Monday, December 27, 2010

Fancy Funerals

Some think a fancy funeral will be worth every cent
But every dime and nickel will be money better spent
Better spent on groceries or covering the bills
Instead of little luxuries or unnecessary frills

Lovely yellow daffodils and lacy filigree
Pretty little angels for everyone to see
Lily of the valley and long black limousines
It's three or four month's salary just to pay for all these things.

So don't buy a fancy funeral, it's not worth it in the end
Goodbyes can still be beautiful without the money that you spend
There's no amount of riches that will bring back what you've lost
To satisfy your wishes, no way to justify the cost.
--Lucinda Williams

I know a little about funerals. I've been to hundreds of them.

As a teenager, I worked summers and weekends for a burial vault company. I was the guy who put the concrete vault in the freshly dug grave. I laid out the fake grass, put up the tent, set up the chairs for the bereaved family, and otherwise arranged all the flowers and other trappings you find at the typical graveside service.

I did this in country church cemeteries that might only have one burial every year or two and in the city cemeteries that had a permanent caretaker who cut grass and kept everything neat and tidy.

They say you never forget your first, and I haven't forgotten mine. Her name was Maddie Smith. There were four people in attendance that day: the preacher, the funeral director, the grave digger, and me. I was so affected that I believe I went home and wrote a bad poem about it: "Maddie Smith is Dead in Alabama."

Through five years of funeral services of all sizes and descriptions, I developed a few observations and opinions on burial practices. I've seen and heard a lot of things behind the scenes. Let's just say I'm not a fan of the funeral "industry."

Morticians, funeral directors, headstone salesmen, and others directly associated with the funeral business are a nasty lot. I'm sure there are exceptions to this sweeping generalization, but I haven't met any. They are skilled emotion manipulators who excel at transferring grief into big bucks. If grief doesn't work they will attempt to appeal to your vanity.

You will be told you need the super deluxe burial vault (guaranteed not to leak for fifty years), the ten thousand dollar stainless steel casket, the ornate granite headstone and solid bronze marker. It is what your loved one deserves. Don't you want the best? And after you purchase all these luxuries (none of which perform as advertised), they smile all the way to the bank.

I'll give you a personal example. When we buried my father, we sat in an office with a marker salesman who presented us with two options. There was a tremendous difference in price. When my grieving mom asked the difference, this jackass replied "Well, you know, there are Cadillac people and there are Chevrolet people."

Huge mistake in judgment on his part. Yes there are two kinds of people. We were, and still are, Chevrolet people.

I found that most of these shysters feign kindness and sympathy, at least until you are gone and the check clears.

I first realized that it was all an act at a graveside when the mourners returned to their cars and pulled away in the procession. The funeral director turned to me and said "Move it, boy. Let's get this sumbitch in the ground. I'm taking my wife out to eat tonight."

So take a little advice from Lucinda and a man who has seen and heard a lot in the funeral business. Skip the fancy funeral. Use the money to honor your departed loved one in another way. Pay some bills, or give the money to charity where it can help the living. Remember your loved one with friends and family in a personal way. Reminisce: laugh, cry, and comfort one another.

Honor the memories and skip the vanity. It's not worth the cost.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day After Christmas

It is the day after Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stirring--except for me. Outside, there is a dusting of snow, the remains of the first white Christmas this old Alabama hillbilly has ever seen. Inside, the beautiful Redhead is still fast asleep upstairs, her favorite old quilt pulled up to her nose. Beside the bed, the widow Dolly, still grieving and needy, snores and probably dreams of her lost love.

I will meet Dolly's potential new beau tomorrow at our vet's office. A late Christmas present of a sort. He is a big strapping brindle male, two years old and well-trained (or so says the owner) who must be relocated due to a divorce. I am hopeful that he will be the one who will run beside her, racing along ahead of my ATV, sending gray squirrels bouncing along the ground toward safety in the trees. Maybe he will be the one to play tug-of-war with an old blanket left in the yard for that purpose. He will be the one who lays beside her in a sunny patch of ground on a cold Alabama day. Because as a suave crooner used to sing "Everybody needs somebody sometime..." He was right, for dogs as well as people.

Santa was good to me. Beside me is a stack of books almost two feet high, most of which were written by people I know or have seen at book fairs and writer's conferences. Books written by fellow southerners who have succeeded at their craft, who inspire me to work harder to write something worth reading.

There is A.M. Garner's "Undeniable Truths"; Rick Bragg's "I am a Soldier, Too"; Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter Crooked Letter"; Janis Owens' "My Brother Michael"; and William Gay's "Provinces of Night" and "Twilight." These are books filled with words I will savor, chewing each sentence like a fine fillet, as if I could absorb some of the magic that inscribes the word to the stark white empty spaces of the blank pages.

These are books I will hold in my hands. I will admire their covers, feel their heft, turn their stiff pages until they become well-worn with the turning and re-turning. And hopefully someday, at the next conference or book fair, I will hand them to their creators and ask them to autograph and personalize my treasures.

