People view death in a myriad of ways, but essentially it is a pretty straightforward circumstance we all face. Funerals, however, bear the uniqueness that is inherent in the family or the culture of the deceased. I’ve been to a LOT of funerals and I have been exposed to them since I was a very small child.
The first person I remember passing away was my Uncle Spencer. He was on my father’s side of the family and he was married to my Aunt Fannie Sue. Yes, those are their real names. I remember that their house was uneven and it had a big potbelly stove in the living room that would burn wood and keep the house warm. The floor in the living room slanted towards the weight of the pot-bellied stove and my mother was always fearful that my rambunctiousness was going to one day send me headlong into the stove and I would burn myself. My uncle Spencer was bald-headed and he always intrigued me because he could put his index finger into his cheek and make a “popping” sound that would make me belly laugh. He passed away before I was even in kindergarten and I was too young to go to the funeral, even though I went to the visitation. But my mother and father assured me that he was now in heaven making popping noises for Jesus.
My grandfather on my Dad’s side was the first funeral I attended. Granddaddy Bell was a bald man who refused to have his picture made. I think his baldhead always bothered him. He had a great sense of humor and always got the best presents at Christmas. His brother and he always exchanged some type of gag gift or toy with each other, and I thought it was more fun to play with the toys that he got, than the toys that I would get. I remember going to see Granddaddy Bell in the hospital just a few days before he passed away, and Mom and Dad had determined that I was old enough now (in the first grade) to attend the funeral, and more importantly, the visitation.
I was lectured, I am sure, to be on my best behavior. Not to interrupt people who are talking and to only whisper. I don’t know if my brain fully wrapped around the whisper idea, especially since the person we were appreciating was dead already. But I did my best. I sat facing my grandfather’s open casket and I was sad. I was probably saddest because my father and my grandmother were so sad. I probably didn’t quite grasp death yet, but I had been told that Granddaddy wasn’t sick anymore, because Jesus had healed him and now Granddaddy and Uncle Spencer were reunited.
Then, it happened. There I sat, being nice and prim and proper (a rarity for me) when I saw my grandfather’s eyelashes move. I froze in horror. I wasn’t afraid of him jumping out of the casket… I knew a terrible mistake was about to be made, because Granddaddy wasn’t dead. I thought about what I needed to do to right this horrible wrong and I went straight to my mother. Of course, she was standing and quietly speaking to someone else, but this was important. I had been told not to interrupt, but someone really needed to know what was going on.
I tugged on her skirt. She threw me one of those don’t-interrupt-me-while-I’m-talking looks that mothers perfect. I waited a minute and tugged again. She took my hand and continued talking. I put together my calmest voice and cleared my throat and said, “Excuse Me” and she turned to me and reminded me not to interrupt her. Finally, her conversation ended and she asked me what I needed.
“Granddaddy’s not dead yet.”
Complete silence. I am certain I received pitying looks from the people standing in our vicinity but my mother excused us and we walked away. She wanted to know why I thought Granddaddy was not dead.
“His eyelashes are moving. He can’t be dead yet, because he’s just asleep. We can’t bury him because he’s not dead. Come and see for yourself.”
I tugged my mother to my seat and she graciously sat down with me and explained that sometimes when we stare and something very hard and for a long length of time that our eyes play tricks on us. Then she explained about ceiling fans or air conditioning vents and how the airflow can cause movement. She convinced me that Granddaddy was indeed in heaven and I had nothing to worry about.
I’ve attended a lot of funerals since my young days. My mother being the church organist always meant that I attended more than my fair share of funerals and weddings. I’ve been to funerals of the elderly, teenagers, babies, etc. I have been to Catholic funerals, Episcopalian funerals, and loads of Baptist funerals with hordes of casseroles in the back room. I have seen open caskets and closed caskets. I have even sung at a couple of services.
This past week I had the honor of singing at the funeral of the father of a close friend. I sang with three other ladies, each having different views of funerals and the dead in general. I suppose I am somewhat immune at this point to the idea of being in a room with the shell of a person. “Shell” is the best term to use since the living soul has gone on to eternity. When my mother’s father passed away, I remember someone saying that the shell was lying before us, but the Nut had moved on. Gramps would have loved hearing that.
