Fill-in mourners

The season was changing, it was fall. Orange and yellow leaves scattered the ground. Some leaves still clung to the trees in pure defiance of being replaced by newer, greener leaves in the spring. The air was crisp, the grass was turning brown and crunchy. It was the perfect season for a graveside service. The woman who passed away had pre-arranged all of her services prior to her death. She was to be embalmed and have a night of viewing at the mortuary then the next day be transported to a cemetery in a neighboring town for a graveside and burial.  

During the arrangement meeting with the children we finalized all of the details, set the time for viewing and when we would meet at the cemetery. The children left and I busied myself with ordering the casket and vault and notified the cemetery of our plans so they could dig the grave. I then called the clergy to coordinate when to meet at the cemetery, he let me know that he was not able to make the trip but would be at the viewing to say a few words to the family. This is not unusual with services that are out of town, the clergy sometimes have other obligations and are not able to travel for a service. Often in these cases the funeral director will step in and say a few words in lieu of the clergy. I notified the children and offered to step in which they readily agreed and were grateful for the offer. At no time during any of our interactions did the children indicate what was to happen the day of the graveside.

The viewing went as planned. Family and friends came and visited. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Once the viewing ended I allowed the children some private time with their mother before I closed the casket for the last time. They said their goodbyes and left the building.

The next day, I arrived at the funeral home early. I placed the casket in the hearse along with a register book, tissues and lap quilts. Then I got on the road for the long trip. It was about a three-hour drive through winding country roads lined with trees, the bright fall colors were a welcome backdrop. I arrived at the cemetery early in order to get everything ready and then waited for the children to arrive. During these times I enjoy scoping out surrounding headstones looking for unique sayings or try and find the oldest headstone in the area. As I wandered around I noticed it was getting close to the time for the graveside and had not yet seen or heard from the children. Still I waited, I knew it was a long drive and they would have had to get up pretty early to make it there in time and they had been up late the night before for the viewing, so I waited.

It was ten minutes past time for the graveside and still no sign of the children. I called the son to ask about their ETA. He didn’t answer so I left a message. I then called the daughter, she didn’t answer so I also left her a message. Then sat in a chair under the tent and continued to wait. At twenty minutes past time for the graveside I was still the only person there, aside from the cemetery crew waiting nearby. Finally, the son called me back. He told me that no one in the family would be there, no one had enough money for gas for that long of a trip and they all had to work today. I was shocked! Not once did any of the children give me an indication that they would not be there. After a moment of silence, I was thinking of how to respond to that, I finally asked the son how he would like me to proceed. He told me to just say a few words and then have his mother buried. They would make a trip to the cemetery at a later date. We both hung up.

I stood there in the cemetery looking towards the cemetery crew awaiting my signal. I looked at the tent and the chairs perfectly aligned with folded blankets set on each one for the family to sit in comfort. It was quiet there, aside from a few rustling leaves as light wisps of wind carried them around the headstones. I turned my head and looked back at the hearse with the waiting casket and its passenger awaiting pall bearers to carry it to the grave opening.

It was the perfect kind of day and the perfect set up for a graveside service. I swallowed hard in disappointment and walked to the waiting cemetery crew. I explained the situation, stressing that there would be no one to help carry the casket to the grave. The crew jumped into action and called in additional coworkers, then they stepped out of their truck and followed me over to the hearse. The additional men showed up and we all carried the woman to her final resting place. Then, to my surprise all the crew stood in a line near the casket in a ready and waiting position and one of them gave me a little nod. I understood that they would be the fill in mourners for the little service I had planned. I said my few words and read a poem I had found, then took a picture of the crew standing there behind the casket. I was so touched by the cemetery crews’ actions, they were so willing to step in and stand as mourners, it was truly heartwarming. I thanked them all and let them finish the burial.

Once I got back to the funeral home, I printed the pictures along with the speech and poem I had read and put it all in the mail for the children. If they couldn’t be there in person, at least they would know that their mother was memorialized properly.

In hindsight, maybe I could have been clearer with the children about the expectation that they would meet me at the cemetery, prompting the discussion about their lack of gas money. I would have happily provided a hearse at no charge to assure they could attend the graveside. While they were happy with the pictures and copy of the speech, I still feel the situation could have been avoided had we communicated better. And, although it worked out, I wonder how many times this has happened that the cemetery crew were so prepared to step in and attend the service of woman they never met.

Are you looking for something to do this Saturday? Well, look no more, come see me at Weller Book works in Trolley Square in Salt Lake City for a reading and signing session starting at 7:00pm!

One thought on “Fill-in mourners

  1. Oh but if the underlying sense of “inconvenience” was not ever present? A phenomenon that we are a stranger to. Or…are we? Was it that there was “no money” for gas? Or…did that expenditure cut into other “needed” purchases? What could possibly be more important than paying a final respect to our loved one? A test in a college course? Preserving spring break? Avoiding the use of personal, medical, vacation leave? By the way……LOVE your optimism:) . What ‘exactly’ is most important?

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About Chelsea Tolman