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Monday, September 13, 2010

Cortege

Led by two police cruisers, the funeral procession pulled slowly out of the United Methodist Church parking lot around 12:15. I drove Grandmommy's car behind the hearse, she in the front passenger seat, my mom and her middle sister in the back. Every single car we passed in either direction pulled over or stopped in respect for the passing dead and mourners, though we were on the main road through the center of town. One guy who was out jogging stopped and sat down, watching. God bless each of those people--it was such a gracious gesture, probably not seen outside small town America.

There were about 150 people at the 11 AM service, a good turn-out for a funeral that was publicized only by word-of-mouth (the Dublin paper didn't publish the obituary until early this afternoon, after the internment). Caregivers from the Benton House (the Alzheimers facility where Granddaddy had stayed just less than two months, entering three weeks after my father's funeral and leaving three weeks ago, when he fractured his hip) came. Grandmommy hugged them all, tearfully repeating how grateful she was for their kindness to her husband.

So many people came who had worked with Granddaddy at the VA (he was one of the head facilities management guys there for some 40 years) or at the construction company where he was an estimator (where he worked for almost a decade after he left the VA and couldn't stand being retired), fellow WWII veterans, members of the UMC Sunday School class, the Men's Prayer Breakfast, the American Legion post where he'd been a member for over 60 years, and members of the Boy Scout troop which he'd led back in the 1950s. Even the funeral director in charge of arrangements had known him for half a century.

The blue felted casket was draped with a large American flag. Granddaddy would have been so proud to see that, and his four grandsons all lined up as pallbearers, one in the uniform of a Navy Lieutenant. Grandmommy, the strongest, Godliest lady I have ever known, was in tears in the other front pew, supported by her three daughters, with us granddaughters with them. For sixty-three years Grandmommy and Granddaddy have been thought of, spoken of, and loved as a single entity, and now they are parted by death.

At the viewing Sunday evening, Granddaddy's old Navy uniform, the red braid and medals little dimmed, were displayed on an easel next to the casket. The flat screen played a DVD of a film a Boston-based interviewer had made of her weekend visit with Grandmommy and Granddaddy about six years ago, getting them to talk about their experiences. So many of the visitors were enthralled by the video that a small crowd ended up standing in a semi-circle, glued to the screen, laughing at the stories. The hard-of-hearing folks also raised the volume to a decidedly unfunereal level, and I had to rush to dampen it when one of the undertakers seemed on the verge of going into shock.

To my eyes, Granddaddy's prepared body did not look much like him. Mums and Grandmommy (Grandmommy and one of my cousins had been holding his hands when he died Friday afternoon) both commented how good he looked, but they had seen him most recently, when he was in distress, the last couple of weeks, when he had lost some forty pounds from his normal weight of 168 (which he maintained from about age 20 until just a few months ago--he could still wear his Navy uniform 70 years after he'd acquired it), and as Mums said, "looked like death." The skin was unnaturally pale, the lips in a grim line his never ever were, his crew-cut hair angled in, and someone had attempted to manicure his work-broken nails. It was a wizened husk, the occupant obviously absent, and (like Daddy's body), cold and hard to the touch.

The music at the funeral was lovely. We sang the Navy hymn, and were played out by the jaunty "Anchors Away." At the cemetery, a naval honor guard was waiting, a woman and one man all in white, with a bugler--his instrument tucked under one arm, standing off to the side. After the pastor's words, the simple notes of Taps were blown while two members of the guard raised and held the flag over the casket. They then carefully folded it, regulation-style (as Granddaddy did every day, and taught all us grandchildren to do), and then the officer at their head knelt and presented the star-spangled triangle to a weeping Grandmommy, with thanks for Granddaddy's service.

Today was the last day that Granddaddy's flag at home will be flown. My brother took it out and raised it to the top of the pole, then lowered it to half mast. A cool Georgia autumn breeze caught it and displayed the colors proudly in the morning light, and it remained on display until nightfall, when I drove away to return to Augusta. Grandmommy called me on my cell phone to make sure I got in safely. "We love you," she said, still speaking for both her and Granddaddy. "I love you," I told her.

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