Son of a preacher man

The funeral home was fluttering with people, filling the hallways and lobby with chatter and the occasional burst of laughter. The staff was buzzing about, moving flowers and parking cars. We were all getting ready for a funeral, and I was the funeral director. In this town it was customary for the officiating clergy to show up to the mortuary about thirty minutes before the funeral was scheduled to start. They would talk with the family briefly, then come into the office and give the director the “Order of service” (who was speaking when, what song was to play and how the service would end) this was the normal routine. On this day though, it was starting to get uncomfortably close to service time and I had not yet seen the preacher. I decided to call the number I had in the file only to be greeted by a voicemail. I spoke with the family about the situation and luckily someone had the phone number for the preacher’s son, so they gave him a call. The son was just as baffled as we were and said he would try and find his father and give us an update.

It was almost service time and we needed to start this funeral! It is important to start a funeral on time for a number of reasons. The crowd who comes usually have scheduled their day to be available for a certain amount of time, the musicians usually have other appointments to get to once their part of the service is over with, the police escort is counting on us to leave the funeral home within a given timeframe so they can return to their duties, the cemetery crew will be waiting and ready with their equipment based on the start time of the funeral and of course, the funeral home may have another service later, or other families to meet with or embalming’s to perform. So, starting a funeral on time is incredibly important to everyone involved.

With no word from the son yet, I went to inform the crowd as to what was happening. I calmly walked into the visitation room full of people and announced that we were waiting on the preacher still and that the service may start a bit late. I then made my way to the chapel, where some people were already seated, and said the same words from the pulpit. Then, I waited, and made plans to conduct the service myself in case the preacher never showed.

Finally, I received a call from the son, he informed me that his father had gotten lost on the way to the funeral home. He said his father had been showing signs of dementia recently and this type of thing was happening more and more. He told me his father was insistent on officiating the service even though I had offered to handle it. They had been driving toward the funeral home as we spoke, so, I told him that we would wait to start the service. When they arrived, I made my way out to the front porch to greet them. The porch floor was a red stained concrete bordered by the red brick building on one side and large white columns and bright full flower beds on the other. It led out to the parking lot where I could see the pair making their way towards me. The preacher was elderly, very tall, bone thin and barely able to make full steps. He shuffled along in a dark brown suit hanging loosely around his arms and legs, his white hair was slicked back from his ears and he firmly clutched his tattered bible. Close behind was his son, patiently helping him along. I walked up to them and introduced myself with my arm held out for a handshake, only to have the preacher veer just slightly, eyes slightly frantic and focused on getting inside, and walked right past, leaving me standing there with my hand held out to the air, I giggled to myself internally at how that probably looked standing alone with my arm stretched out and quickly followed them inside.

The son apologized for his dad and of course, I understood that he was confused and embarrassed. So, I made another attempt at an introduction and started a conversation about the order of service, and we successfully pieced together a program for the funeral. After a short prayer with the family, we were ready to make our way to the chapel. The son escorted his father up to the chapel doors and then stopped to wait in the hallway, feeling uncomfortable in his jeans and t-shirt, having just rushed out of work. The chapel had a large stage where the pulpit sat in front of a low bench that provided seating for the clergy and other speakers. Behind the bench at the very back of the stage hung a huge cream-colored curtain which served as a backdrop for flowers which were expertly placed to create color, and depth.

As we entered, just to the left was a glossy black baby grand piano that sat in front of the wide steps leading up to the stage, to the right were rows of pews full of people and straight ahead was the space between the pews and stage where we would center the casket.

Once we had the casket placed, I directed the staff to seat the family and then rushed over to the stairs and offered my arm to steady the man struggling up the steps, the preacher looked back at me with slight sneer and weak growl and I understood that his pride was shaken enough already. With a chapel full of people watching, I had no intention of embarrassing this poor man further, so I stepped back only to be ready if he stumbled. One shaky leg at a time found the steps and miraculously he made it to the top step and shuffled over to gently seat himself in the captain’s chair we provided for him, if only barely.

The staff and I left the chapel and I went to find the son and see how he was holding up. He informed me that he had a conversation with his mother and that he would be taking his father home right after the service, they would not be joining us at the cemetery. I agreed this was wise, his father was obviously shaken and exhausted from his ordeal of being lost.

When the funeral was over, I calmly walked back near the steps, feigning the need to do something important while side-glancing and staying as close as possible in the event the preacher toppled or slipped. He shuffled and hobbled and grunted and incredibly made it to the bottom of the stairs on his own. At that moment the son walked over and took his father by the arm to lead him away. The preacher then promptly threw a fit totally unfitting for a revered clergy man! He raised his voice, stating he was absolutely going to the cemetery, it was his right! His face was beet red and his fists balled up like a two-year-old. I acted quickly and showed the son the back way out of the chapel, so he wouldn’t have to drag his shouting father through the crowd. As I held the back door for them, the son gave a heavy sigh and pulled the preacher away slowly with a mournful backward glance, looking like a whipped puppy. With a heavy heart I made my way back to the chapel and escorted the casket and the crowd to the waiting cars and off we went to the cemetery.

I received a call from the preacher’s son the next day, he informed me that his father would not be available for funerals from that point on. He sounded broken and exhausted. I imagined how hard it would it be to force an adored and respected parent into retirement. It was a humble moment, a sad day that this man, once strong and proud, couldn’t remember how to get to a place he had been to hundreds of times and his son was now laden with a new set of responsibilities as their roles inevitably reversed.

gerbera-1250287_1920Photo provided by Pixabay

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About Chelsea Tolman