Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Funeral, by Cletis

As I'm fairly sure I observed recently, there are tons and tons of really fine writers floating about the Internet, blogging for the sheer love of the act, and generally making not a dime for it. I dare to think I've found one of them, and here he is. His name is Jerry Richardson, and he writes more or less under the name of Cletis on a website called The Book of Cletis at I highly recommend that you visit there at your earliest convenience.

At any rate, the following piece by Jerry touched my heart in a number of ways, not least among them that I lost my father just over a year ago, on Nov. 11, 2009, and this spoke to me in very profound ways, though my father was only marginally like Jerry's (they were both cockmen, for instance). I really think you will enjoy this - especially if you love your father, as I did mine, and as Jerry clearly did his.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Creative Sunday #6 Funeral

I'm pretty sure my father was dead. I mean there we were at the funeral home consoling and being consoled and there he was in the casket looking better than he had in years. Looking back on it though I don't think Dad was exactly dead. I think he was more like partially dead.

My father was Vivian Richardson. He was born in 1910 in Southwestern Virginia and went to work in the coal mines at thirteen after his father was crushed in a rock fall. He retired when he was sixty-two, lived for another seventeen years, and sort of died on February12th, 1990. Like I said though, I'm pretty sure he hung around a few more days getting things the way he wanted them before he headed out.

Dad was handsome and well-built. He was right at six feet tall, slim and quick, with powerful arms. He had strong, patrician features and intense blue eyes which were quick to anger and quicker to laugh. His hair was plentiful and had been silver-grey for years. He told me it changed color after he washed paint out of his hair with a bottle of Clorox. My mother vouched for this story but then again she and Dad were married for almost fifty-five years and worked closely together.

Dad noticed everything and found laughter in almost all of it. He preferred situational humor and if nothing was going on naturally he would take some time to help it along. That’s why I believe he was only partially dead. He wanted one more crack at things.

Religion had not been my father's main interest. I know he went to church when he was a young man because that was the only place to meet girls. He read the bible but I believe that was primarily for the history and adventure. He knew a good deal about the women in the bible and seemed to have a particular fondness for Delilah. Mary Magdalene was also one of his favorites. He said he had known quite a few women like her and they seemed to be, all in all, pretty noble people.

Dad no longer attended church and must have been viewed by the local ministers as a hard man to bring down. He was greatly respected for his honesty and for the way he raised his kids, but I don't think the local churches held out much hope regarding his celestial prospects.

I remember only one occasion when he attended church and this stemmed from an incident involving me. I was hitchhiking from Lynch to Cumberland, Kentucky where I attended Southeast Community College. It was a cold day and I had been passed up by at least thirty people who had known me all my life and who generally attended church on a regular basis.

Finally, a young man I did not know stopped and gave me a lift. He said he was the new minister at the First Baptist Church and also said he was thrilled to be in Lynch. He said the people were wonderfully kind and Christian and he couldn't think of a place he’d rather be.

I told him I’d rather be anywhere else; that the place had more hypocrites per square mile than any place on Earth. I said I didn't think Christians should leave their halos in the church. What they should do is take their good works out into the community. I was freezing and laid it on thick.

That Sunday Reverend Jones tore in to his flock at the Baptist church. According to my sisters, he preached long and hard about what it means to be your brother's keeper. He drew on the parable of "the good Christian who passes up a hitchhiker he has known since birth". He followed that with the parable of "the Christian who leaves his halo in the corner as he leaves the church". Dad said he had never heard of those parables. I told him I had.

Several weeks later Reverend Jones made a visitation and invited me to a revival. Dad said he was impressed and would go with me. Baptist revivals are wonderful events where people dedicate or re-dedicate themselves to Christ. They laugh and cry and in general express their emotions in ways they wouldn't ordinarily do.

When we entered the church, people were still milling around laughing and socializing. The air was one of nervous expectation as the guest minister was a man of considerable reputation. He was noted with some envy by fellow ministers to be a persuasive man who was "...beloved by the Lord and feared by the devil".

