To begin this story, I should give you a little cemetery burial lesson. In most cases, once a grave is dug, the vault company mounts what we call a “lowering device” over the hole, this is a metal tubing structure placed around the edges of the open grave. This frame straddles the grave on all sides and has thick straps that cross the center. It is custom that the pall bearers, either six or eight people carry the casket over the lowering device and set it down on the center straps and there it sits, safe and secure, until it’s time to lower it all the way down to the bottom.
This day I was the funeral director in charge. The cemetery was located outside of the city, so I had it arranged that we would meet the family there instead of driving in procession. This was a small-town cemetery, it sat in the foothills of a low desert mountain with the buildings and houses of the tiny town scattered about down in the valley. The cemetery, as well as the town, was all dirt and dust and it was blazing hot that day. My coworker and I had arrived early to get things set up, we unloaded the flowers and placed them around the grave, giving sharp bursts of color and life to the otherwise dusty, careworn atmosphere. We put mints and tissues on the folding chairs for a little added detail, set up the register book for guests to sign and then we waited. To pass the time, we walked around the cemetery looking at the graves, trying to find the oldest ones we could. The graves were simple but loved, evidenced by the decor. The flowers were mostly silk, standing in vases or lovingly placed near a headstone and were in various stages of fading and fraying due to the dry scratchy desert. Dusty trinkets of plastic angels and frogs, wind chimes and rocks with inspirational sayings felt deliberately placed to identify the personalities of those lying below. The most recent graves were mounded with dirt to account for settling in the months to come and marked with simple plastic signs until the headstones could be ordered and placed. We talked about the unassuming air of the cemetery and discussed certain headstones that caught our eye, then we sat under the awning provided for the family to escape the blistering sun.
By the time the guests had arrived we had already spent 45 minutes baking in the heat. As people showed up they brought more flowers and we added them to the ones we had already placed, enjoying the added color. Some of the guests started walking around looking for family members graves who had been buried in years past, telling stories of grandma so and so, or uncle big shot or how many days baby Jane had lived, or they simply stood under the awning looking for relief from the scorching sun.
We soon got word that some of the family had gotten lost along the way, including the bulk of the pall bearers. It had been so long since they had visited that they had forgotten a crucial turn-off and were 30 minutes in the wrong direction before they realized the error, so, we all hunkered down and coped the best we could with the heat. Some of the guests stripped off suit jackets, the ladies sat on the chairs and peeled off heeled footwear, impractical for any cemetery let alone this dry dirt laden place. There was a cooler with cold water provided by the vault company, thankfully, but not enough for everyone, so me and the staff let the guests have it all as we smiled and internally cringed from tickles of sweat dripping under our black suits, all the while trying to look refreshed and professional and avoiding the urge to snap at every grieving person who, legitimately, had it worse than us. The reward being that, when this was all over, we could strip off our jackets, get some food and much needed water before the hour and a half drive back to the mortuary.
After what seemed like an hour, the lost cars did arrive. Even irritable and ready to be done with this day, I gave the family time to greet each other, I let them talk a bit and shake off the adrenaline of being lost and late. Then finally, it was time to get on with the funeral. Thankfully the grave was located close to the road, so the pall bearers and I made our way to the back of the hearse to collect the casket carrying the guest of honor. I gave the pall bearers detailed instructions; grab the handles as the casket is pulled out, turn slowly to head in the correct direction, walk together until the casket is centered over the grave and set it down gently. Then, before we got started I also gave some safety warnings, we had the challenge of eight pall bearers which meant they must take smaller strides to avoid walking on each other’s heels, the dry dirt was uneven and rocky so higher steps were advised and of course we faced the added sweat factor, which meant, if needed and hands became slippery, we could set the casket down and start over… really standard instructions which I had given so many times before, I never thought to warn them of the impending doom about to befall the funeral director, which was me.
Carefully and as instructed, the pallbearers got their grip on the handles, made the turn and we started our short walk. I took my place at the end of the casket that was to go over the lowering device first so that I could guide and give instructions as needed. Then, suddenly, on approach of the lowering device my shoe got caught! To this day I am not sure what it caught on, but it was caught! Imagine if you will, the casket and all eight men, in full motion at this point, carrying the heavy casket straight towards me and fast. I still had a hold of my end of the casket, I looked at the gentleman closest to me, with what I imagine to be a look of horror, and mouthed, Stop!! Of course, the plan was in motion already and there was no way to stop the momentum of these men, so, I wrenched my foot as hard as I could and barely got out of the way before I ended in the grave myself! The casket was placed successfully, and I was still upright, so I started my way to the microphone to begin the service before realizing that one foot was walking on solid ground! Seriously! I slowly looked down at my feet only to notice what I already suspected; the entire sole of my shoe was gone! Just gone! The only thing I had left on my foot was the flappy leather top of my shoe. Not wanting to draw attention to myself I slowly walked around the grave, hoping beyond hope that the sole of my shoe was left outside of the grave and not in it! Luckily, this was the case. The thick black sole of my funeral shoe was lying on the ground right where it had caught. Red cheeked, I am sure, I scooped down as nonchalantly as possible, grabbed the rubber sole and my pride and hobbled, with what I hoped to be grace, to the hearse and I chucked the damn thing right into the opened passenger window. I gathered what little patience I could still muster and walked back to the microphone to start the funeral service that was slated to last 30 minutes!
Of course, I conducted myself like a professional despite my internal desire to scream. Since I was conducting, I had put together some stories and poetry that reflected what the family had shared with me about the woman lying in the casket, then it was time for an open mic (where people in the crowd get up and talk) and even though I instructed those who were to speak to walk over to me to talk into the microphone, most thought it was better to stay under the awning, which meant that I had to deliver the microphone to wherever the person was standing. I walked with one foot in a proper shoe and one foot using my toes, trying to move like a gazelle, so that no one would detect my new irksome swagger. The service ended. I made my way to the road to lean against the hearse and lick my pride off this day. Amazingly it seemed that no one caught the mishap, or were too kind to bring attention to my embarrassment. The guests were milling around and visiting with each other, still looking for the graves of other family members and talking about which favorite restaurant they would meet at for dinner. Then, I was approached by a woman, she slowly looked around us to assure that no one else was within earshot before politely asking me if I was okay. She had seen the whole thing! We talked and chuckled about my near demise and commented about how far we were from help had an accident occurred, which would have resulted in difficulty getting medical care. It lifted my spirits to have a comrade in the bizarre event that had befallen me.
Finally, after what seemed like another hour, the family dispersed and left the cemetery and we were free to leave. We said goodbye to the vault man, got in the hearse and drove away from that place. Of course, we were now due for a meal and I with only one and a half shoes. Once we arrived at the restaurant, I gathered my pride once again and “gracefully” made my entrance and then exit to at last get back in the hearse and go the hell home!Picture provided by Pixabay