It was a beautiful spring day in the South. Blue skies and warm sunshine graced the many people arriving at the mortuary for the funeral that was about to start. Guests were wearing their spring finery, the ladies in shorter dresses and open toed shoes, the men casting their jackets aside, favoring the more casual dress shirt and tie look. I knew ahead of time that it was to be a large funeral but still had no idea what was in store for me that day. The deceased was an older gentleman who was well known in the community and the widow as sweet as candy, elderly and slow, yet she was full of smiles, gentleness, and had a soft-spoken voice. As people were entering the large chapel they would place their bags or children on the pews, saving their spot for the service, then wander off to mingle with the rest of the crowd. I noticed that the seats were filling up fast, so I quickly rounded up my staff and gave them instructions to bring out our folding chairs to accommodate the ever-growing crowd. I then ran to the back of the mortuary and turned the air conditioner on full blast to hopefully stave off the heat that so many people in one room would generate. Eventually we had to start telling new arrivals that there just wasn’t any more seating in the chapel, even with folding chairs crammed into every available space. Thankfully there was a room adjacent to the chapel that had a TV screen set up to display the service. The crowd was dense and unaccommodating. Moving through that throng carrying our folding chairs should be a new Olympic event! The people talked loudly with each other in groups and ignored our requests of passage to set down the next row of seating, giving me and my staff a sidelong glance before rolling their eyes and continuing there ever-important conversations, like there was not a funeral about to take place, like we were not doing this just for them! As we set up the adjacent room with more folding chairs, it seemed the moment a chair was set down it was immediately filled with a bag, jacket or child, even before the chair was properly in place! It was a frantic, frustrating affair. Finally, the flow of people coming in to the mortuary slowed and it seemed that we had enough seats for everyone in attendance.
With my face flush and glistening from sweat and my veins still full of adrenaline, I walked up to the pulpit to address the mass of people and announce that the funeral was about to begin. I am small in stature, yet powerful in personality and in every event that I needed to get the attention of a crowd I have been able to speak powerfully enough to get everyone’s attention. Today, this was not the case. The chatter in the room was so loud that even with the help of the microphone and speaker system, I could barely hear my own voice! And of course, being short and small, no one even noticed that I was standing up there on the stage. As I scanned the chapel from my platform, the sea of people talking and milling about was like watching a beehive that had been poked with a stick and I knew I had to be creative in getting the attention of the swarm. I again rallied my staff and soon had them all hopping from group to group announcing that the funeral was starting. Finally, the crowd started to quiet down and take their seats. This time when I spoke into the mic, my voice could be heard and I was able to begin the funeral. Once my opening speech was finished, I handed the pulpit over to the clergy and happily took my leave of that room.
My staff and I made our way to sit in a back room of the mortuary, fanning our heat from the mad dash of unfolding chairs and efforts at crowd control. We discussed in awe of the craziness we had just witnessed. Not that we hadn’t been prepared for a large crowd, but that we were wholly unprepared for such a disorderly group of people. They paid almost no attention to instructions, making it quite a maddening experience. We then discussed a strategy for moving all of these people to their cars so that we could get on the road to the cemetery in a timely fashion. I was to exit first with the sweet widow and immediate family members, whisking them away to their vehicles before any of the guests could stop and talk to them, which always happened and always slowed progress. Once I was out of the chapel with the family, my staff would then announce to the congregation that the procession would be leaving soon, then assist in ushering them quickly to their vehicles. The cars had been previously parked to efficiently exit the parking lot in one big line and the police escort was at the driveway waiting for my signal to leave. There were so many attendees that the cars wrapped around the building, making it impossible to see when everyone was in their cars, so, we had a plan. Once the cars were all occupied, my staff would give me signal and I could give the police escort the go ahead to exit.
Almost everything went as planned. I successfully escorted the family to their vehicles and watched from the parking lot as the mob of people filed out of the chapel and in turn got into their own cars. I was watching for the signal when I saw one of my staff standing at the side of the building and raise his arm in my direction. I took that as a sign that we were ready. I gave the police the go ahead, got myself into the hearse and we started the exit of the parking lot. As I looked in the mirrors to see behind me, as I always do to get a sense of the procession following behind me, I noticed there was a flurry of people rushing around like straggling wild bees and my coworkers trying to flag me down and several of the cars behind me were not moving! But it was too late, the police cars were out in the street and the procession had begun. I slowed my pace as much as I could to give time for people to get in line, but we were on our way and there was no stopping it. Now, it could be that I was just anxious to get moving, or it could be that he was just scratching his head, either way, it was apparent that my staff did not actually give me a signal and all of the people were not in their cars ready to go!
Once we reached the cemetery, we had to wait for everyone to arrive. It was hot and humid and there was not enough room under the tent to shade the crowd from the blaring sun! It was miserable for everyone and I knew for sure that after the events of that day, I would never be cool again! I felt that I would always be sweating in my suit with no reprieve. The poor elderly wife was so gracious and patient, opting to wait for everyone to arrive before starting the graveside, gently fanning herself with our provided funeral home fan. We did eventually have the graveside and when it was over the wife and family seemed very happy with everything we had done, which is really my ultimate goal!
Once I got back to the mortuary my staff and I had a meeting about what had happened, what we learned from the experience and how to handle similar situations in the future. I also learned that the deceased man’s sister was not in the procession! She had gone back inside to use the restroom and upon her return the parking lot was empty! She then made the choice not to go to the cemetery, fearing she would get lost and miss the graveside anyway. All in all, even with the frantic rushing of unfolding chairs, shuffling people and a missing sister, this really wasn’t the worst that could happen in a funeral service, at least the casket arrived where it was supposed to! And a bit of advice, when attending a funeral, listen to the staff giving you instructions because you never know when you might get left behind.