My brother-in-law died last week. In church. Right after singing two hymns to the congregation as his wife played the piano. Not virus related. Natural causes.
He was widely known around this area as a singer, having sung at over 300 funerals, and had even cut a record or two when he was younger. When I had my radio program in Hattiesburg, “Brother Benny, Your Radio Pastor,” he sang my theme song on every broadcast for three years, live on tape.
Of course, I preached his funeral. Although it was a graveside service only, over in Walthall County where he was raised, I’d say that about 200 people showed up. As the primary “text” of my sermon, I used the words of the biblical hymn that he sang moments before he died, and I made the point that not many of us get to preach our own funeral sermon as he did in singing that last song in public. In fact, they played one of his CDs on the public address system, so he also sang at his own funeral.
I’ve been writing in local newspapers for about ten years, mostly about the Navy, and I’ve never said much about the fact that I was a chaplain for 25 of my 36 years on active duty.
I never wanted readers to get the idea that I was peddling religion; but, as full disclosure, I was a Southern Baptist-endorsed Navy chaplain after having served as an enlisted man and as a line officer. As a chaplain, my job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
As someone who has conducted well over 250 funerals, military and civilian, I have what you might call a “professional” interest in the subject, and I have noticed an interesting trend in newspaper obituaries lately: hardly anyone “dies.” We all just “pass away.” Maybe General Douglas McArthur got it going with his speech to Congress in 1951 when, after having been fired by President Harry Truman for wanting to bomb China and use Chinese nationalist forces on Taiwan against the Communists during the Korean War, he concluded his presentation by famously saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Anyway, I was in New Orleans the other day, and I bought a copy of the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper, and it must have been the weekly paid “obituary issue” because it contained four pages of closely spaced obits, well over 100, and hardly anyone died.
They either passed away, or their bereaved families remembered them with such euphemisms as “She slipped silently into eternal slumber;” or “was born into eternity,” or my favorite: “He rode his Harley off into the heavenly distance.”
As you know, many of the large national daily newspapers, such as the New York Times, have a full-time obituary writer on the staff, or at least they did until the newspaper apocalypse, and they already have thousands of pre-written obits for celebrities, politicians, and other news-worthy individuals already “in the can,” just awaiting minor updating and publication.
It’s true, I think, that we shy away from the reality of death and funerals. It’s just human nature. Particularly in America. It’s an old book, but read The American Way of Death, written by Jessica Milford in 1963.
When I taught psychology at William Carey, I remember going over, in the elementary classes, the famous five stages of death and dying developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and explained in her seminal book, On Death and Dying.
She was also the co-author, along with David Kessler, of another iconic book, On Grief and Grieving, which applies her five-stage model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) specifically to the grief process. According to their theories, and these are my words here, writing your loved one’s obituary immediately after their death would obviously come during the denial stage when you are numb and just trying to cope with the terrible reality of the situation. So, it makes sense that writing the obituary is an early part of the grieving process and, if you want to “wax poetic,” so be it.
I would defend to my last breath the next of kin’s right to say anything they wanted in their loved one’s obituary. Funerals are for the living, and people can say whatever gives them peace. If my wife wants to say, “Benny kicked the bucket,” that’s her business, and I will never know the difference.
Funerals are necessary, but I had much rather have weddings; for example, I conducted well over 200 weddings in my career as a Navy chaplain, and some of them were rather “interesting,” to say the least. My “highest” wedding was on top of the Empire State Building, or it could have been the Space Needle in Seattle; my “lowest” wedding was in a submarine; and my “fastest” wedding was in the back of a “four-by” (a large military truck). I’ve had weddings in military prisons; I had a parachute wedding – the groom and I hit the DZ, but the bride missed it by half a mile (to be fair to her, though, it was a very windy day).
Shoot, I’ve even had a wedding at a funeral. My weddings at the Naval Academy in Annapolis were the best, however. For example, I performed 31 weddings by myself during the month of June 1975, when I was the junior Protestant chaplain there.
