“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them.” Ephesians 2:10
The slices of life pared up in any given funeral home are like no other. Apart from being a terribly misplaced oxymoron, one still can ask: why they call them, “homes?”
Perhaps it is because so much drama takes place there just like our own home, but there is probably more to it than that. Consider the life of Mr. Jenkins who managed Bucktrout of Williamsburg, Virginia which is considered by some to be the oldest funeral home in America. Opened in 1759, it began as a cabinetmaker shoppe and to this very day boasts of remarkable service and client care. For Mr. Jenkins, the funeral home was his home, at least emotionally as he poured out his soul to grieving families and always seemed to act that it was his loss as much as it was theirs.
It was the last funeral service of the day and the week. It was also the final amount of paperwork that the aged and wise director would ever have to complete before his long-awaited retirement. He had done well for himself and his family. His hope was that he might recapture all those moments that he seemed to miss because of the emergencies of so many others. He thought he would get a head start of all the packing of thirty years of memories by going room by room to collect the relics of his past service as an “undertaker” as his wife would often remind him, and to wipe clean the layers of memories accumulated like dust upon the shelves of unread books.
In one particular area of his large and specious office, amidst the couches and sofas that held grieving families and their tears and their stories all these years, there were little spots and interesting gifts from people that would always hold a special place in his heart as he began to pack up and leave that building for the last time, alive, anyway. Some brought sadness to his heart like the teddy bear of the child he helped bury who died of a rare heart disease or the framed high school diploma of the young student who was killed in a car crash just days after graduation, a gift from his parents with the undying hope that he would never forget their son and the family and friends he left behind. It was successful.
One of the last things he had to either pack or throw away was an old set of car keys. At first, he couldn’t seem to remember where they belonged because it had apparently not been used for quite some time. He could tell by the key chain that it had to belong to a vehicle not in use for more than forty years, if then. And then it hit him. It was not from his time as director at the funeral home, but from a time when he first started, and what an overwhelming memory that was. He had to sit down and smile. As he held the keys in his hands, he began to replay that remarkable moment that had become a kind of a fabled urban legend in the area. “What a great life this has been,” he whispered under his breath, and with that small phrase, he was immediately mentally catapulted to his late teen years looking for a job upon graduation. It didn’t have to be much, but something to pay the bills, help him through school, and be respectable. And, of course, to help him move out of his parents’ home to start his new life and the dreams of his youth.
He had appeared at the front office of Bucktrout’s hoping to not only catch a glimpse of the manager but to boldly ask for work. He had put on the only suit he owned, a black one, with a clean, white, well-pressed shirt and the shiniest shoes he could have mastered. He was kind of a tall young man, at least comparatively speaking with the others in his community and so the jet-black hair along with the matching suit made him stand out and was actually quite impressive. It took him more than a couple of tries to get in front of the middle-aged manager and when the chance finally presented itself, he jumped at it like one of the hungry squirrels on the fallen acorns that seemed to teem the park-like surroundings of the funeral home.
“Sir, sir, may I please have a moment of your time?” was the best phrase he could utter with the limited and quickly closing window of opportunity he had.
“Uh-huh,” came the stereotypically expected response from one whom had garnered the reputation of the classic undertaker as they were traditionally called back then. Solemn, stayed, and certainly no-nonsense are some of the descriptions that could best paint the picture of the scene right about now.
After seconds of very uncomfortable moments of silence and intense glares, the manager sternly and directly asked, “Can you drive a hearse?”
With lightning speed, the answer came quickly. “Yes sir! I can also wash and wax and clean them inside and out!”
“Allright, Son. We’ll give you a chance. Let’s see what you got,” was the closest sentence that would be offered anywhere close to “You got the job,” that Jenkins would hear and it was certainly enough. In fact, it was sufficient for him to be able to start right then, right there.
And so the career began. He turned out to be the most energetic and accomplished worker they had seen there in quite a while. Jenkins always arrived early, stayed late, and made sure that the expectations placed upon him were more than adequately met. There was not a whole lot of smiles or laughter around that place, but it did not matter. His paycheck was healthy enough and he was happy to get his life started.
About six months into his new employment, there came one of those big services of a local “big-wig,” as his boss would call them, and all hands were to be on deck and every eye focused on even the most infinitesimally nondescript detail. That included Jenkins.
