Hot Summer Funerals

- from the memoirs of James W. Reid, 1914-1997

Have you ever visited a country cemetery on a hot day in summer? I doubt if there is a hotter place in the world. There it sits in a secluded spot, void of breeze, clothed in unkempt grass, brambles, and the inevitable orange lilies. Anything can happen in a quiet country cemetery and it generally does to me. 

 Once I leaned on a tombstone and it fell over. It wouldn’t have been so noticeable except that it was the tall obelisk type with stone up about four feet from the ground and then cast iron up another six feet. This type was common in late Victorian days but proved to be rather shaky arrangements. The iron part with the engraving on it made terrible rendering sounds before the final crash.

On one blissful occasion, engrossed in conversation, I drove right past the church and cemetery in Athens. It was a dead end street and it was quite a knack to turn the whole procession around.

You can’t win them all, but in all my years I didn’t make many mistakes. I was always so afraid I would.

It was during one of those very warm weeks in August when Mrs. Turcotte of Kingston Mills up and died. Father had buried Mrs. Turcotte’s husband many years prior.  The Widow Turcotte lived alone with a parrot: two facts I did not know of at the time.

I sent Digger O’Dell, our Embalmer, out to prepare the body while I went to Mrs. Turcotte’s niece to get “the particulars,” that is, filling out the Statement of Death, a requirement of the vital statistics act, and I took along our casket catalog for her to make a selection.

Returning to the office, I loaded the casket and all the paraphernalia and drove to the Turcotte house. Digger and I set Mrs. Turcotte up in the living room while a few well-meaning neighbor women scurried around cleaning up the place. Later would come the cakes, pies, etc., but first the cleaning up.

Digger said to me, “Before we leave you have to come out to the kitchen and see something you just won’t believe.”

So out we went and there on the kitchen table was a large cage. In the cage was a moth-eaten old parrot that regarded us with a baleful eye. It only blinked at my “Pretty Polly”.

“The thing cusses and swears,” said Digger.

I heard it while I was upstairs and the kitchen door was open. Addressing this poor excuse for a bird, I said, “Poly lost its tongue?” Polly refused to be drawn into this kind of conversation so we left, closing the kitchen door to the living room behind us.

The day of the funeral was very warm. The County Anglican Vicar, the young and conscientious Mr. Brattleboro, was on hand to perform the funeral service. The women were seated in the living room, as was the custom, and the men stood outside on the veranda. The women were fanning themselves and the men were wiping their ruddy brows. Mr. Brattleboro was already sweating profusely and it was dripping off his nose. I couldn’t bear to look at him decked out in a wool suit. The oppressive heat was becoming more than I could bear.

The service did get off to a good start—that is, there was a minimum of noise from the veranda and a minimum of swooning from those seated in the house. Mr Brattleboro was resplendent even with a slightly sodden cassock surplice as he intoned, “I am the resurrection and the life, said the Lord.”

He got no further when a female voice said plaintively, “I think I am going to faint.”

Mr. Brattleboro said, “Get her a glass of water from the kitchen,” and he continued on with the service.  The water was duly brought from the kitchen and the kitchen door left open to create a little draft.

The voice of a little old man came through loud and clear from the kitchen.

“F*** O**. . . . F*** O**” it said, over and over again.

Wildly, the Minister looked towards the kitchen and back to the veranda. The men erupted in snorts, coughs and guffaws.

“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” managed Mr. Brattleboro, snapping shut his prayer book and slipping stealthily outside and to his car.

Hastily I closed the kitchen door on the offending parrot. I began the standard procedure of getting the casket out the front door to the hearse. Someone of course opened the kitchen door again and sure enough the parrot went into its two-word repertoire again.

I can’t remember being hotter in my life. The Pallbearers staggered under their load, not so much from the weight but from their hysterical condition. I had a terrible urge to run behind the barn, roll around in the grass and laugh my fool-head off.

The Reverend Brattleboro appeared to regain his composure, but neither of us dared to look at one another. We both did a lot of coughing every time we heard gales of laughter coming from the Pallbearers car and someone would imitate the parrot and its pet phrase.

In the life of this funeral director, those moments at the Turcotte house are seared in my memory. Nature, if that parrot can be called such a dignified term, and weather like an exhaust vent, conspired against me. I got out alive, is all I can say for certain.