I never did conduct a wedding over short wave radio, although I was asked to several times by sailors marrying women in the Philippines. The legality seemed a little too shaky to me, no matter what you see in the movies.
I also did a lot of funerals at the Academy. No matter how irreligious they might have been in life, old retired naval officers who live in the area often became Episcopalian at death and required such funeral rites.
I had so many that I pretty much knew that section of the Book of Common Prayer by heart. If you don’t believe me, stop me on the street, and I will quote it for you. As the junior chaplain, I also caught more than my share of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. In fact, my friends started calling me the “Virginia Planter.”
All funerals are important, but it’s the military ones that stick most in my mind. Every veteran of military service has a legal right to burial at sea, and I have conducted dozens of such ceremonies, however; “sleeping with the fish” is not for me. The bodies come aboard ship in two forms: cremains, or cardboard boxes filled with the ashes of those who have been cremated; or remains, those who are encased in the standard, government-issued metal coffin. Although we treated both with the utmost respect, those of us in the business much preferred to deal with cremains; however, even then one soon learned the “tricks of the trade:” delay the committal ceremony until the wind dies down; always throw the ashes into the lee wind, etc.
The Navy won’t get a ship underway just to conduct a burial at sea; cremains and remains are collected and held until a ship leaves on a regularly scheduled deployment or exercise. I once sailed from San Diego on a nuclear-powered cruiser with fifteen boxes of cremains stacked in my stateroom. The weather was bad, and the Old Man waited until we were half-way to Hawaii before we had the committal.
As I stated, remains are more problematic. One particular incident in Newport, Rhode Island, comes to mind. I was assigned to a Destroyer Squadron that was getting underway on an around the world cruise.
A hearse pulled up containing the coffin of a Lieutenant Commander who had recently died on active duty. His widow accompanied his body, which was her right, and the plan was to have the committal as soon as we got outside the legal five-mile limit, and for her to ride the tug carrying the harbor pilot back to the base.
I was on the pier, along with an honor guard, waiting for the entourage, and I directed that the coffin be lashed to the fantail of the destroyer waiting alongside the pier. As we got underway, I noticed that we had some serious problems. In the first place, the coffin is supposed to be weighted, so that it will promptly sink and not float off to China or end up on the beach at Atlantic City or Coney Island, and this one wasn’t. Also, the government contracts require that the coffin be filled with unobtrusive holes, again to ensure sinking. Just my luck, this bad boy had no holes. It was sealed tighter than a drum.
Moving down the narrow channel out of Narragansett Bay, past the compound where Jackie Kennedy Onassis was raised and heading to the open sea, I knew that I had to act fast or that my career might come to an ignoble end, particularly with the widow onboard. There are all kinds of apocryphal jokes about frustrated captains commencing gun fire on coffins that failed to sink, and I didn’t want to add truth to the tall tales.
Grabbing the nearest Ensign, I sent him and the widow to the wardroom for a cup of coffee; I sent some sailors to the armory and had them bring up four 5-inch 38 artillery shells, each weighing about 100 pounds.
I then opened up the coffin, asked my deceased comrade at arms, resting in his dress blues, to forgive me, and placed a shell in each arm, one at his head, and one at his feet. In the meantime, I had two shipfitters drilling holes in the coffin, and we tied the two halves of the box together securely with some heavy line that more or less matched its color.
A few minutes later, as we passed the last buoy, before the widow and the whole ship’s company, as I read the classic words, “We therefore commit his body to the deep,” and when the burial detail slipped the coffin over the side, it sank like the proverbial rock.
I’d never seen or met my shipmate in the coffin before, but I would like to think that he would have done the same thing for me.
And so, as I think about some of the other anti-death circumlocutions I’ve seen in the newspapers lately: “He graduated into the heavenly choir;” “God sent an angel to escort her to the heavenly gates;” “He was granted his wings;” “She danced away from this world to a new party in heaven;” etc., when my time comes, and it won’t be that long, I’m not “dying,” either. - I’m “stepping on a rainbow.”
In the meantime, drive it like you stole it.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com