His orders could not have been any less clear: “Make sure the hearse is filled with gas.” For emphasis sake, this particular instruction had been repeated at least three times and at first it appeared that it had registered. However, the bevy of young ladies who were attending the evening wake services may have played a part in this probably expected scenario. Jenkins found himself the topic of their adulations and attention and as fate would have it, and probably most of our readers suspicions, he forgot to fill the hearse with gas.
The Funeral Mass was as long as it was packed. People from all over were in attendance and finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, it was time to make the arduous trek from the church to the cemetery which in this case was located at least forty minutes driving toward the west. There were at least forty cars in the procession and of course it was one of the hottest days of the summer. Going about fifteen miles an hour, with police escort and many faces drenched with sweat and tears, the nightmare of every funeral director was about to ensue. The hearse ran out of gas. Jenkins who was behind the wheel, turned the palest pale he had every mustered. He immediately sprung into action and was able to enlist a buddy of his, a friend of the bereaved family, to take him as quickly as possible to the nearest gas station to obtain some fuel to complete the journey. That took a painful half hour or so. However, it was not the success he needed. The carburetor had flooded and was not starting the engine. The only recourse they had was to call for a tow truck and after forty-five minutes of waiting in the blistering sun, it finally arrived, and for the first time in funeral history, and probably the last, the hearse was latched up by the portable crane from the back of the truck and slowly pulled into the cemetery followed by a load of very hot, angry and very frustrated mourners.
The usually simple and uncomplicated graveside service started and ended with little fanfare except for the very nervous and even forlorn hearse driver who was literally shaking in his now sweat-drenched black suit. His manager very stealthily and deliberately approached: “That woman soaked in tears and embarrassment sitting over there under the pantheon (tent) is the deceased’s widow. Go, let her know that this was all your fault; you better hope she won’t sue us!”
And there he went, sheepishly oozing his way to the bereaved woman with a suit that looked liked it had been shrink-wrapped around his body and a face that screamed “humiliation” within a tri-county area.
“Ma’am? Ma’am?, excuse me. I am so sorry. All this was my fault. Please forgive me,” were the only words that he could emit with any semblance of dignified comprehension.
The widow looked up at him and appeared to be in a strange daze with an even stranger smile running across her face.
The young Jenkins continued: “I am sorry, Ma’am, all this was my fault. I, I,” was all he could say before breaking down with a soft, sniffling, crying sound.
Apparently the widow had raised a quiver of children herself with her departed husband, strong-willed and well-adjusted men who were also pall bearers that day, which became the needed backdrop and impetus for her most timely response to the young hearse driver:
“Oh, Son, don’t worry. You didn’t know my husband. He was an amazing man, was always in the best of health, and never spent a day in the hospital. He would always tell us, ‘I am so strong, they’re going to have to drag me to the cemetery!”
The elderly Jenkins must have been sitting at the old desk for about an hour replaying that scene and thanking God that he had not been fired. And that was it. Everything was ready to close one chapter and begin another, perhaps the last and he was ready. He laid all of keys on his desk, made one last cup of coffee from the new-fangled Keurig coffee maker that had taken him months to figure out, and shook the hands of the new manager whom he had hired and trained and mentored with this very day in mind. It was late in the afternoon and cars were beginning to line up for a wake service within the hour. He would be home by the time it would start. He started his car but before he could back out of the same space he had occupied for more than thirty years, he spotted a young man spiffy and quite sharply dressed in a dark gray coat with black pants and shoes that probably needed some polishing. At first he thought that it might be one of the pall bearers or family members related to the service set to start, and then placed his car in park and stepped out of his vehicle to see what it was this young man wanted.
“Mr. Jenkins?” the young man inquired.
“Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you?” came the quick response from the nearly fully-retired funeral director as he noticed the beige colored file his visitor was carrying.
“Mr. Jenkins, I lived here all my life and all my grandparents and even my father have been buried out of this funeral home. I’m starting out my life, sir, and I’m a good worker. Can you give me chance and give me a job, here?”
For a split second, the wise and perhaps most compassionate of most directors you would ever want to meet, did not know whether he should laugh, cry, or just remain fixed on the moment. However, there was really only one thing he could say to fit the moment:
“Can you drive a hearse?”
“Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.” Elbert Hubbard
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“A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” William Arthur Ward