Friday, March 16, 2007

Last Respects

Several years ago before coming to work for my current company I worked for the phone company as a supervisor. The father of one the folks that reported to me passed away and as was the custom, I attended the funeral. It was on a warm Friday afternoon in July and after the funeral, Jilda and I planned to hit the road to Florida on vacation. I figured thirty or forty minutes at the outside, we'd be on the road to the beach. But neither Jilda nor I had ever attended the funeral of an African American and the time we allowed for the service was grossly underestimated.
I had never been to a funeral where they had women dressed white nurse uniforms whose soul job was to fan the folks who faint. The service started with several rousing spiritual songs that had the entire gathering singing at the top of their lungs. Jilda got swept away in the moment and her voice was as loud as any.
After the singing the preacher began...low at first but then with the help of the organist, who looked like a black version of Minnesota Fats, joined in bringing the sermon to a crescendo. I thought we were on the downhill side and heading toward the cemetery, but I was wrong.
The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and headed for the many sprays of flowers. He read the note on each and every one and held the flowers high so the folks in the back could see. Not sure how long this took, but it was longer than I had foolishly allotted for the entire funeral.
The hard part was not the service, but the heavenly smells coming up from the kitchen in the basement. It was about 2 p.m. and we had planned to grab some lunch on the road so the smell of fried chicken, cornbread and apple pie wafting up through the open door to the basement was making my mouth water. The preacher went back up to the pulpit and had another run at the sermon and when it got to the part where he started building the gathering up, the music was absent and the preacher kept looking over toward the empty organ and the open basement door. Just then the big ol' musician squeezed through the door and hustled over the the organ and began to play. I imagine he had to wipe his hands on his pants because I just about know he was moved as I would have been had I had an chance to descend those stairs towards that fried chicken.
The preacher began to unwind and things began to settle down and I thought to myself, surely this thing is about to end, but again I was wrong because the preacher asked the gathering if anyone in the crowd if they had anything to say about the deceased. Well, Mr. Smith (not his real name) was well loved in his church, his community, and he had also retired from U.S. Steel after thirty years.
Folks began to stand up and tell the story of Mr. Smith's life. I forgot about my growling stomach as I listened to the tributes from his friends, neighbors, and co-workers, I smiled, chuckled and laughed out loud as his friends told about the ways in which he affected their lives. I was moved to tears with some of the stories about his selfless kindness and some of the injustices he endured during his lifetime. He was a remarkable man and when the stories were finished an hour later I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster.
I've been to a lot of funerals in my lifetime but the funeral of Mr. Smith was the most interesting one I've ever attended and I'm glad I did because I think it's important to see how different cultures pay their last respects.

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