So, I arrived with my cohorts (Suzanne, Requelle, Natalie and Perri – but Perri wasn’t singing) at the funeral home a few minutes before the service to meet with the organist and quickly glance at the two songs we were singing. One song would be a breeze, since it was an old standard. The other song was an old standard for my mother’s generation, but I was sight-reading that one. As we are getting ready to enter, Natalie and Requelle voiced their concern about being around an open casket.
Natalie let us know that she had very limited experience with funerals and she had to really love a person to attend one. Requelle is from the east coast and a family who cremates their loved one and then waits around for anywhere between eight to 16 months to observe a memorial service. I’ve always thought that was a bit odd, and I’ve always reminded Requelle of her oddness. It’s one of those things we love about each other.
Suzanne assured us that we were not going to be singing in the room with the body, but in a separate room off the corner, and out of the view of those in attendance. We slipped into the hallway, past the administrative offices, the wall of headstone examples and the casket room to where the organ and sound equipment were held. Just a few steps away, was another back hallway with steps leading to an upper level and a door leading outside where hearses and limousines were waiting. This was the perfect place for us to practice our harmonies and perfect the songs for the service.
We pulled out the music and sang the first song. The organist came out and let us know we were singing in the wrong key and we graciously thanked her for her opinion. Funeral home employees would pass by occasionally to get to where they needed to go. We sang all three verses and I kept messing up on one section, so we marked the music and moved on. We were in the midst of singing the second number when I looked up and saw a horrified expression cross Requelle’s face. I had no idea what the problem was, but she began to edge closer to me and the stairs when Natalie’s face paled.
The next thing I see is the back of an employee and the end of a casket making its way through the doorway. We kept singing. I think that was so Requelle and Natalie wouldn’t pass out. The casket was a light blue hue with part of the lining peeking out. We kept singing. The employee on our end of the casket walked away and left it sitting nestled right up against our bodies. Requelle and Natalie continue to edge us closer to the stairs. We kept singing. We also started chuckling.
It is not that easy to sing “Victory in Jesus” when you are trying not to laugh. I have a feeling the Lord was laughing right along with us. An employee came around the top of the staircase to berate us for laughing on such a solemn occasion. We kept singing. Perri’s voice was heard on the other side of the wall asking if everything was okay. We kept singing/laughing. We got to the halfway part of the chorus when we just couldn’t hold it in any longer and the singing gave way to full laughter. The guy who was on the other end of the casket stuck his head through the door and eased Requelle and Natalie’s mind by saying, “It’s okay. There’s nobody in here.” More laughter.
The casket was removed and tissues were distributed to dab at the corners of our eyes were tears of laughter were leaking out. I wished that Lou Ann had been with us. She would have enjoyed this experience. Natalie went on and on about the fact that the lining had been exposed and my evil twin Lana showed herself by saying that there probably really was a body in the casket and that guy just said that so that Requelle and Nat wouldn’t pass out.
More than one employee in the back hall told us that we had a very nice sound and that is when the Funeral Tour 2006 idea came into play. We decided we could travel the funeral circuit and sing and that Perri could be our road manager/booking agent. That’s when I described my ideal funeral situation, filled with party gags and good music. I thought it would be neat to pre-record my voice relaying pithy statements like “Hey… I haven’t seen you in a while”, “What were you thinking wearing THAT to my funeral”, and “You’re crowding me here” and it would all be triggered by infrared rays that surrounded my casket. When you broke that line, you’d hear my voice. Cool, huh? More laughter ensued and then it was time for us to start the service.
It was a sweet service. The first song went well… even though there was a moment of concern that the organist had tired of playing and we were going to finish the song a cappella, but we all finished together, stepped out until the final song and then sang “Victory in Jesus” to close the service. Then we packed up and headed back to Nashville where I am sure that Perri has begun the process of booking our next gig! Ha!
It is an honor to know these women as friends. It is a joy to serve in a unique way for Lou Ann, who lost her father. And it is just like the Lord to lighten our load, even for such a short time.