“What is joy without sorrow? What is success without failure? What is a win without a loss? What is health without illness? You have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. There is always going to be suffering. It’s how you look at suffering, and how you deal with it, that will define you.” -Mark Twain
Heads turned. I saw what appeared to be classic Vaudeville comic double-takes, and some eyes got so big that I thought they’d pop like overinflated balloons. Then just as quickly, the crowd began to divert their stares, and give the impression they hadn’t noticed the hearse, the family limousine, and all other cars in the funeral procession pull solemnly into the parking lot where mourners well dressed in somber attire disembarked. I was with them.
While this was a dignified and stately occasion, it was not humorless. After all, we were going to The Beacon. No doubt we were creating an odd scene. I thought about it, but tried not to giggle since that would have sent the wrong signal. Such a show as that could have been unnerving to innocent bystanders who might be having issues of their own about seeing a funeral procession at a drive-in restaurant. The average stranger looking on might find it unconventional to see such an entourage gather in such peculiar juxtaposition. But we all knew why we were there, and it really didn’t have a thing to do with what some others might want to make of it.
We had all attended the funeral in Travelers Rest, South Carolina where several ministers took turns offering up examples of good and proper behavior that none of us will ever be able to live up to. They spoke of the deceased’s integrity. I’ve never had much of it myself, but knew some of what they meant by it, having seen a few rare examples of it displayed by others on occasion in my own lifetime. It was not out of place to speak thusly of Raymond, as he had been a man of integrity way above the standards of most people. Practically everyone in attendance knew that.
Each clergyman read scripture aloud in such a way that it might be some comfort to the worthy, and sandpaper some of the rough edges off the rest of our souls. I looked around the chapel and figured most of those attending would be in no need of such treatment, but I knew it was going to take more than liturgical sandpaper to grind away the protruding rough bulges of my course and irregular heathen inner spirit. But I made no announcement of my depravity, and did my best to keep silent, and blend in with the righteous. I wore a coat and tie. Several others went so far as to turn off their cell phones. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I turned mine off as well.
After the service, we headed to our cars, and lined up as directed by well dressed people with umbrellas. The misting rain was becoming a downpour. Though we had been advised inside by a funeral director to stay in formation and obey all traffic laws, it soon became apparent that a lot of the road signs posted by various municipal, county and state public safety departments were only mere suggestions rather than edicts or decrees. I suppose some of this was proper, and respectful to the person in who’s honor all this was being done. Seems that as a younger man, he had never been in a habit of Dilly-Dallying around if he had somewhere to go.
I never heard them say: “Gentlemen, start your engines”, but all of a sudden, we took off. The race was on. We went down winding roads through the countryside, and a few paths I don’t think a goat would be able to find without a guide. The scenery may have been familiar to some of the others, but once the funeral chapel was out of sight, I soon had no idea where I was.
I had to keep up, because it wasn’t just that I didn’t know where I was, but I was not quite sure where we were going, either. Perhaps it was announced, or even in print, but I was preoccupied with the grief of good people, and a significant sense of sadness on my own account. We were soon out in the middle of somewhere I’m sure I’d never been before, and would have never been able to find my way without adult supervision. Without the leadership of others, it is certain that I would have taken the wrong course, and still to this day would be wandering around lost, and feeling sorry for myself. There is a lesson in this here somewhere for those of you that consider destination to be important.
Windshield wipers were keeping rhythm to a tune with a far quicker beat than you might think the circumstances called for. But there was no music. Fast as a roller coaster, I went up and down hills, and into turns like a bobsled trying to catch up. A few times, feeling my stomach rise up to my chin, I thought about the kind of training astronauts must go through. Had this been a movie, the soundtrack would not have been playing the funeral dirge, but more likely some tune from “Smokey and the Bandit”.
Though you may think it odd in such rural geography as we went through during part of the trip, nobody hit a deer, or even a chicken as far as I know. But had one stepped out into the traffic, it would certainly not have had any chance whatsoever of reaching the other side without injury.
