A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery

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If you’re ever sitting around with two or three preachers, ask for their funniest stories, the most memorable wedding or funeral they’ve done, something like that.  Pull up a chair because you’ll be here for an hour.

I don’t have any funerals where the “honored guest” got up and walked out, or where the wrong person was discovered to be in the casket, or such foolishness as that. And for good reason.

Funerals are highly structured affairs, regulated by state law and overseen by a whole battery of mortuary employees and family members.

When we gather at the funeral home, the family has already been in conference with the mortician on how they want things done. The funeral directors stand nearby to make sure all goes according to plan. As a result, there is usually very little wiggle room there, space for the unexpected to occur.

And that’s not all bad.

I did this one funeral…

Where the man and his grandfather were buried together. The man was 34 and the grandfather was 64. If those numbers don’t work for you, know that the grandpa had died a full decade earlier but the family had not held a funeral. When the grandson was found in his freezer with an axe in his head–placed there by his wife’s lesbian lover–the family wanted a joint funeral for both. Those two women are serving life terms in the state penitentiary.

Would you be surprised if I told you that this was all in New Orleans? Probably not.

And the first time I held a funeral in one of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries….

The day before the funeral, the daughter-in-law said, “Now, pastor, tomorrow when we bury Roy’s mother…” Yes? “My mother will also be in the casket with her.” I said, “Excuse me?” She said, “We cremated my mother ten years ago and haven’t known what to do with the ashes. We found out that it’s legal, so just before the casket is sealed, we’re going to slip the urn inside and put both their names on the marble slab.”

She got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Just think–my mother and my mother-in-law in the same casket.”

I said, “Did they get along together in life?”

She said, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

No, some things do not matter after death.

It’s interesting what people put inside the casket….

One lady whose funeral had a certain color combination to which she was devoted. The same shade of hair, clothing, and fingernail polish. Her husband looked all over town, he told me, and bought up several bottles of the fingernail polish–“It’s a rare color!”–which he placed inside the casket.

Did he think she would be needing them in Heaven? Of course not. It was simply a sweet gesture, and who can fault him for that?

When my dad was buried in 2007, a couple of his mischievous grandsons decided to drop a pack of playing cards into the grave. One went so far as to buy up 13 decks of cards and pull out all the aces. Then, he inserted all 52 of them into one of the card boxes and put that in the casket.

Again, just a little fun thing. Pop would have gotten a kick out of it, and recognized it for what it was: pure love. Rummy was our family game, and still is. It’s harmless fun with lots of space for laughter, story-telling, and fellowship.  I have a few CDs now of those rummy games when my wonderful Dad and some family members now in Heaven were playing rummy. They are prized possessions.

Sometimes, funny things (or mistakes) get engraved on tombstones….

–Newspaper humorist Smiley Anders told of a woman whose recipe for potato salad was forever drawing inquiries. But she never let out her secret, saying, “Over my dead body.” When she died, there it was–the recipe for her wonderful potato salad engraved on the tombstone.

–Some of my family members decided they would install their gravestone now while they’re living to make sure it was done right. Everything except the final dates, of course, were engraved. And on the reverse side, they had a lengthy scripture carved into the marble, a text that evidently meant a lot to them.

Except the engravers got it wrong. I was there one day visiting the graves of loved ones and spotted that engraving before I learned the story behind it. Standing there, reading that Scripture, I wondered, “Why in the world would they want that on their stone?” Later, I found out. It was a mistake. Some miscommunication had taken place, and no one knows who was at fault. At any rate, the engraver had to grind off the mistake–there were several lines of it!–and put in the correct verses.

It doesn’t hurt to check and double-check these things before doing something so lasting (not to say expensive).

My big brother Ron used to sell tombstones, so a couple of years before they would need it, Ron encouraged Mom and Dad to choose the one they wanted and he had it installed.  So, here was my parents double tombstone sitting atop their assigned lots, but no one was inside.  When the annual decoration day came and everyone laid flowers atop loved ones’ tombs, Mom insisted with my sisters that flowers should be put on hers and Pop’s grave too.  “Mom,” they said, “it’s empty!”  “No matter,” said she. “It would look like no one cared.”

One thing we know for sure: My mama and daddy will never have to worry about no one caring. They were as loved–and still are–as it’s possible to be in this lifetime.

Football scores at the graveside…

We’d had the funeral on Canal Street in New Orleans and the burial was several miles to the west.  As the processional slowly made its way through the streets that Saturday afternoon, I did something I had never done: I turned on the car radio.  It was a football game, one for the books.

The game between LSU and Kentucky was almost over.  Kentucky was ahead, just barely, and the Lexington fans were so excited they were crowding the field and beginning to tear down the goalposts.  But wait.  LSU still had a few seconds on the clock.  And that’s when it happened.

The LSU quarterback lofted what’s called a “Hail Mary” pass–all the way down the field, hoping someone will catch it.  And they did.  An LSU player caught the ball in the end zone and the referees signaled “Touchdown!”  Instead of winning, Kentucky had just lost the game.  As an LSU fan, I was ecstatic.  But the problem is, I’m in a funeral procession and can’t tell anyone.

I’m almost embarrassed to tell what I did.  I rolled down the window looking for someone on the sidewalk to tell. And finding no one, I did the second best thing: I told about the win at the graveside.

Being a preacher, I probably made a spiritual point with it, how that “it’s not over til it’s over,” or something.  When we finished there, the son of the honoree (the deceased) said, “Mother would have loved that. She was a big LSU fan.”

Whew.  Close call there.

Why pastors prefer funerals to weddings…

Funerals take no rehearsals, require no fancy clothing, and have no mother-of-the-bride hovering over to make sure everything is done just so.

My friend Bryan Harris, student minister in two of my pastorates, once helped in a funeral of a lady in our church and got her name wrong.  The funny part is that her first name was Troy and her husband’s name was Tommy.  So, this was ready-made for confusion.

Mrs. Johnson had handled the records each Sunday in the youth department’s Sunday School.  Bryan always called her “Mrs. Tommy.”  So, when the funeral was over, I couldn’t resist.  “Bryan, you know her name was not Tommy.  That was her husband’s name.  Her first name was Troy.”  He was stunned. “You are kidding!”  I wasn’t.  But no harm done.  This was the sweetest lady on the planet and apparently her family was not quick to take offense.

Sometimes we pastors get called upon by the funeral home to handle a service where the family has no minister.  A time or two, I was in the middle of the service when it occurred to me I did not remember the name of the deceased. Thereafter, I always wrote it in big letters on my notes. Same for the bride and groom in weddings.  Make that mistake once and you never forget it.

When I die and the family has a funeral service…

It’s okay to laugh a lot.  I’ve enjoyed laughing all my life and see no reason to stop now. Besides, I’ll be in the Land of Eternal Laughter (C. S. Lewis said “Joy is the business of Heaven”) and doing just fine.  As my buddy Jerry Clower used to say, “There’s only one place in the universe where there is no laughter, and I’ve made arrangements to miss it.”

When Margaret, my wife of 52 years died, we were all gathered around her bedside weeping.  At one point I said, “Now, listen, one of these days it’s going to be Grandpa lying here. And I don’t want all this crying.”  Granddaughter Abby said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, good night, I will be 95 years old and will have preached the previous Sunday. What’s to cry about?”  And they all laughed.

I love that little verse in Psalm 4. Thou hast put laughter in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine increased.  Three kinds of laughter:  Grain represents money, so it’s superficial joy.  New wine gives an artificial joy.  And the joy of the Lord? Well, that’s the real stuff, the  beneficial kind.

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