-All God’s Creatures-
Funerals held in the countryside are my favorite. I love the mountains, and all of outdoors for that matter. One hot summer day we were to have interment in an old family cemetery. The plot was located high in the mountains, and was surrounded by the beauty of farms. The pace in the hills slows to a creep, and I relish the feelings of warmth the people from these communities possess.
I arrived before the procession with the flowers, my job was to quickly set up the flowers, move the flower van out of the way, and direct the procession in to the grassy parking area from the winding mountain road. As I was setting up the flowers I noticed I was being watched from afar. Black Angus cattle had taken an interest in my task and were making their way up the hill slowly, to investigate what I was doing. The grave was in the corner of the cemetery, and the post holding the tent over the grave was lashed to the fence post dawned with barbed wire holding the cattle in their pasture. The cattle arrived at the grave at the same time as the procession. They approached the fence watching as the cars pulled into the grassy meadow now being used for parking, and stood there chewing as the pallbearers carried the casket to the lowering device. Once the casket was in place the family was seated and the friends gathered around for the beginning of the committal service. If somebody was standing back a bit the scene must have looked pretty odd; the casket was there, family seated, friends all gathered around the grave, flowers arranged, and a joining fence lined with twelve or so curious, chewing, tail swishing cows all within reach of the crowd, eyeing the fresh cut flowers with anticipation. The people attending the service paid little to no attention to the large black-eyed guests as the preacher soothed the crowd with scripture.
Now this particular preacher was well know by the funeral staff for being one to read every word of his funeral and committal service. Even the words he used to pray for, and eulogize the deceased were thought of in advance and penned. This committal was no exception, as he shuffled his papers he read aloud. He had reached the point of the final prayer, all heads were bowed, and all eyes shut as he read aloud a very poetic prayer for the family. He was doing just fine until one of the uninvited guest standing directly behind him decided to reach over the fence to sample some of the lovely summer flowers that had been placed just out of it’s reach. The cow, frustrated with being unable to reach the tantalizing treat, ‘goosed’ the unsuspecting minister from behind with its nose. Surprised by this sensation of admiration from the huge creature the preacher lost grip of the last page of his prayer. The gentle breeze caught the small leaflet of paper and it floated like a leaf, gently swaying from side to side until it disappeared, right in-between the casket and the edge of the grave. The clergyman looked at me quickly with a look of “now what do I do” on his face. I quietly cleared my throat and spoke out loud ”Amen.” “Amen” the congregation acknowledged, and I motioned the preacher to receive the family. Later standing in the cemetery the young clergyman joked a bit with me, “you bailed me out, I froze” and we both laughed over the situation. A few weeks later I was working a service with the same minister, and as we got out of the cars at the cemetery he said “look here” holding up a brand new leather binder “I’m cow proof.”
“Always look in the vault.” That was the advice from the old timers. I took the instruction with a grain of salt, after the committal service there would be plenty of time to inspect the grave, and if it was the wrong vault what could I do about it at that very moment anyway, besides I was half their age and twice as smart.
After leading the funeral procession into the cemetery, I waited for the congregation to get parked as the hearse driver assembled the pallbearers. With a silent nod I signaled the hearse driver to start toward the grave with casket and pallbearers. I was walking with the family, as they chatted among themselves about the deceased. Once we reached the grave the casket was placed on the lowering devise and I escorted the family under the tent to their chairs. It was a small family; the deceased had never wed, and out lived all of his brothers and sisters. Nieces and nephews were his next of kin. The minister began his committal service, addressing this intimate group of quiet mourners with words of hope and encouragement. He was inferring to life’s uncertainties when the hearse drivers eyes caught mine. My fellow director was stiff as a board, frozen in his hands folded together in front mortician pose. It was his eyes, ‘what is he doing with his eyes”’ I thought to myself. I followed the path his eyes were making, from directly at me, and then down. I thought for a moment my zipper might have been down. No, he was not looking there; he was looking, silently screaming, behind wide staring eyes and twitching jaw muscles, at the grave.
One of the nieces figured out the mystery before I did, it was no wonder she did. The cause of all the jaw flinching and eyestrain was just about to reach her foot. A copperhead snake had made its way out from the coolness of the grave and concrete vault bottom. Now snake stories are a lot like fish tales, every time the story is recalled the size of the snake or fish seem to magically grow. That being said, the niece was about four feet from the grave’s edge, and the snake was in tongues reach of her toeless flats and plenty of the snake was still unseen.
I never liked the keystone cops, just a bit too crazy for me, never the less, it was like somebody yelled action for one of their scenes. “Snake!” screamed the niece “Snake!” confirmed the nephews “Snake!” cried the reverend “Snake!” bellowed the friends. The crowd back peddled in unison, chairs were heaved out of the way and flowers spilled onto the turf, as the mass exodus of attendees clamored to distance themselves from the slithering late arrival.
We all took refuge near the cars, and watched from afar as the snake made its way through the grass toward the near by forest. The minister broke the silence with a suggestion of having the final prayer here on the driveway, and everybody was in full agreement.