In a rural community south of town there are a whole bunch of Heberts. Now, if you’re at all familiar with Cajun last names, you probably read that AY-behr. Where I’m from, though, it’s not one bit Cajun, which means the name is pronounced HEE-bert. The Hebert men all look like if Marty Feldman had grown up in north Alabama, and they all go by their last name. For their entire lives they’re not Johns or Dannys or Tims. They’re Hebert—all of them. It’s been that way for decades. Nearly 40 years ago, a young funeral director accompanied an older funeral director on a home removal, and, when he asked who they were picking up, all he got was, “Hebert.” And it wasn’t a new concept then.
The Hebert of this story is named Donnie, but, again, he goes by Hebert. The thing to know about Hebert, the thing we all knew, is that if there was a church funeral around the state line, he was going to be there, and he was going to find a way to help. He’s never worked in a funeral home but has always been a sort of honorary funeral director who was so committed to his role that my perfectionist grandfather would tell other funeral directors not to worry about arriving in time to begin services because, “Hebert will be there to help get things started.”
Hebert Nearly Died
Pine Grove Cemetery sits comfortably in a sharp curve on Highway 31, a cemetery that predates cars and therefore also predates parking. It’s affiliated with the Pine Grove Freewill Baptist Church which sits on the other side of the highway—across the curve—and that’s where the parking is. When burying at Pine Grove Cemetery, the family has to get Grandma with her bad foot and Uncle Bud with his walker and whoever else with their whatever else across that road from the church to the cemetery, and it’s a nightmare.
Normally, a funeral director would stand just south of the curve and a grave crew member just north to stop traffic, but this time Hebert was there, and he wasn’t having it. He wanted traffic duty. Quickly, he ran to his truck and fished out an orange, reflective vest that he apparently carries with him at all times, stood smack in the middle of the sharp curve, touched his elbow to his waist, and moved his hand up and then down at the wrist in a stop right here motion. The first car approached from the south and flew past Hebert who jumped off the center line barely avoiding serious injury. He glared at the car, gathered himself, and returned to his post with his weird little hand motion. The next car came from the north at full speed and at the last second swerved halfway onto the shoulder to miss Hebert who decided this time to stand his ground. The vest worked. After a few more near misses, Hebert finally stopped a car, and the family began to cross. Thankfully, the larger numbers of people and the already stopped vehicles were easier for oncoming motorists to see. The people crossed safely, and Hebert survived.
Hebert and the Flower Truck
When Hebert’s very own mother died, he had one request for her funeral: that he ride with Kevin in the flower truck.
Quick Lesson: Immediately following funeral services, at least in my part of the world, funeral directors and staff hustle to load the flowers into a van or truck or something large enough to haul them to the cemetery. They do this quickly so that when the deceased and family arrive everything looks nice and put together—like it’s been that way the whole time. Driving the flower truck is fun because you have an excuse to drive fast.
Once Mama Hebert’s service ended, Kevin loaded the flowers and ran out front to get Hebert for his ride. The problem was, Hebert wasn’t there. Kevin walked around the entire outside of the church. No Hebert. He checked the basement where the food was. No Hebert. He checked the bathrooms. Nothing. Finally, knowing he had to go, Kevin gave up and went back to the flower truck continually aware of his surroundings in case Hebert appeared. After one last look around, and no sign of Hebert, Kevin opened the driver side door, placed one foot inside, and found himself staring eye to eye with a man. There sat Hebert.
“What the hell are you running around for, son? Get in. We gotta go.”
Stunned, Kevin slowly climbed into the passenger seat, and Hebert drove his mother’s flowers to the cemetery, and he got to drive them fast.
Hebert’s in the Grave
Hebert was just as determined to help out at burials. He would load cemetery equipment and place flowers on graves, and he wouldn’t leave until the work was done.
During one particular burial, a steel cable from the lowering device (the contraption that gently places the casket and vault into the grave) got stuck underneath the burial vault. Now this vault was solid concrete, so, as you can imagine, the cable wouldn’t budge. Before anyone could do anything about it, Hebert was in the grave on top of the vault lid yanking on the cable with his bare hands.
“Hebert, your wife’ll be mad at you for getting your suit all dirty like that,” joked Gerald with the others laughing behind him.
Hebert stopped working the cable for a moment and looked Gerald and the others right in the eyes from below ground level and spoke in a deathly serious tone.
“That’s what they make soap and water for, boys.”
Hebert at My Grandfather’s Funeral
There were a lot of people at my grandfather’s funeral. He’d been the face of the funeral home for nearly fifty years, and, even though he was bedridden for six years before his death, people still viewed him as just that. Besides the locals, there were a decent number of funeral professionals from around the country in attendance. Anticipating a large undertaker representation, we had little black ribbons made and a special seating section reserved just for them. He had given his life to that profession, and we wanted to honor that by honoring those who were doing the same.
As we stood by the casket playing the role of family instead of funeral directors just prior to the service, Hebert slipped through one of the side doors in the back of the sanctuary. This church was in town, and Hebert didn’t usually attend church funerals in town, so the confidence wasn’t as high as usual. As Hebert searched for a seat, my dad and I looked at each other then shifted our eyes to my mother. She had already spotted Hebert. Then we asked her brother, since it was their father who’d died, if he would be ok giving him a black ribbon and seating him in the funeral service section. He didn’t know Hebert, but he agreed. I told you earlier: honorary funeral director. Hebert got his ribbon and sat down with the folks who got paid for working funerals. He worked all of his for free.
Following the burial, the church had a meal for the family and friends where we ate casseroles and talked and laughed and visited with folks we hadn’t seen in so long. Afterward we were doing what families do at church funeral meals—delaying the part where we would actually have to start processing what had happened. The church members had started cleaning up. Just then, Hebert entered the large fellowship hall and walked straight to my mother.
He always called her Sis.
“Sis, I just want you to know I stayed at that graveyard to make sure everything was just right for your daddy. Everything went good, and the flowers are all placed nice.”
With some of the best funeral directors in the nation in attendance that day, Donnie Hebert, the volunteer, was the one who stayed behind to help load equipment and place flowers on my grandfather’s grave. He made sure everything was exactly right, and he didn’t leave until the work was done.