It’s been an emotional year with Dad’s passing. But don’t get all sad faced, Dad lived a long and productive life. But, he will be fondly remembered for his penchant of looking for a good bargain. For instance, in the late seventies funeral homes started advertising prepaid funeral arrangements. Dad thought he would purchase a cheap plan and while inflation ate up the costs he could be buried with a low cost, affordable funeral. He started his research to find the best burial plan.
Dad had it in his head a funeral home operator first coined the adage, ‘You can’t take it with you.’ Dad lectured, “It’s a mantra to recite as they lead you along the line of low-end boxes, past midline metal models, and then beyond the pricey coffins until they reach the expensive deluxe models with gilt trim, polished mahogany wood, and genuine silk lining. The coffin’s highlighted with illumination that would do a jewelry store proud while soft heavenly music is piped into the room. ‘You can’t take it with you,’ the funeral director whispers to your checkbook.”
Dad’s outlook evolved into thinking he may not be able to take it with him, but darned if he’ll bury the purchase six feet deep. Being a practical person, who wanted the best value for his dollar, he conducted extensive research with his buddies over beers to determine funeral costs. Dad became obsessed with gathering the collective insight of old timers who had buried a loved one or attended enough funerals that became part of their social calendar. Naturally, his buddies didn’t hanker to dwelling upon the topic of burial costs, but, plied with free beer they readily talked.
I remember one time Dad and I were enjoying lunch at a favorite sports bar several weeks into his research. Curious as to what he had uncovered, I broached the topic directly. “I know you’ve been looking into burial costs while trying to determine the cheapest, er, best value,” I began. “What did you settle on for your final trip?”
Dad swallowed his bite of hot roast beef sandwich, took a slurp of Pabst and responded, “I think I’ll go with being cremated. It seems like the sensible thing to do.”
Dad seemed at ease with his decision and I felt glad he had resolved the issue. Having broached the subject, it dawned on me that one day, in my lifetime, an urn full of Dad would be placed in my hands. Since we were on the topic I inquired about how Dad wanted me to dispose of his ashes. “Dad, is there anywhere in particular you’d like me to toss your ashes? I can sprinkle them over the grounds of Oglebay Park or across the fields of the old homestead.”
He shook his head. “No. Atlantic Ocean.” He went back to munching on his roast beef sandwich. Not a big surprise. Many people enjoy studying certain historical time periods. Like a history enthusiast who enjoyed studying battle strategies, Dad’s niche focused on World War II submarines.
Naturally, I envisioned this journey as an excuse for a family vacation to the beach with dad’s ashes tagging along. I replied, “Easy enough. I can go to Virginia Beach and charter a boat. I’ll chuck your ashes into the Chesapeake Bay and let the current carry you out to frolic with the dolphins.”
Dad finished his sandwich and corrected my scenario. “No. I want to go out deep, where the submariners go.” He promptly set about devouring the rest of his French fries.
I studied on this for a moment. “Well, I guess I can book passage on a cruise liner or hitch a ride out on a tramp steamer headed for Greece to toss you overboard.” I figured the route taken depended on how big of a life insurance policy he planned for my inheritance.
Well, Dad passed away several years later and by then I had forgotten about the prepaid funeral preparations. The day after his passing I got a call from the funeral director concerning Dad’s final arrangements. Even though the memorial service wouldn’t be for weeks, decisions had to be made and papers signed. The director requested my presence down at the parlor.
Not to appear callous, but did you ever notice certain events seem to occur at inopportune times? For me this moment occurred as I answered the telephone while preparing to meet my buddies down at the camp for the opening day of deer season.
As I noted, the beauty of cremation is timing. I could establish a memorial service at a more convenient time. But the paperwork still had to be signed. One glance at the clock and I made my decision. I figured, after a quick stopover at the funeral parlor, I would depart directly for the camp, enjoy opening day of season, then return in time to complete the memorial service planning. Departing directly from the funeral home would get me to the campsite by the second round of the annual campfire sing-a-long. I finished packing my gear then motored down to the funeral home and parked in the dimly lit back lot. I jumped out, scurried ‘round to the side entrance and went into the tastefully somber office of the director.
The assistant, an easy going fellow by the name of Clay, worked at the Perpetual Eternity Funeral Parlor. And although nearsighted enough to need glasses, Clay’s vanity prevented him from wearing spectacles. Also, it was general community knowledge that Clay would often sneak a drink or two while on the job. The citizenry excused this behavior considering the nature of his work. Besides, Clay kept his position through the law of relativity, his relatives owned the establishment and wished to keep him employed.
