Weddings and funerals are two events that seem impervious to meticulous planning. They almost never go off without a hitch, and yet the end result still obtains. Usually. This morning I woke up thinking about the time I almost got lynched at the Pleasant Acres Funeral Home.
Caleb was a young man in our congregation who’d had a pretty rough life. His daddy ran off when he was just a tyke and his mother was hooked on painkillers. The closest thing he had to a stable influence in his life was his older brother, Ray, who, when he wasn’t in the county lock up for being drunk and disorderly, made sure Caleb had sandwich meat and cereal and electricity.
Caleb became a Christian because Jerry, one of the old men in our church, decided that no one who lived on his street was allowed to go to Hell. Jerry would show up at odd hours at folks’ homes and demand that they let him read the Gospels to them for a while. He eventually pestered most of Cherry Street into the Faith.
Caleb and Jerry became fast friends, and soon turned their evangelistic efforts on Ray. At first, Ray wasn’t keen on the idea of religion because he figured it would interfere with his binge drinking. But Jerry assured him that he could still have all the liquor he wanted as long as he paid his tithes first and never showed up drunk for Sunday School. “Or I’ll beat you so bad you’ll wish you’s in Hell,” Jerry told him. Caleb said Ray never touched anything stronger than coffee after Jerry made a believer out of him.
About three years later, I get a call one evening from a broken-hearted Caleb. “Ray’s dead,” he said, through heaving sobs. “Had a heart attack and died in his sleep.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that,” I said.
“I’m laid up in the hospital with a ruptured appendix and ain’t even gonna’ be able to go to the funeral,” Caleb croaked. “I wrote something for Ray. I’s wonderin’ if you’d read it for me.”
“Sure,” I said. “Of course I will. When’s the funeral?”
“It’s at 2 o’clock tomorrow at Pleasant Acres.”
The next day I showed up at the funeral home at about 1:30 and made my way through the gathering mourners up to the front of the chapel. I found an old man in a dark suit wearing one of those little boutonnieres and asked if he was presiding over the service.
“Yes,” he said. “Can I help you?”
I explained that I was a friend of the decedent’s brother, and that I had been asked to read a eulogy in absentia. I’m not sure whether it was because I looked natural in a suit and tie, or whether he was impressed that someone out in the sticks had hauled out a freshly shined and polished word like “absentia,” but he didn’t question me any further.
He simply said, “They’re gonna play Beulah Land, I’ll say a prayer, and then you do the eulogy before I read the obituary.”
After he prayed, I stood before a crowd of about 80 mourners to send Ray on his way.
“I have been asked to read a few words from the brother of our departed friend. Unfortunately, he could not be here today to share them himself,” I explained.
“From the time we was kids, I always looked up to you. You taught me how to fight and to cuss, you showed me how to drive a stick, and how to back up a boat trailer. Even though you was bad to drink back then, you made sure I had food and clothes and running water when nobody else cared to see to it.
Even when you’d get yourself locked up on one of your benders you made sure I was took care of before your bail got paid. You had a good heart way back then, even before you was a Christian. Then, when Jerry finally talked you into salvation, you got even sweeter. You still weren’t much to look at, but it sure did light up the room when we’d see you walk into the church wearing those wingtips and that crooked grin of yours…”
That’s when I feel a hand on my shoulder nudging me away from the lectern. As I am being unceremoniously pushed to one side, I notice the ashen faces of those present. I know the grammar wasn’t correct, but Caleb’s love for his brother was clear and heartfelt. Surely no one would take umbrage with that.
Then, from the place on the dais on which I now stood, I had my first clear view of Ray’s casket. Lying there, in purple silk, was a tiny woman of around 90, named Bernadine Wilson. And apparently it came as quite a shock to those present to learn of her exploits in the county jail.
I exited stage right just as soon as was humanly possible and made a beeline for my truck. I had a voicemail on my cellphone. It was from Caleb.
“Hey,” he said. “I think I told you Pleasant Acres. I meant to say Jones Funeral Home.”