CLAYTON — At age 83, James Southern led the life of a contented old man fishing, grilling, sitting up nights on a screened-in porch. Youd see him piloting his motorized wheelchair down Main Street in Clayton, buying snacks for his grandchildren at the fruit stands.
He never made much money. He lived on Social Security a small veterans pension for his time in the Korean War. When talk turned to dying, he used tell his daughters, Just throw me in a pine box and bury me in the backyard.
They wish they could.
Southern died of liver cancer on June 24 just three weeks after getting the diagnosis. He left no money for burial. Hed been turned down for life insurance. His five children pooled their money and came up $2,000 short. So Southerns body remains on a slab in a Garner funeral home, waiting for the peace of the grave. We havent really had time to mourn him, said his youngest daughter, Christie Blanke, 44. Weve been too busy trying to lay him to rest.
The indignities of aging are never clearer than at the very end, when the quality of your goodbye is determined by the number of nickels in your pocket. Southern at least had family, if not wealth.
Last year, Wake County arranged to cremate 19 unclaimed bodies strangers to the world.
Now Southerns children find themselves mired in deaths untidy details, vowing to spare their own children the same unpleasant chore. They pledge to buy life insurance policies that cover funeral expenses, about as grim a chore as picking a pallbearer.
Their father actually tried to do this, his daughters said, but not until he was too old for anybody to insure him. The federal government will pay for his plot in a military cemetery in Fayetteville, but getting him there is up to the family.
The first funeral home wanted $13,000. The second, Chappells Funeral Home in Garner, offered $5,000, which they accepted. But knowing their father is lying essentially in storage is a new kind of pain. Weve never done this before, said Laurie Hanvey, his middle daughter, 46. Its horrible.
Southern came from upstate New York, and he returned there after his time in the Air Force. His three daughters remember him singing to them in Korean when he returned. When he talked about the war, which was seldom, he usually spoke about the children there who taught him to speak a few words.
Southern worked for the Draft Board back home, then for several motels. He divorced twice along the way, raising two sons with his second wife, one of whom wasnt his biological child. Any money he had went to his children, his daughters agree.
The whole family started drifting south about eight years ago, following good weather and jobs. Southern liked to sit up late on a porch, around a bug candle, and talk about people he knew, places hed been. He figured the cancer was just a bad stomach ache. But soon he couldnt walk or talk. He died quickly, for which the family is grateful.
Near the end, his daughter Christie heard him say that he was thinking about the last time he would close his eyes. When he woke, he realized, hed see the face of God.
The rest of Southern is still waiting for such grace.
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