Mama Said Drink!
When you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a hearse leading a funeral procession, and you look in the side mirror, there’s really only one thing you expect to see: a straight line of cars. You know what you don’t expect to see? The family of the deceased doing a parade snake down the narrow road in one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in the city. (For those unaware, a parade snake is where a line of cars weave back and forth in alternating directions creating a slithering look. This happened in every parade I ever saw or participated in in my hometown. I know parade snakes, and I know parade-snake people, but I’d never encountered funeral-procession-parade-snake people. That’s a different level.)
This snaking occurred during my final semester in mortuary school — so quite early in my funeral career. In that semester students were required to complete a practicum by working eight hours one day a week at a funeral home in the area. The parade snake was my first day of practicum. Donnie was the funeral director in charge that day, and he’d never seen anything like that either, but he was from a small town like me, so he knew all about parade-snake folk. We both felt like we had a good grasp on what to expect, and we were both ultimately wrong.
Once we arrived at the gravesite, things actually calmed down for a moment. The pastor read some Bible verses, prayed, hugged the family. Donnie sent the pallbearers to place their boutonnieres on the casket and then dismissed everyone. All we had to do was wait for the cemetery crew to arrive, and we were done. Maybe the parade snake would be the weirdest thing to happen.
Quick lesson: In metropolitan areas, most, if not all, cemeteries have their own crews who take control of things once the committal service (the service traditionally held at the cemetery immediately before burial) is over. These are the people who complete the burial. In rural areas cemeteries may or may not have their own crews depending on a number of factors.
While Donnie and I were waiting, I noticed the wife of the deceased. She was talking to friends and laughing and hugging — appearing to enjoy herself which seems unusual but really isn’t. Think about it: she was surrounded by people she liked, some she hadn’t seen in years. People have more fun as cemeteries than you think. The unusual part was when she suddenly turned serious. This new widow stopped her laughing and hugging and called her oldest son over immediately. There Mama and Junior had a talk in which she issued some very detailed instructions — barking commands and waving her hands and pointing like she was Bobby Knight or something. Donnie and I were too far from the action to hear what she said, but we saw that when she finished, her son — the oldest child of the deceased — nodded and walked straight to the car.
We watched intently. Funeral procession parade snake. This could be anything.
Junior emerged from the car with single-minded determination. Everyone was still near the gravesite continuing their laughing and hugging as Junior approached with a full, unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old №7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey. This exact bottle had been in that exact car all day in Middle Tennessee in August through a 2:00 funeral awaiting a its moment at a committal service in the thickest, wettest heat God created, and, that afternoon, Mr. Daniel was ready to do some damage.
Junior arrived back at the cemetery tent covering his father’s open grave. He placed his hand on the casket lid and turned up the bottle like Animal House-Belushi. Then he gave his head an old-fashioned Chester Cheetah shake and went to find his sister — the next oldest child.
“Mama said she wants all us kids, from oldest to youngest, to drink for daddy!”
“What? No,” and she turned to continue her conversation.
“Mama said drink! It’s for daddy!”
His sister frustratedly snatched the bottle and took a sizable swig.
“There! I did it!”
The liquor was affecting him faster than any of us anticipated. See, apparently hot alcohol enters a person’s bloodstream significantly faster than room temperature or cold alcohol, so Junior was experiencing some things I don’t think he’d bargained for, at least not that quickly. He looked around the crowd the way people in television shows do after something explodes near them. Ultimately, against all odds, he found the next child in line — another sister.
“Mama said drink for daddy!”
This young woman didn’t hesitate. She grabbed that bottle, took her drink, handed it back to her brother, and turned back to her friend all in one motion. It bordered on graceful.
There were eight children in all, and Junior, struggling to remember what numbers come before other numbers, eventually found each of his siblings in order. Some accepted gladly, and some resisted, but they all eventually drank because, well, it’s what Mama wanted.
Finally, there was the baby, a brother who appeared to be about sixteen. Junior shoved the bottle into his chest.
“Mama said dr — ”
This minor obviously had something to prove because he was already chugging. Stunned and inebriated, Junior took way too long to realize what was happening, and the whole time Little Brother was consuming as much Tennessee Whiskey as he could.
“Not that much!”
“I can handle it!” And he turned the bottle up again until finally his older brother wrestled it away.
The whole time Donnie stood silently watching except for a couple of moments where he’d lower his head and mumble to himself wondering what was taking the cemetery workers so long.
Those kids, ranging in age from an estimated 16 to 38, passed that bottle around until it was empty. Everyone drank for Daddy — everyone except Mama.
By the time the cemetery workers arrived, half the kids were as horizontal as their father — face down in the freshly cut green cemetery grass — and the other half were hunched behind headstones and cremation benches violently puking on defenseless, deceased strangers. Mama was still in her right mind talking and laughing and hugging.
“Let’s get out of here,” Donnie said to me, and we got in the hearse to leave.
Now, when you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a hearse leaving a committal service, and you look in the side mirror, there’s really only one thing you expect to see behind you: family and friends talking and comforting and enjoying being around each other. You know what you don’t expect to see? The bodies of family members scattered passed out all over the cemetery grounds, living grownups vomiting on dead grownups, and a totally sober Mama acting like nothing weird is happening around her. But then you stop and think, “Funeral procession parade snake,” and it’s really not all that surprising anymore.
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