I had never seen Dad so polite. He shook hands with astonished parishioners, asked about their families, commented on the beautiful fall weather, and gradually steered us to a pew about halfway back. I looked across the church and saw several of the deacons glancing our way and patting Reverend Jones on the back. You could feel the satisfaction throughout the room.

When the evangelist launched into his sermon, it was obvious he had one target. He preached. He invoked. He cried. He pulled out all stops. He warned that to leave the church unrepentant was to risk damnation. He cited anecdote after anecdote of men who had hardened their hearts, of men who would not allow Jesus into their lives, of men who had been killed by trains as they left the church parking lot.

Members of the church were beside themselves. Some were running to the front crying and proclaiming their faith. Others were being carried out in a swoon. The choir broke into "Bringing in the Sheaves," and that brought in more lambs. My father stood quietly with his head bowed and his hands resting lightly on the pew in front of him.

The minister warmed to the challenge. He threw off his coat and loosened his tie. He took the bible in his hand, took a deep breath, and set out again. This time he was all over the church --- moving, gesturing, making his case. He had a beautiful voice and used it to its full effect. He alternated between thundering and roaring and pleading and urging. He spent three-fourths of his time near my father and the other fourth looking in his direction. He gave all any man could give. Dad's response was to raise his head, smile politely, and look back down.

Finally, the Holy Spirit was worn out and things settled down. The minister made the final call and we filed out. Dad shook the preacher’s hand and praised his good work. He said he enjoyed the sermon and that it had given him plenty to think about. The minister offered a depleted smile.

I don't remember seeing my father in church after that but when he got older and his health failed, he began to realize his mortality and became more receptive to visitation. This is where Brother Hill entered the picture.

Brother Bertrand Hill was a church deacon and a man of faith and good works. He was genuine in his efforts to be Christ-like and my father liked and respected him. Brother Hill specialized in ministering to the ill and elderly and had found the near-death experience to be an invaluable ally.

His friendship with my father had strengthened in recent years and was the reason my mother sent me to ask if he would speak at my father's funeral. Services were held at the Tri-City Funeral Home in Benham, Kentucky and there was a big turnout. My father was well-liked and we had large families on both sides.

My oldest sister, Sue, my oldest brother, Bud, and my sister, Ann, flew in from California. My sister, Betty, drove in from Western Kentucky and I drove in from Maryland. My brother, Robert, who still lived in Lynch, drove down the street.

The day of the funeral arrived and people were filing by:

"Jerry," your dad was crazy as hell. I'm going to miss him."

"Thanks, Mr. Collier. He was a great guy."

"Funniest man I've ever known. Laugh at anything."

"Yes sir, he had a great sense of humor."

"Loved women. Did you know we called him "cockman" when we was young?"

"Yes sir, I know. Better not let my mother hear that."

"No, of course not. Before he knew her anyway. You take care now. I'm going over and speak to your mom."

"Thank you, sir."

"Hey Jerry, sorry about your dad."

"Thanks, Mr. Jamison. He was a great guy."

"You remember that time he got in a fight in the poolroom? Knocked Tom Haynes over the table before Tom knew what hit him. Tom told me later he thought he was fighting Three-Fist Wilson."

"I was little then, Mr. Jamison, but I've heard people talk about it."

"Well, your dad was a load when he got mad but he didn't hold a grudge. Bought Tom a beer ten minutes after the fight.”

"Yes sir, I've heard that."

"Well, take care son. I'm going over and speak to your mom."

"Jerry, it's good to see you. I'm sorry about your dad."

"Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I miss him already."

"He was a good man, Jerry. I worked with him for years. We still talk about that fart he cut over in 37 Mine. We were walking out and he laid in to it. Men were running and hollering. Your dad just kept walking. Best I remember it measured about seventeen feet and nine inches."

"You measured it, sir?"

