funerals are for the living; the dead don’t care because they are dead. Funerals are there to bring closure to the family and friends. For me the whole process of the funeral, from notifying the funeral home, buying the casket or urn and arranging the services at the funeral home and graveside, is long and tedious and does nothing to aid in the grieving and healing process. I also must admit I am bitter from past experiences with my mother and father’s funerals. So my opinions are quite biased and slanted.

My father in-law died last week, necessitating a trip to Texas for his funeral. This was a trip neither of us wanted to make, we had been pretty much estranged from his family for years. There was tension and hard feelings over the years with his father. Don’t get me wrong, Mitch loved his father, he just couldn’t be around him for any period time without the past being dredged up. Lets’ suffice it to say, Mitch had a misspent youth, part of his charm.

We made hurried travel arrangements, taking Orso to a dog spa and me reserving the hotel room. I found one close to the airport and an hour away from the funeral home, thus keeping his exposure to his family limited and maybe saving me bail money. Our flight got in Austin at midnight and after picking up the rental car we got to the hotel around one in the morning. We ended up getting about four hours sleep before heading off through the Texas hill country to the funeral home.

We parked the car and slowly walked into the funeral home, dreading the first salvo of family comments, but everyone was on their best behavior. We met the pastor that was going to preside over the service, a nice young man who obviously didn’t know my father in-law. We were asked if we wanted to go look at my father in-law, (a ghoulish tradition, in my opinion), something I have never been able to do. I waited outside until Mitch and gone in to see him, maybe to make sure he was dead and not just an elaborate ruse to get Mitch to come for a visit. I’m pretty sure he probably poked him to convince himself his father was really dead.

After the casket was closed we were ushered in as the service started. The pastor began his sermon with a short eulogy about his father, which was the obituary, chapter and verse printed on the memorial, then said we would listen to a song. I was expecting a hymn, but no not a hymn, a song by Neil Diamond, which the pastor said was my father in-law’s favorite singer. Who knew? I looked over at Mitch, who had this look of utter disbelief on his face. I turned my head and looked at the pastor who was sitting there with his eyes closed and head bobbing up and down rocking out to Neil Diamond. It was hard to not laugh out loud.

After the song ended, the pastor started speaking again, saying some prayer. Since I am not religious I couldn’t name one prayer from another. After the prayer, he spoke for a few minutes then asked if anyone had anything to say or share a memory about my father in-law. A man stood up and related a story about the time my father in-law spent on a mine sweeper during World War II relating a story about a man dying during a battle and how interesting the story was to him. I thought that was an odd story to tell and almost stood up myself to relate a memory of my first hunting trip with him, but didn’t.

I would have told about opening day of pheasant hunting in Western Kansas. That for three hundred and sixty-four days, cars drive up and down the country roads with people stopping along the side of the road opening and closing car doors, but on the three hundred and sixty-fifth day of the year, the opening day of pheasant hunting season, a closed-door meant one thing, Pheasant Hunters! So while we were getting our guns out of the truck walking around, the dogs going nuts in the back of the truck, the one thing we always heard from him was, “Don’t slam the doors, it will scare off the birds.” Oh please. I figured that story would not be well received so I kept my mouth shut.

After the memory sharing, another Neil Diamond song and a rocking out pastor. This was getting entertaining. The pastor closed the funeral with a traditional song, “Amazing Grace.” Then came the announcement that there would be a last viewing of the deceased. I almost tripped over Mitch trying to get out of the row and out of the room faster than they could open the casket.

After everyone walked by the casket again for a final viewing, we got in the rental car for the drive to the cemetery. Another surprise, we had a police escort (not unusual) but this one had both city police and county sheriffs as escorts. One in the front, one in the back and one would race up the road to the intersections and stop all traffic. Oncoming drivers would pull over and wait patiently for us to pass. Very touching. I chalked it up to small town people.

As we pulled up to the burial spot there were eleven men in military uniforms waiting for us. There was a flag draped over the casket and chairs facing it. We sat down and the pastor said a few words then turned it over to the Honor Guard that was waiting. Two men walked up to either end of the casket and picked up each end of the flag and stopped, waiting. Another man stood in the middle of the casket to help hold the flag. A fourth man walked up to the podium and spoke in the microphone explaining the meaning of the flag and the eighteen-gun salute. The men folded the flag until it was a long narrow strip, then the man at the podium started explaining what each fold meant. At the last fold, the second man tucked the end of the flag into the folds. Then the six men fired three shots each, and one of the men picked up three spent shells and brought them to the men holding the flag. One of the men placed each shell in the flag and explained what each shell meant, Duty, Honor, Country. The speaker at the podium walked over saluted the man holding the flag and took it from him. He then walked over to my mother in-law, saluted her and presented her the flag. Then one of the men played Taps on his bugle and sounded so soulful and sad. It was all very special and something I had never seen before.

So far so good, everyone was on their best behavior, the day was sunny and hot and just as I was thinking we were in the clear, one of Mitch’s cousins called over to me to warn me that I was standing on a fire ant mound. Super, and I was wearing open toe sandals. Fire ant stings burn like an acid burn and the only thing that works to remove the burn is to pour bleach on the stings.

Ah the hill country in Texas, I am so glad we live in the Pacific Northwest.

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