The lead car would rush ahead, then pull over awhile so the rest of us could catch up. While there may have been the impression that we all shared some common goal, there were no doubt other agendas floating around various heads in the various cars and trucks. I saw evidence of it at a traffic light. Some folks got out of a car and ran around in the rain like it was a Chinese Fire Drill, and one man ran across the intersection towards a service station. The procession went on without him, and I was confused by that. I never saw them double back to retrieve him, but evidently they did, because he was with the rest of us later at the cemetery.
It was not exactly a race, and I don’t think any land speed records were broken, but it was a most unorthodox parade. Though the journey was a bit longer than some others of the same variety in my experience, few pulled over to go to the bathroom, as I’m sure most everyone had taken care of such business the day before. Instead of keeping in line, the cars would just up and pass each other now ‘n then. It happened so much that more than once I wasn’t quite sure if the car in front of me was in our group, or not. It was raining hard, and I couldn’t see very far ahead. So, I just went on faith.
I thought I should give it a try. To express a little trust an confidence might in some small way validate a few of the finer points of having faith that were brought out earlier during the eulogy. So with white knuckles gripping the steering wheel, I yielded some to a peace that passes all understanding, a garbage truck, a mail carrier, and two school busses. But I kept my eyes on the road, and a foot covering the brake pedal just in case.
Without throwing all science and logic to the wind, I’m willing to accept there may have been some providential intervention that worked to keep me within ranks. This was good, as my acquired sense of direction is not up to what would be expected of most people. My wife has said that if George Washington had been equipped with my surveying skills, the state of Virginia would’ve wound up somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
All of a sudden, the terrain began to look familiar. We were coming into Spartanburg. Imagine that! Regardless of what might happen, and even in the worst case scenario of losing them altogether, I would at least be able to find my way home. In the city, we picked up a lot of additional vehicles. Since it is practice (and law) to turn headlights on while driving in the rain, except for the hearse, we didn’t stand out much from the local traffic. Soon we were all scattered amongst the natives.
The lead car, which was the hearse, would still pull over to the side of the road and wait for us to catch up from time to time. The driver would open his door, and step out. He would stare up the road behind him much as a child would do at the Christmas parade as soon as it is announced that Santa Claus is just around the corner. This must have confused on-lookers, as it gave the impression that perhaps something was lost, or had fallen off. Best as I can tell from history, the person riding in the place of honor during such a procession has never been known to escape, so this scene must have been a curiosity to some.
Maybe it was the rain; maybe it was because other local drivers innocently took up spaces in the motorcade not knowing it was a funeral, or maybe some of us lacked the same sense of urgency felt by the driver of the hearse, I don’t know. Since not everyone kept up, several cars seemed to continuously get lost in the crowd. I worried a bit for them, but since they all finally arrived at the destination, I figured some of them had been provided with some inside information as to where we were going. I was just playing follow the leader whenever I could find him.
The procession finally pulled into Greenlawn Cemetery, so I knew our guest of honor was not going to be riding along with us much longer. I had been to this place many times before. Once there, to go in just about any direction, I would be able to find markers with names of many friends and relatives. Memories are not unusual in a memory garden, and I was having a rush of them. With those thoughts came the reality and solemness associated with the final resting places of those dear to you, but gone.
We parked our cars on the side of the road, and stood in the rain adjusting to our land legs after such a voyage, while we waited for stragglers to find us. Once everyone was in place, we went under a tent for an intimate and thoughtful closing before internment. There would be more scripture, and more words. No one present would have any doubt of the sincerity behind those words, as we all knew the man they spoke of was honorable. I felt it was an honor to be there.
It was a proper show of respect for a man that had shown so much respect to others in his own lifetime. It was appropriate. He had attended the funerals of so many others, and never complained of inconvenience even though we knew he often went through a lot to make time for such services. He had lived his life in many ways as an unselfish example to others, and as a man who celebrated life.
But to share funny stories was also appropriate, as he’d shared so many with all of us. Family talked about many trips to Spartanburg to attend funerals. Afterwards, he always went to The Beacon, and whenever possible, took his family with him. It was clearly his favorite place to go after a funeral, as had been his father’s before him.
I learned that day that it had become ritual, and a tradition. His wife and children spoke of it as a family outing that helped them with something so needed in the wake of difficult tearful times. It didn’t take much to get the whole crowd talking about their favorite times with him, and quite a few tales about going with him to The Beacon.
The menu came up, and I noticed that some of the congregation had started to drool. Many are conditioned to that kind of behavior, and I believe a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov wrote a paper on it. Once the dinner bell has been rung, there is little benefit to be had in trying to get ordinary people to not think about refreshment and provisions. All other conversation would be pointless.
The funeral had started out in the morning and now it was well into the afternoon. Some folks, though it is not my regular habit, find it convenient to eat a meal right in the middle of the day. I do eat food, and generally do so every day, but not often in front of others, as I tend to make a mess at it. I get food all over my hands, face, and clothes, and generate noises. Those with weak constitutions may find my manners to be disturbing, or at least embarrassing. But on significant occasions, I can keep routine in check enough to be sociable. With little protest, I went along feeling there would be an adequate supply of napkins to get me by if the faire be simple finger foods.
It was an absolute certainty, that if the guest of honor could’ve gotten up, he’d insist we go to a famous drive-in restaurant, and there would be no mistake about which one. It was the only sensible thing to to, and everybody knew it. We piled back into the cars and began winding our way. Some drivers of other cars were respectful. When they looked up and saw the hearse coming, they began pulling over to the side of the road to wait for us to pass. Can you imagine what some of them thought when they watched our column turn into the parking lot of The Beacon Drive-In? I watched as a local police officer sat in his car and scratched his head.
The service staff inside must have known we were coming because they were all busy preparing mountains of food even though it was a bit past what some folks call “lunch time”. The line moved quickly. People called out what they wanted, and everything they asked for was repeated loudly and flawlessly by a man who wrote none of it on an order pad. Words like: “pulled, slice, ham-a-plenty, steak-a-plenty, burger-like-a-burger, chili-cheese, slaw…” danced about like a part of a well choreographed musical.
You have to appreciate their commitment to customer satisfaction. A single order of fried onion rings served up in that place is enough to feed three hungry people, and there is adequate sweet tea (like the Good Lord intended) to fill a good sized lake. You can have all you want, but you cannot drink all they’ll offer to give you. They only offer two sizes of sandwiches there: good ol’ big’uns, and big old good’uns. I did not leave hungry.
With enough bread and other crumbs, grease, small pieces of onion and tomato on my shirt, tie and coat to get me through supper, I said my farewells to family and friends, and headed home. It was a long drive back to Atlanta that evening, and I had a lot to think about. When you reach my age, how often is it that you can name someone you’ve known your entire life, and cannot think of a single bad thing to say about them? That was the way it was with Raymond. He’d never said an unkind thing to me, nor said anything unkind about anyone else that I can remember. Maybe he did, but I just never caught him at it. If he ever did, they probably had it coming.
I’ve been to many funerals. But this is the first time that I ever saw the entire congregation: ministers; funeral directors, limo and hearse drivers and owner of the funeral home, family, mourners, and all take off after the ceremony to go do something the person we’d just finished memorializing would have wanted to do. It is a fair tribute to pick a favorite thing the deceased would have loved, and go do it, if you think about it. He would have liked that, and it was done specifically in his honor. It was a great idea, and I’m so glad we did.
Some might assess such a thing irregular, but it was most proper when you take everything into consideration. It was, in fact, extraordinary. Though it was worthy, and indeed a very strong show of respect, I’m just thankful beyond words that his favorite thing had not been sky diving.