“Your daddy did. Can't blame him. Hell, you can't let something like that go unrecorded. Jerry, you take care of yourself. I'm going over and speak to your mom.”

"Mr. Johnson?"

"Yes, son?"

"Don't mention the fart."

"No, of course not. That wouldn't be proper."

That was the way it went all morning until finally the service began and Brother Hill got up to speak. Brother Hill was in his seventies, a man of medium height, dignified and serene. He stepped up to the front and waited for quiet. My father was in the casket behind and to the right of Brother Hill. To Brother Hill's left was a young Baptist minister who had also agreed to speak. I couldn't help but notice his wife. She was blonde and very beautiful. I'm sure Dad was pleased.

Our family sat in the immediate front in the first row. I sat between my sister Ann and my youngest sister Betty. Brother Hill cleared his throat and began. He sang two songs in a strong, rich voice. There was no music but his voice carried easily throughout the room breaking occasionally as befitted a man of his age. This only served to make the song more beautiful and heartfelt. When he finished, a lot of people were crying.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Brother Hill said, "I’m here today to talk to you about the Lord Jesus and the wonders he has performed. He has touched my life and I’m sure he has touched yours as well. Many years ago when I was a young man I heard the call and knew I would dedicate myself to spreading the glorious Good News. I have been blessed and am humbled to stand before you today with the knowledge that through the grace of the Lord Jesus I have brought home three thousand two hundred and twenty-seven souls to date."

At this point, Brother Hill took a small, tattered writing tablet from his pocket and held it up. "In this tablet,” he continued, “are the names, dates, and times those three thousand two hundred and twenty-seven souls came home to the Lord. Many of you assembled here have known me for years and know of my work at Harlan Appalachian Regional Hospital. It has been an abundant seam and I have mined it for the Lord. That's right. I am proud to have been a miner, a miner for the Lord."

This was beautiful stuff and things were going along nicely but we were at least ten minutes into the eulogy and Brother Hill had yet to mention Dad. People were shifting in their seats and you could feel a little uncertainty in the room. He picked it back up.

"I remember as a child knowing I would have a calling among the old and the ill. Other children would shun the elderly --- not me ladies and gentlemen. I gloried in the opportunity. I knew it would be my ministry, my province, the place where I could best serve the Lord Jesus."

He held the tablet up again. "Three thousand two hundred and twenty-seven souls are with the Lord today because of that ministry. Of course, I am only the earthly arm of the Lord Jesus; a humble servant if you will."

He went on for another twenty minutes and we all agreed later that it was an amazing oration. He did not, however, mention Dad or even glance in his direction. The assembly was restless and you could hear people moving around and clearing their throats. Brother Hill finally wrapped it up, looked out over the room, and started up again.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "l am here today to talk to you about the Lord Jesus and the wonders he has performed."

The air went out of the place. Brother Hill had gone senile and picked a heck of a day to show it. My sister Ann’s elbow hit me in the ribs.

"Do something," she said.

I'm not the eldest child. I'm fourth down the line but I did get up and walk to the podium and stand next to Brother Hill. He seemed to come out of his reverie and noticed me beside him. I put my arm around his shoulder.

"Brother Hill," I said, "you were a wonderful friend to my father and on behalf of my family I want to thank you for your kind words. Do you mind if I say a few things?"

"Of course not, Jerry," he said. "Your father was a great man."

He glanced toward the casket then leaned close to me.

"Did you know we called him "cockman" when he was young?"

For all practical purposes, that was the end of the service. I think Dad left about that time. I spoke for awhile and thanked my mom and dad for raising us right. Then, we got into our cars and drove across the mountain to the cemetery and buried Dad.

Funerals are never easy but thanks to Brother Hill we had a pretty good day.

Note from Cletis: "Funeral" was originally published in Now and Then. It is the sole property of the author, Jerry Richardson. We are grateful for the opportunity to publish his work.

No comments: