Putting a coda on two lives

May 22, 2011 

Late last year, my step-grandmother died. She had been in good health until the last few months of her 99 years, but nothing about life excited her like the anticipation of leaving it, so she had arranged her funeral and paid for it back in the '90s.

And yet things did not go as she had planned.

She had outlived by several years some poor old man who was supposed to be the executor of her estate, so my mother had to handle the arrangements. And the first thing my mother realized was that the dear lady had died at an inopportune time, near the holidays, complicating her final wishes. She had directed that there was to be a graveside service only - no tent, no chairs, no parade of Cadillacs - which was at odds with the needs of the hour. There was the work schedule of the man who was to speak at the service to be accommodated. And there was out-of-state family to be thought of, as well as many venerable and infirm friends who did not need to be packed off to Siler City to stumble around in a cemetery.

So my mother decided to have a memorial service 12 days after the burial at a more convenient location. In the interim, though, was the actual burial to deal with. And someone involved in the plans had seen too many cowboy movies; somebody had to say something over the grave. So I was tapped to conduct a little graveside ceremony.

My mother and I arrived at the memorial gardens to find that a tent and chairs had been set up after all. It was a clear winter day, and while my mother talked to the undertakers I went over and sat under the tent to get my thoughts together.

I thought about my cousin Dianne. She had lived most of her life in Virginia at a comfortable distance from her family. But at every funeral she came to at the little Methodist church here in Chatham County, she would take the mortuary director to the family plot, point to a vacancy beside her mother and tell him, "Right there. That's where I want to go." Once or twice someone in the family used the occasion to ask her about her funeral arrangements since she had no one in Virginia to execute them. "Everything is taken care of," she would say, and her confident response was reassuring.

So, when she did die unexpectedly, the family was shocked to discover that she had made no plans whatsoever.

The man at the funeral home had never had a discussion with her apart from being shown where to dig the hole. There was no money, no insurance policy, no burial benefits of any kind to be found.

We managed to scrounge up enough money to bury her, and because it would have been unfair to involve a preacher in the situation, I was asked to conduct the service.

I told the small crowd that when I thought of Dianne, I had in my mind's eye an image of her from a time when she seemed happiest. She had come to visit one weekend driving her blue GTO, and with her wide-set eyes and hair in a bob, she looked like Jackie Kennedy.

She had brought with her a 45 of the song "American Pie," and she put it on my aunt's stereo and played it all weekend. Over and over she spun it, lying on the long sectional sofa, kicking her legs to the music, until the cryptic song and the entire spiraling scene stuck in my mind and repeats there still. " and good ol' boys drinkin' whiskey and rye saying 'This'll be the day that I die; this'll be the day that I die.'"

It was then 11 o'clock, and I stood up beside the coffin of my step-grandmother. No one else had come to the graveside, so I invited the funeral home men standing just outside the tent to take seats. They spread out among the two rows of chairs, and I delivered my remarks to them and my mother as if I were addressing the parking lot at the Crystal Cathedral.

They chuckled politely at my reminiscences, and it was a nice, if odd, little $4,640 service.

Two women. One had diligently planned her $9,000 funeral. The other had made no plans at all. Yet both had ended up with me as their second-string eulogist.

And I wondered what hapless cowpoke might be pressed to stammer out some final words when I'm in the box.

Or if, in a moment of silence, my life would speak adequately for itself.


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