It is only human nature, but the works or jobs that we do may become monotonous until something occurs that shakes your foundation and either suddenly or softly reveals the true values in a rather abrupt manner. That perfectly describes my experience this week with our loss of Jim.
That is not to say that our or my service to others ever become monotonous, but rather the value of what we are for others may become evasive or unrealized.
This past Tuesday I was at Duke Medical Center, sitting just outside of Jim’s room, with my sister – his wife of 53 years – and my niece – their only child. We were summoned back to the conference room. No words were spoken by the hospital staff, but an earlier expression from Susan – his daughter – and their expressions revealed our greatest fears.
It had been 15 days since Jim’s surgery. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The surgeons had removed his pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, part of his liver, part of his intestines, and part of his stomach. Obviously the surgery was physically severe. However, increasing strides in medicine lead us to always hold onto hope.
He was able to get out of bed following the surgery and walk, and later results revealed that there was no more cancer in his body. Our hope blossomed.
I had planned to visit with him on several occasions, but the nature of professional death care kept me at home and serving other families. I left to visit on the first opportunity, and I believe that God meant for me to be there at this time.
His surgeon, Dr. Rebekah White, held my sister’s hand as we sat at the conference table. She shared in a very clear and meaningful manner what had happened. She had lost a patient in Jim, and we had lost a husband, father, grandfather, brother-in-law, etc. She stayed with us for over an hour, seeking every way possible to offer her support.
Happy memories flooded through our heads, as we worked through our shock, numbness, and disbelief.
I listened as a hospital chaplain visited with us, and I listened as the decedent care specialist went of the details of what we would do with his body. I’ve either heard or spoken some of the same words, but this time I was on the other side.
Jim served for years as a United Methodist minister. It was through visiting him and my sister whilst he was in Duke Divinity School that I became an avid, life-long fan of the Duke Blue Devils. Later he also sold insurance and worked for a petroleum distributor, but he eventually returned to his calling in the ministry.
Upon Jim’s recent retirement – if you could call it that – he became a model for others to follow: always caring for his wife or my sister who has COPD, volunteering regularly to staff a local historical site, becoming an organizer and chaplain for the Scotland County Highland Games, taking his grandson – and namesake, James – fishing, and literally worshiping the ground his little granddaughter, Sarah, walks on. The world needs more like him: loving, caring, and willing to sacrifice.
Back in October he ordered and received his first kilt for him to wear at the fourth annual Scotland County Highland Games. Ever-so-proud of his Scottish heritage, he appeared even prouder to have his own traditional Scottish attire. He wore it that day, and as a reflection of his values he will be buried not only in the kilt, but also in a traditional Scottish style coffin – the Balmoral. “Highland Cathedral” will be played at the church on bagpipes and organ prior to our service of worship.
As of today, I have been “playing” a dual role: I am a family member and a death care professional. It is a most difficult if not impossible balancing act. For his service I will be only a family member, as I will trust our staff or team to perform the varied details with perfection and understanding, but I will also have a fight within to keep from interfering. That’s just the nature of death care.
It has been just over 16 months since we lost our son, so observing a human relations/religious ceremony, aka funeral/memorial service, from the other side is not new. What a funeral, memorial service, and/or a meaningful gathering of family and friends reinforces; is the value human love, of family, of memories, and of faith.
We have begun the transformation from having Jim with us physically to cherishing our memories of him; of knowing his human potential and service to others, to remembering his strong values; and of seeing him live his faith, to knowing his faith has become real.
Being a death care professional is basically one thing: understanding.
On May, 3, 2007, Queen Elizabeth II of England was in Jamestown, Virginia helping to commemorate the 400th anniversary what many news reports incorrectly called the first English settlement in America. Actually, the first English settlement in America occurred over twenty years earlier at Roanoke Island in northeastern North Carolina. After a failed attempt to colonize in 1584, another group of settlers returned to Roanoke Island in 1587.
After a homestead had been built, the Governor of the Roanoke Colony, John White, had to return to England for supplies for the 117 settlers he left behind. War was simmering with Spain, and his return was delayed until 1590. Upon his return the settlers had left two signs of their destination: “Croatan” was carved on a gate to Fort Raleigh and “CRO” was carved on a tree. The settlers had disappeared; presumably some went to live amongst the Croatan tribe of Native Americans, as the agreed upon sign of danger – a Maltese cross – was no where to be found.
Over 100 years later, in the early to mid 1700’s, English and Scot settlers began to swarm into southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, coming up the Cape Fear and Pee Dee Rivers. As the settlers moved eastward from the coast and southward from Campbell Town (now Fayetteville) they surrounded a tribe of Native Americans in what is now Robeson County; a land of rich farm soil, mild winters, and abundant water.
This tribe spoke brilliant “King’s English,” had the surnames of 41 of the 117 Roanoke settlers, and some – as Jerry Lowry – had blue eyes.
300 years after the failed or “Lost Colony,” the State of North Carolina established the Croatan Normal School in Pembroke, North Carolina to provide education to the natives of Robeson County. Today, the school is known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
It was this heritage that helped define Jerry Lowry. Born October 31, 1948 to the Rev. Harvey and Myrtle Locklear Lowry, Jerry was the youngest of their four sons. Raised on a farm between Rowland and Pembroke, they were taught the love of God, family, and taught the perseverance of hard work.
Jerry went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in only 3 years with a B. A. in Spanish in 1970. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Doreen, established the first elementary school foreign language department in North Carolina, and joined the North Carolina National Guard. Needless to say, Jerry’s unique ability to juggle multi-tasking and do it well served him well in life. He soon went to work with the US Department of Agriculture, and later bought his parent’s small grocery and small engine sales and repair business in nearby Maxton. It was there, at Lowry’s Chain Saw shop, in 1976 that we first met.
At the time I was Explorer Advisor of Explorer Post 447 at the First United Methodist Church in nearby Laurinburg. Canoeing, camping, and backpacking along with appreciation and protection of our environment were the goals for our coed group of high school students. To raise funds for our adventures we planned to cut and deliver select firewood. The two Poulan chain saws we bought from Jerry along with his trusty and frequent maintenance on them insured that we not only funded our activities, but had enough funds to honor a selected Explorer with a college scholarship.
Jerry was a personable and intelligent man. Behind the counter of his store and hanging on the wall was a portrait of Christ Jesus. Departing from his store, he would always tell a customer: “Thank you and God bless.”
After two robberies, Jerry closed his shop in 1980 and entered Duke Divinity School, graduating with honors in 1985. While in Divinity School and afterwards, he preached in several Native American churches, even founding West Robeson United Methodist Church with sixty members. In 1993, he was called to serve Seaside United Methodist Church in Sunset Beach, a predominately white church with 200 members. When he left in 2000 to serve the First United Methodist Church in Laurinburg, the membership at Seaside had grown to almost 1,000. Besides serving his church, Jerry also found time to serve on the Board of Trustees at three colleges and Chairman of the Board of Trustees and UNC-P.
Before he arrived in Laurinburg, our paths crossed once more. We were serving a family of a former member of Seaside, and Jerry came to Laurinburg to officiate the memorial service. It was a delightful reunion, as we caught up on the past twenty years.
Jerry’s arrival in Laurinburg was more than a coincidence. His training, intellect, and spirituality proved to be the medicine I needed during a major crisis in my personal life. Jerry was never about condemning, only about love and concern for others. He often said, “Wherever there is a hell we must bring heaven to it, for we are part of the Kingdom of love and salvation (deliverance) not destruction and condemnation. We are called to usher in a Kingdom of Love.” In one visit with him he stated: “Funeral service is not your business; it is your ministry. You have an open mind, communicate well, and serve with your heart.”
Jerry was a unique “preacher.” He wrote his sermons on small pieces of paper, read over them three times, and then faultlessly delivered moving sermons while moving about freely near the pulpit, but never hiding behind it. Along with his wife, Doreen, other family members and friends, we were often ministered with the most beautiful and spiritual music.
In 2003, Jerry was promoted to be the District Superintendent of the Sanford District of the United Methodist Church near the center of North Carolina. His departure was heart breaking, but we kept in touch. In addition to his regular administrative duties, Jerry continued to write a sermon every week and most times delivered them in various churches.
Cancer is a word that strikes fear in even the bravest soul. It was early 2006 when Jerry was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery. His faith never wavered, nor did his positive attitude falter.
