I married into a family of funeral lovers. Oh yes, funeral lovers. Not car lovers, boat lovers, horse lovers, but funeral lovers ! My in laws' hobby was going to funerals.
Attending the last rites of a treasured member of the family or even a distant relative is an obligation for most normal people. It isn't something we necessarily look forward to. Sitting uncomfortably in a pew while sad songs are played and tears are shed, though a part of mourning, simply does not make my day. That wasn't the case with my wonderful, but wacky, Ladner relatives. They are not the Adam's Family, but The Ladner Family.
Lonis and the Roll of the Dead
Lonis Ladner, the patriarch of my wife's clan, and my father-in-law, would scan the morning paper each day to see if there were any dead people listed in there that he might want to go down to the funeral home to visit. If the pickings were scant (meaning the names of the deceased were none to familiar as friends or relatives - there are lots and lots of Ladners and the dead ones do not out pace the living, so you might say the supply side is always ahead) he would expand his options.
"Tecia", he'd call out, "don't we know Cecil Burns ? Didn't his cousin Hank run the hardware store over* in Oak Grove when we taught school at McNeil ?" If she answered no, he would reply, "Well, I think we met him one time. They're waking him up at Purvis tomorrow so I think we'll go up there for the wake. We might see someone we know." And, that's what they'd do: get dressed up, drive to Purvis, Mississippi, and attend the wake - even if they didn't know a soul. Perhaps, they would run into someone there they knew. It was a social outing for them. Even a chance one time meeting with the deceased was excuse enough to attend his wake, funeral, or both.
[*In the south geographically a location technically is "up there", "over there", "down there", or perhaps, "out there". It does not merely exist, nor is it ever simply "there". ]
After Lonis and Tecia retired to the farm "up there" in Poplarville, my wife and I lived "down here" on the Mississippi Coast.
One day a former neighbor lady of the Ladner's died and Lonis called us after his morning review of the roll of the dead and invited us to supper followed by the wake to be held at the home of the deceased, where, as an added treat, the lady was going to be on display in her coffin. Now really, who could turn down such an offer as that ? My wife was pressured by her parents to attend, "You need to go because you grew up with her children and they expect you to be there." She accepted the invitation.
We had a nice meal with my wife's parents and eventually ended up at the wake at the home of the grieving husband. Greetings were made with all. Hands were shook. Small talk made. Time passed. Coffee drank. Time passed. More small talk. Time passed. We sat. We stood. Time passed. More coffee. Time passed. Finally it was getting late and my wife leaned over to her father and said, "Daddy, we need to go now. We're all tired."
"Not yet." was his reply. She asked him why not and he replied he was waiting for them to open up the casket so he could look at Mrs. Smith.
"But Daddy, they're keeping the casket closed."
"The HELL you say !" He exploded about three feet from the widower. "You mean to tell me I got dressed, put gas in the car, drove all way the down here from Poplarville, spent all that money at a restaurant, and they close the casket ? I don't even get to see what she looks like ? The HELL you say ! What kind of damn wake is this ?"
People turned in our direction so fast and heads spun so quickly it was almost like that scene in The Exorcist except multiplied by about 100 - many of whom had wrinkles. Sandwiches scattered, coffee spilled, and I swear I think I saw at lease two sets of false teeth hit the floor. My poor mother-in-law swooned (as southern women of her age and station were wont to do), and we pulled Lonis out of the room, past the astonished widower and into the car just ahead of the funeral director who I know was going to ask us to evict the premises. In Lonis' mind all of this had been a complete waste of time because he was deprived of viewing the remains of poor Mrs. Smith.
Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like. Lonis Lander never read an obituary he didn't like.
The Ladner funeral rites encompassed the collection of funeral memorabilia. In southern history it was traditional for funeral homes to print their logos on large flat fans and to dispense these to attendees of the ceremonies. One speculates this practice predates air conditioning, but it seems to have continued well beyond climate controlled air era. After Lonis passed away we were cleaning out his room and we came upon hundreds of these old used and weather beaten fans. They had the names of various mortuaries, cemeteries and funeral homes on one side, and on the opposite side assorted pictures of Jesus, angles, the cross, heaven, clouds, and scripture. To my surprise I also discovered funeral programs he saved that went back over fifty years. What a hobby ! If only he had collected baseball cards.
Now my mother-in-law was equally strange. Despite her small objections, she went right along with Lonis in his attendance habits. Me thinks she doth protest too much. They were much alike. After he died every time she came to visit us along with her other clothes she always made sure to pack her "funeral dress". Just in case someone she knew died, she would be prepared to go to the service. Don't laugh too much. It actually happened once, and we stopped making fun of her at that point. She had, indeed, been prepared.
My wife's crazy Aunt Docie actually looked forward to her own funeral. She planned it out in great detail - what church, what songs to be played, picked out the coffin, etc. In fact she designed and sewed her very own dress which she intended to wear in the coffin. She made certain everyone in the family knew which dress it was and where in the closet it was located. Just is case, you understand. She once proudly showed it to us.
Docie was a very old lady. Yet, despite all her planing, fate intervened. Someone, that is some old man, up and married Docie, and being a frugal old lady and not wanting to waste a perfectly good white dress, she got married in her "funeral dress". I don't know what she was buried in. I'm not a Ladner and didn't attend her service.
I believe my son Adam has inherited the Ladner Funeral Rites and Customs gene. When we would go on trips he would be fascinated with where people were buried. When he was a kid we went to Washington's Mount Vernon home. "Let's see where he's buried", Adam wanted to know. We went to Monticello, Jefferson's home. "Where's the grave?" Adam demanded. And, much later we visited the shrine of all shrines, Elvis' home, Graceland - where by the way The King, his parents, and his dead twin brother are all entombed. Adam held up the line of perpetual mourners for fifteen minutes.
I finally got him to move away from the crypt by lying to him that I'd buy him a picture of dead Elvis and dead Elvis's family painted on black velvet that glows in the dark. They actually sell them [$79.99 unframed ] across the street in dead Elvis' museum and gift shop.
Yes, this is true. My wife was dating a guy who was working as a funeral director. As a joke he and his buddy locked my future wife in the embalming room one night with a corpse peacefully minding its own business on the table near the door. I think they may have turned out the lights as an added funny ploy. He was a good jester. I frankly don't know why she didn't embalm him when she finally got out.
I think they used to make out at the funeral home on his off hours. You would have thought her mother might have gotten a wee bit suspicious when once she came home with a card stuck to the bottom of her panties saying, "Thanks from all the guys at the Firehouse. We'll miss you."
This guy was also a good dresser and used to always give her flowers. At one point we were both dating her at the same time. I think I won her over, mostly because of my charm and good looks (of course) but also because I convinced her he wasn't buying her the flowers he gave her but instead was stealing them off the coffins of dead people.
I don't know if that was true or not, and at the time I didn't care since I certainly couldn't afford flowers every week. But it did not matter. I got the girl, and I guess you might say that other fellow, well, let's just say, he got stiffed !
My wife wants to be cremated when she dies and that's fine with me. She has requested that the old boyfriend, who still works at the funeral home, not handle the arrangements. That's fine with me too. I figure maybe two, perhaps three tanks of butane, fire up the old grill and I'll save a ton of bucks. I'm fond of "do it yourself" projects.
I bet her old boyfriend will send flowers though, and I bet he's still stealing them off coffins.