While I followed instructions signing off on the arrangements, nearsighted inebriated Clay rolled the gurney holding Dad’s cremation coffin out to the unlit loading zone. But instead of loading the coffin into the black hearse to be driven to the crematory as intended, he opened the hatch of my vehicle with dark tinted windows and slid the coffin into the back of my black sport utility vehicle.
Clay had no sooner closed up and gone inside when I exited from the side door of the funeral home, hopped into my urban attack vehicle, and took off down the road. Five hours later I rendezvoused with my buddies at camp. The campfire flames lit up the campground. My pals walked over to help me unload my gear. Greeting them, I reached back behind me and undid the tailgate while facing them. I saw my their faces change from grinning welcomes to expressions of horror. I turned around to see what appalled them. A coffin lay nestled alongside my sleeping bag and tent in the back of my SUV. Since I don’t let others rent space in my head, I logically surmised that Dad currently resided in the coffin. If you ever get into a situation like this the straight up truth is the best approach. I told my buddies. “Fellows, Dad has recently passed away, but as you can see, he is here amongst us.”
They stood quietly and surveyed the situation. Marshall gave a sniffle and a tear rolled down his cheek. “You brought your daddy for one last opening day of deer season?” he sobbed. “You are a good son!” Whatever.
A five-hour drive back to the funeral home did not appeal to me. I reasoned that since Dad had entered into eternal sleep I may as well enjoy a good night’s sleep. He wasn’t going anywhere, so why should I? I opted for a few hours of sleep, a couple of hours of hunting, and then homeward bound with Dad. My buddies agreed and helped me carry the coffin over to the fire. We set up a nice condiment bar on the foot end of the wooden box beside the cooler full of beer.
“Care for a beer?” we would politely ask Dad each time we retrieved a cold none.
The flames had died down and settled into a spread of glowing embers so a couple of the boys decided to toss another log onto the fire. They returned from the woodpile carrying between them a six foot log and gave a count of three to toss it onto the embers. At this point all Hades broke loose. When the log hit the embers a shower of red hot sparks exploded into the air. One ember did a lazy arc through the air and landed directly on Dad’s coffin. The dry pine box, saturated with resin, smoldered a minute then lit up like a Fourth of July sparkler. Some of us grabbed the handles and hauled the burning coffin over to the nearby creek. We gave a heave-ho and tossed the flaming box into the river. I still believe in the soundness of our logic. We expected the coffin to splash down and settle into the creek water. Later we would retrieve it, singed, but still serviceable.
However, the tight-jointed, kiln-dried wooden coffin floated high in the water like an empty cruise liner. The current took hold. We watched from the shore as the current carried the coffin out of the mouth of the stream and into the Ohio River. Dad’s last mode of transport burst into a fiery inferno just as the river current caught hold of it. The coffin sailed proudly down the Ohio River looking like a mythic Viking funeral barge. We stood with mouths agape, awe-struck, and watched in silence. Talk about going out in a blaze of glory. We witnessed the blazing coffin floating downstream as it maneuvered around a bend in the Ohio lighting up the night sky with its flaming brilliance. Tyler pulled a harmonica out of his back pocket and did a real nice rendition of the old rock tune ‘Smoke on the Water.’ We were touched by the gesture.
Harrison, a hydrologist at the Pike Island Lock and Dam, commented, “Perhaps we’d better not say anything around anyone from the Division of Natural Resources or EPA.” We readily agreed. No telling what kind of fine applied for messing up the stream. Harrison did a quick mental calculation. Estimating the current velocity and water volume, he figured that Dad’s ashes would flush out of the North American drainage system and into the Gulf of Mexico in seven weeks. From there Dad’s ashes would be picked by the Gulf Stream Current. As the current flowed northeast towards Europe it would lose velocity. The ashes would then filter out like most sediments and settle on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge around the middle of June. Dad would be right where he wanted to be.
As I see it, I am a good son. I fulfilled Dad’s final burial requests. The funeral was cheap, he was cremated, and his ashes are out deep, where the submariners go.
I know you have one final question. Folks always have the same question every time I relate this tale. I’ll give you the answer. No, I did not get any deer on the opening day of season.