“He fell off that little bridge over the creek past the Dollar General and landed headfirst on those big rocks.”
That was the answer I received when I asked why Mr. Donald Brooks had a half-inch-deep indention in the center of his forehead. There was no broken skin, no cuts or abrasions, just a dent that I had spent the first forty-five minutes of the embalming process trying to figure out. Now I knew, and I thought that explanation would be the most unusual part of Donald’s time with us. It was not. Either way, we were going to have to fix that dent.
Quick lesson: The embalming process is about more than just preservation. It usually enhances a person’s appearance. Embalmed deceased people tend to look younger and healthier than unembalmed deceased people. Embalming also makes any necessary restorative work easier and more effective. None of this is guaranteed, of course, but more times than not it’s worth doing if folks will see the person before the burial or cremation occur.
The next day Mrs. Evelyn Brooks, Donald’s new widow, and her daughter, Beth, arrived to plan the funeral service. Evelyn was obviously distraught due to the sudden nature of her husband’s death while Beth just looked like she’d rather be anywhere else. I was slated to meet with them, so I greeted them in the foyer and led them to the arrangement conference room where we sat down at the large conference table, and I began asking my questions—some nitpicky ones for the death certificate, some personal, family-related ones for the obituary, some details for the funeral service. Being a savvy funeral director wise beyond my years, I had already collected much of his vital information like his full name, date of birth, social security number, physician’s name, and the like from the hospital face sheet. Not too far into the process, though, I made the mistake of asking the mandatory question of Donald’s place of birth.
“I don’t know that,” Evelyn muttered. Beth, who had been doodling the whole time, gave her mother a look.
“You don’t know where your husband was born?”
I explained to them both that it was not a problem and moved on. Then I asked for his parents’ names.
“I don’t know,” Evelyn answered again.
This time Beth cut her eyes at me and then straight back to her mother.
“You don’t know your husbands’ parents’ names either?”
“No, I don’t, Beth,” Evelyn said, nearly shouting. “I didn’t even know him until I found him in my yard that day!”
Ok, so a few things here: First, it was becoming clear that Beth’s frustration stemmed from several past disagreements with her mother regarding the now deceased Mr. Donald Brooks. This was not new. Second, I was now certain that Mr. Brooks was not Beth’s father. Evelyn would confirm this for me a little later. Third, when she found him in her yard?
At that point I’d been around long enough to know that asking her to clarify would be a mistake. It would waste time and probably only leave me more confused than I already was, so I attempted to press on. Evelyn, however, felt obligated to explain further.
“You see, one morning I looked outside, and Donald was walking around in my front yard. Six days later we got married, so I didn’t have a lot of time to ask him these questions.”
See? I was right not to ask.
Once we finished the vital information, and I’d set a personal record for writing “Unknown” in blanks on a death certificate form, we moved on to the obituary information. I was ready this time. She caught me off guard on the first set of questions, but now I knew what to expect. I anticipated the questions that she wouldn’t know and already had my responses in the mental queue, so we could just go to the next item. We were zipping through the obituary until I asked about Mr. Brooks’ children and derailed the entire thing.
“He had three children, but I don’t know their names or where they live. They never visited—wouldn’t have anything to do with him, and I told him that if they didn’t want anything to do with him then I didn’t want anything to do with them, so I don’t know them. But I do want my daughter listed—his stepdaughter. Her name’s Beth Harrison.”
At this, Beth, who I believe had decided to stay out of things as much as possible, sat straight up in her chair and looked like someone had just slapped her across the face and insulted her character.
“No! No! I do not want my name anywhere in there! I don’t want anything to do with that man! He is not my family, and I don’t want in his obituary!”
When Beth finished, Evelyn turned to me with dark, piercing eyes.
“She doesn’t want to have anything to do with Donald because she thinks she can bring her own daddy back.”
Then she looked Beth straight in the face while continuing to talk to me, “but it’s not going to happen because he’s dead, and he’s never coming back!”
Now, I had a cool trick for moments like this. I would look down at my paperwork and hover my pen over various blanks like I was looking for something specific or checking over what we’d already completed. Before the final “D” in the word “dead” had fully exited Evelyn’s mouth, my eyes were scanning forms. She and Beth argued for what seemed like eternity. Once they both stopped talking, I looked right back up. It was time to move on.
We ran through the type and location of the service, the day and time of the service, speakers, the Bible verse for the service folders, all without complication. Evelyn answered, I wrote everything down, and Beth kept to herself. Then I asked Evelyn if she had thought about what songs she would like to play for her deceased husband, the man who’d fallen off the little bridge onto the rocks beside a creek.
“’Let’s Meet by the River,’” she said a little too confidently.
“Mother!” screamed Beth.
“What? I’ve always liked that song! What’s wrong with it?”
“He fell off that bridge and landed by a creek and died there! You can’t play that!”
This of course led to another argument which provided an excellent opportunity for me to check over my paperwork. Finally, Beth convinced her mother to scrap “Let’s Meet by the River” and go for something slightly less offensive considering the circumstances, probably “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill or the Chuckwagon Gang’s version of “Amazing Grace” or something by The Perrys.
The arrangement conference wrapped up about an hour and a half later, and, ultimately, we had a perfectly nice funeral service that Evelyn just absolutely loved and that Beth just absolutely tolerated. Mr. Brooks was present and visible for the whole thing, and, with a combination of mortuary wax and time, he didn’t look at all like a man who’d fallen headfirst off the little bridge out past the Dollar General. No, he looked just like his old self—the man Evelyn fell in love with and married six days after she found him walking around in her yard.