In other homes across the land, others will hit the "on" button on infernal machines with names like Kindle, Nook, Hanlon, Ipad, and LIBRIe. They will download and read their "e books" without leaving the comfort of their homes. But they cannot and will not have the same experience. Their magic will be different from mine. My magic is stronger, more powerful, because it is physical, sensual, and above all personal. It requires real work, physical exertion, sweat, and sometimes even blood to produce. It is even "green", requiring the use of renewable resources in it's creation.

My hip friends scoff at me--tell me what I am missing--call me a dinosaur. It is the future, they say. But I don't care. Let the future pass on by this hillbilly. I am comfortable with my mojo. It suits me just fine.

Black ink on white paper. It is a glorious, mystical thing. May it live forever.

And maybe, just maybe, one day "Words not on Paper" will become words on paper. That would be real magic.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Repent (Change Your Mind)

I have never been to Galilee
Walked up and down the dusty hills
Surrounded by hypocrites, whores and freaks
Catching fish to pay the bills.

I’m sure His words from long ago
Still hold the truth for ears today
Enough to make me change my mind
Enough to give my gold away.

But I guess the world is still the same
Not much has changed since those ancient days
We’re still hypocrites, whores, and freaks
Not really willing to change our ways.

I hope you will join me and take a moment to remember the story of the man from Galilee this Christmas. It is good news.

I know some of you will dismiss His story without consideration based on what you have seen and heard of it. I can't say that I blame you.

But please don't dismiss Him because of those who claim to be His people.

He is not the television evangelist stealing money from the sick and the old.

He is not the preachers who advocate prosperity as Gospel.

He is not those who twist His words to push a political agenda.

He is not those who try to make you follow rules instead of the Man.

He is not among those who have dismissed you, excluded you, labeled you, made you feel that they believe they are better than you.

Read His words. Listen to what He says to you. Make up your own mind about who He is and what He did. His story is above all a personal story, and it was written and done just for you.

Merry Christmas from a little patch of ground in Alabama. I hope you find true peace and joy on your little patch of ground.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fear Not

"Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy..." Luke 2:10

"From the firefly, red orange glow. See the face of fear running scared in the valley below." u2


It was present at the first Christmas. Simple shepherds, the lowest rung on the economic ladder, received the first news of the birth of a Savior with fear and trembling. The angelic announcement was of the arrival of a Messiah who would establish a new kingdom, one not built with human hands. A kingdom with humble origins that would last forever. A King who would level the playing field for rich and poor alike. A babe born into poverty who would later identify with the outcasts of society, more comfortable with misfits and sinners than with kings and religious leaders. A Man who asked for nothing but simple belief and trust.


It is still present this Christmas. I see it in a lot of eyes here in what some believe is "God's Country," as if we were His favorite.

It is the fear that all that was good and honorable and decent in this nation is past. That this earthly kingdom's greatness cannot be recovered or restored. That what we once had here has been ruined by politics, greed, and apathy.

I see it in the eyes of the man who has lost his job and cannot find another. So much of a man's identity is in what he does. When that is lost, a soul-jarring desperation sets in, deep and dark as the blackest night.

I see it in the eyes of some of the old, who live in one of the richest nations on earth and yet must often choose between their prescriptions and their power bills.

I hear it in the conversations of many otherwise sensible middle-class men, who are stockpiling guns and ammunition because they no longer trust their government.

I see it in the faces of men and women who both work, sometimes more than one job, but still cannot keep up with their escalating debt. People who are trading their children, their relationships, and everything really important in their lives to support a desire for more "stuff."

I hear it in the whispered conversations of the owners of small businesses, who have leveraged everything they have in order to stay open these last two years. They have no options left, and if "things don't turn around soon," are facing bankruptcy and the loss of years of work.

I see it, hear it, smell it--everywhere I go.

If I have learned anything from all this fear it is that what is really important is not what we have, but who we are, who we love, and Who we are loved by.

I, too, have felt the fear. But through these difficult, dark days I have found moments of pure joy. I've found it in the accomplishments of two great sons; in the encouraging words of family; in holding a new baby; in the bond of friendships old and new. It has arrived in a smile, a touch, a song, or beautifully arranged words. Moments of life that cannot be bought with cash or credit.

If you are among the fearful I hope you find some peace and joy this Christmas season.

Fear not. It had a nice ring to it, like Christmas bells.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Man's Best Friend

It has been three years ago today that I lost my best friend.

There is something wrong with a man who has loved a dog more than most of the people he has known. Then again, there is something wrong with a man who is loved by a dog more than most of the people who have known him. I plead guilty on both counts.

One day I will write the story of this dog, but not today. After three years, the wound is still too tender, too painful.

Time, they say, heals all wounds, and grief will eventually fade away. I say they are wrong. Some wounds do not heal. They scab over, true, but they cannot heal because the scab is continually knocked off.

Every day I leave for work, and he is not there, pleading to go with me. Destination unimportant. The desire to just be by my side the only requirement.

