As a young funeral directors apprentice, maintenance of the funeral home was my main duty, it was once believed that a funeral director learns the trade from the bottom up. I started my endeavors into the funeral industry digging graves, cutting grass, and washing the cars. When an apprentice is serving his time of learning it comes from many different people, for the most part the funeral workers who hold no funeral directors license oversee the first part of the training. I feel it is a good thing for the people you will one day be overseeing to help mold a ‘would be’ director-manager. I think it makes the grain of salt that should be used when speaking to another in a work environment a bit more palatable
The funeral home had outdoor carpeting on the sidewalks, for added eye appeal. One spring day, a group of unlicensed funeral workers and I were given the task of replacing this carpeting. I did not know anything about doing this but the others assured me by the end of the day I would. We labored in the hot May sun, removing the worn carpet, and wrestling it aside. I was manly the ‘go for’ but I did not mind, for the older gentlemen were taking time during the task to show me the ‘how’s and whys’ of the project. It took all day to complete the job, and the last minutes of the day were spent admiring the fruits of our labor, and listening to the complements of passer byes.
The next day a funeral was to be held for an older lady that had passed away quietly in her sleep. I was informed that she was a member of the Holiness Church, and that the whole of the congregation would probably be in attendance. I was also made aware that the son of the deceased would be attending the service as well, however he would be escorted by armed U.S. Marshall’s, as he was currently incarcerated.
The family was a huge group of people, they lived up in the mountains and to some people would be considered a bit rough around the edges. They arrived at the funeral home in a siege, children in tow. The parking lot looked like we were having a used pick up truck sale going on.
The clergyman was a slightly built man with round wire spectacles. He wore an unkempt suit, and clutched a worn bible in his hand and was referred to only as preacher. He brought with him what I call “the band”- they were the group of musicians who were to play for the service. The band included a guitar, harmonica, harpsichord, bass, and banjo. The band also had a trio of older ladies who served as the back up vocal accompanist. Indeed the scene was set for a fine send off, minus one attendee.
Service time had finally arrived, the preacher was told to wait until the son arrived so he had the band start playing. I was waiting, with the majority of the family at the back of the chapel for the son and his escorts to pull in. The gentle harmony of the band filled the chapel, as the ladies sang old gospel hymns. A long passenger van came into the parking lot and I stepped out to meet the driver. I could see from the start that she meant business. She wore a pantsuit, and had her badge on display clipped to her waist, right beside her side arm. She had a short military style hair cut, and her eyes were hidden behind black tinted gold-framed sunglasses. Hands on her hips she took charge of the situation saying “we will bring the prisoner in for the service, he will sit with his family until the conclusion, and then we will escort him back to prison.” It sounded like a fine plan to me. She and her male partner, the one I dubbed “the silent one” went to the side of the van and opened the outer door. Fumbling through his keys the male marshal opened the inner cage surrounding our anticipated guest, and stepped aside. In a direct tone the lady spoke to the son “get out.” The son emerged from the van and carefully stepped down from inside. His hair was long and pulled back into a pony tail, tattoos covered the visible parts of his forearms and hands. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and was shackled at the hands, and feet. The restraints on his feet and hands were joined by a chain around waist. The son took little steps as he made his way into the chapel, as the chains on his feet were only about a foot in length.
The son and the family were seated at the front of the chapel, and the preacher was given the nod to start. As the preacher ranted on with fire and brimstone the band played a quiet accompany. The lady marshal came to me and quietly said “ sorry we were late but this guy gave us a bit of trouble, if I motion for you to make a phone call, do it immediately, and call your local police in to assist us with him, he is a pretty rough customer.” I agreed and she went to sit down behind the family where she could monitor her prisoner. I took a spot at the back of the chapel with the other funeral staff.
The funeral was going along as planned, the preacher was red-faced as he shouted warnings of hell fire and damnation, his congregation served as witness to his words with shouts of “Amen!” “Halleluiah!” as they sprang from their seats clapping their hands, pressing him further into his frenzy. It was at the point when the preacher screamed, finger pointed at the crowd “ can I get a witness?” that the funeral took an unusual turn. The lady marshal stood up behind the family and glared, for a moment I thought she was going to go forward and testify to the preacher during his altar call. However, her eyes were fixed on the son, she made her way out of the pew and beckoned to the son to come to her using only her index finger and demanding gaze. Then, all hell broke loose; one of the female family members stood and gave the lady marshal a shove and an unkind comment, this instigated the rest of the clan into action. The family surrounded the orange clad prisoner pushing away the lady marshal and her partner that had come to her side. Curse words shouted out could be heard over the preacher, and the band would not yield to the disturbance. Somehow during the madness the son had freed one of his hands and none of his family was letting him go back to jail. The lady marshal made the motion to me, with here thumb in her ear and little finger at her mouth, mouthing the words “call 911.” I ran to the lobby and called the dispatcher, I told them we had two U.S. Marshals with a prisoner trying to escape in our chapel during a funeral, and to please send police help. When I returned to the chapel, the scene was one of complete mayhem, the whole of the family was standing and shouting, the marshals and some of the congregation were trying to get to the son through flying fists and kicking feet, and the preacher was still bellowing out his sermon of hell fire, accompanied by the band. It only took a few minutes, for what I am sure was every police officer on duty in our small town, to come bursting into the chapel through every conceivable entry with guns at the ready. I stood by, with the rest of the funeral staff helplessly as the police joined the fight. Several police and the two marshals finally waded into the mist of the family that had cocooned the son, once they got a hold on him they dragged him kicking and screaming into the middle aisle of the chapel, slamming him down face first and re-cuffing his hands, preacher still preaching, band still playing. Police and Marshals grabbed the prisoner and started making their way to the back of the chapel quickly, avoiding the family as they clawed at the son. The lady marshal got to the back of the chapel first; I opened the doors for her as she ran to get the van. The tires of the van screeched and smoked as she jammed the throttle, she wheeled the vehicle wildly through the parking lot as she made her way to the chapel entry. The prisoner under police and marshal escort was rushed out of the chapel to wait for the van as it sprang over the curb. The lady marshal slammed on the brakes to stop and help get the son back inside the van, but the van did not stop. As the van came over the curb the wheels were on the carpet installed the previous day. The directions on the carpet glue read not to let anybody walk on the carpet for a few hours, it did not mention anything about hard charging lady U.S. Marshals and her nine passenger armored van. The carpet came free under the weight of the van and sent it careening into a stonewall that surrounded the chapel. Van steaming, the lady marshal sprang from the cockpit and opened the side doors. The prisoner was heaved inside and the doors were slammed and locked. As the van pulled away the family was now standing outside the chapel, screaming and crying, waving good-bye as the son shouted through the glass, “I love you momma!” Things began to settle down, and one of the men that helped install the carpet, joked quietly over my shoulder “what do you know about fixing stone walls?”
I stood there for a moment in awe of the last thirty minutes, looking over the shambles that had been made of the previous days work, and then from inside the chapel I heard the band, and the ladies singing hymns from long ago, and figured; just another day at the office.
‘Plan your work and work your plan’ is what the old timers always tell me. I feel like some of the time I am chasing wild pitches thrown at me at the very last-minute by preachers running late, families with the “Oh by the way” request, weather, and the occasionally missing in action family member. Never the less, for the most part I have not faced to many situations I could not handle, if not minimize to the point of reconciliation. I try to expect the unexpected, but sometimes things just get out of hand.