Every day I return, and he is not sitting in the driveway, waiting expectantly. Each day's reunion like I had been gone for years and not hours.

It was that link between us that proved to be the strongest. On this morning three years ago I found him laying by my truck, already too cold but still breathing shallowly. It was as if he was waiting for me to give him a final ride across the Great Divide.

I got a final look of recognition, and a few minutes later he died in my lap. It was as it should have been, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Today I will be the one standing in the driveway. There will be no reunion, but there will be memories that will last forever.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Age Has Its Privileges

Part of the Christmas season is that church services tend to run a bit long. Christmas music by choirs and ensembles, lighting of Advent candles, and other holiday traditions can stretch the usual Baptist hour into something a little longer.

Makes it hard to beat the dad gum Methodists to the Sunday buffet.

We were talking about this the other day, and the Redhead mentioned a special lady from our hometown church years ago. I had almost forgotten dear old Mrs. Looney.

Mrs. Looney was a fixture at our church. It was a church of about 150 members, so most people knew each other. I doubt she ever missed a Sunday service during my childhood there.

Mrs. Looney sat on the left side of the sanctuary, first seat on the second row. She sat there every Sunday for, oh I don't know, something like a hundred years. If someone came in early and took that seat (even a new visitor), Mrs. Looney would inform them that they were "in her seat." And they would move--period. I know most modern church-goers would be horrified by such an action. But I remember it with a smile. Old age has its privileges. They are earned.

Mrs. Looney also believed in schedules. If a service began to go long, she knew how to deal with it. At noon, when the service was supposed to end, her car keys came out of her purse, and I can assure you that they did not come out discreetly. It was a signal to the preacher--wrap it up old hoss, I've got places to go and things to do.

There are a lot of Sundays I miss you, Mrs. Looney. The fried chicken is getting cold.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Abomination of Desolation

The days tick off one by one, and Christmas day bears down on me like a runaway train. I stand frozen on the tracks, knowing that I must get moving soon or be flattened. It was a day that seemed to take forever to arrive so many years ago when I was a child. Now it sneaks up on me like a final exam in a class that I skipped way too many times.

As I write this, I look across the den at an artificial Christmas tree. It is tastefully decorated by the Redhead, and yet I hate it. No, I despise it. No wait, I loathe it. It is an abomination. I think of the Scripture: "and when you see the abomination of desolation standing in the place where it aught not be, flee for the hills...."

A forester with an artificial Christmas tree. It is Monet deciding to paint a velvet Elvis. It is Anthony Bourdaine eating at McDonalds. It is washing down a canned biscuit with a glass of instant iced tea. As we sometimes say here in Alabama, "it just ain't right."

The abomination was purchased about three years ago. It was a marital compromise. Perhaps compromise is not the right word. I just wore down. Years of complaints about the mess, trouble, and expense of a real tree took a toll. Real trees dry out. They drop needles. They must be disposed of after Christmas. All valid points. I relented. Go ahead and buy the fake tree---whatever.

As I assembled the plastic and wire perfectly-shaped replacement this year, I noticed a large pile of plastic needles on the floor. I said not a word. Sometimes marital harmony is best preserved with an internal smile and simply walking away. A secret satisfaction of sorts.

I will summon my courage and enter the fray this weekend to do my Christmas shopping. I will buy useless, unnecessary gifts for loved ones who lack nothing out of some misplaced sense of obligation or guilt. I will be bumped into, pulled out in front of, cut off, and probably cursed at some point by fellow shoppers. But I will get it done for another year. Joy to the world, peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

I feel a long way from Bethlehem. And like my tree, that is an abomination.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Celebration

A cold North wind is howling outside my window this morning. It is a wind of change.

Most of the remaining leaves will be stripped from the hardwoods in the gale. They have put up the good fight, but like all living things they must return to the dust from which they came. Their sentinels will stand naked against the cold, awaiting renewal in the Spring. Warmth will bring twig, bud, and then new leaf. The cycle will continue until the Great Voice issues the final command: "Cease."

Inevitable, this change, but the spirit of the living fights and rages against it. The only variable in the equation is the strength of this spirit, this will, that hangs on and fights against it tooth and nail.

There is something admirable and noble in this will, even if the outcome is inevitable.

Today I will attend the 50th wedding anniversary of a dear aunt and uncle. They have weathered well through some changes, and have persevered with will, spirit, and determination.

There will be smiles and laughter, hugs and tears--the stuff of sentimental occasions. But only they will truly know the steps of their journey, for only they have taken them along a road of 18,250 sunrises and sunsets.

It has been a road filled with happy times. Children and grandchildren, friends and family. Times shared that only two souls joined as one can know.

But it has also had it's times of unfathomable sadness. The loss of a child. Two serious car accidents. Gravesides and disappointments, lean years and sorrow.

The road ahead is uncertain, but they will walk on hand in hand. They are a happy reminder that some still do get it right the first time.

Happy Anniversary, dear ones. You are an inspiration to us all. Love is real, and sometimes it lasts forever.