Chemo and radiation came next. Despite the pain and anguish, Jerry kept smiling. On a visit in February, 2007, Jerry knew his fate.
“I’ve told Doreen to call you when my time comes and she won’t have to worry about anything.”
It was at this time that I remembered that God never answered “why” for his servant Job, so that was not a fair question. Accepting Jerry’s fate would come from faith, keeping his days free of pain would come from hope, and lifting him up in praise would come from love. I took Jerry’s hands; and for the first time led him in a prayer.
I returned to visit the following month, and Jerry shared some basic details of his memorial services. Because of his weakness, our visit was only 15 minutes.
In April, Jerry called and asked for my wife, Lynn, and myself to come up and with Doreen present; we will organize his memorial service. Once more we departed as I led in prayer that “Thy, not my will be done.”
At home was some long leaf pine boards that had been harvested when a home built in 1790 had been torn down years ago. The wood would have been growing in our area when his ancestors were the only ones in the area. What more could be more suitable for his urn? Fourteen symbols taken from the Holy Bible that describe Christ Jesus were engraved on the sides of the urn, and a fifteenth symbol – a rock – was attached to one side. Pictures were sent to Jerry and Doreen for their approval.
On the evening of Friday, May 4, 2007 Jerry’s family gathered around his bed and began to serenade him with their beautiful music. Shortly after 6:30 he finished his course in faith.
As we arrived at the home about nine o’clock, it would have been easy to imagine that we had stepped into heaven. Everyone was still singing some of the most beautiful hymns and spiritual music. With a voice that can barely carry a tune, I felt compelled to join in. All was well until I was able to get close enough to the bed to see Jerry. Fortunately, the Rev. David Wade was there to comfort me.
Jerry’s earthen vessel was taken the sixty mile trip to Laurinburg.
Saturday morning Jerry’s family drove the 80 miles to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Prior to graduation, Jerry was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University. Returning to Sanford on Saturday, Doreen, her daughters, Ana and Elena, and I closed the door and sat in the living room to finalize the service details and the obituary. The three Lowry ladies proved to be a formidable committee of three: Discussing every detail until an agreement was reached.
Sunday afternoon, Jerry’s extended family came to Laurinburg for their time of viewing at the funeral home. Dressed in his suit, sporting a Duke University tie, Jerry’s body showed none of the suffering of the
previous months. It was indeed a comfort for everyone.
Following their visit, his body was cremated and placed in the pine urn.
Early Monday morning, Thomas Locklear and I left with two limousines for the Lowry residence and Kelvin Cooper and Lynn left for St. Luke United Methodist Church to prepare for the 11 a.m. service. As I had done in my previous visits with Jerry, I lead a short prayer with his family.
In my limousine were Doreen, Ana, Elena; Jerry’s brother, Harvey; Harvey’s wife, Linda; and their daughter, Jamie. A few minutes from the church they began to sing in a most beautiful harmony.
Jerry’s memorial services: 11 a.m. at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sanford and 6 p.m. at Prospect United Methodist Church between Maxton and Pembroke were appropriately named by him as “A Service of Life, Death, and Resurrection.” Placed on the altar table with his clergy stole surrounding was Jerry’s urn. The entire services were uplifting with ministers participating that were White, Black, Native American, Korean, men and women. His wife and two daughters even sang a lively spiritual for the service.
Following the St. Luke service between five and six hundred people greeted the family in a room near the sanctuary. A wonderful meal of barbecue, fried chicken, and vegetables followed in the church fellowship hall.
Before long it was time to begin the hour and a half drive to Prospect. About 15 miles from Prospect, the Lowry family once more began to sing. I’ve always thought that in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” Alison Kraus sang the most spiritual version of “I’ll Fly Away.” She couldn’t hold a candle to the Lowrys. Tears of joy filled my eyes as the perfect, beautiful harmony of the Lowrys filled the limousine. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” followed and two more songs, before we arrived (too soon for this music lover) at Prospect United Methodist Church.
After a short rest in the fellowship hall, it was time for the 6 o’clock memorial service to begin.
Another five to six hundred people crowded into the predominately Native American Prospect United Methodist Church in Robeson County to witness the evening service. The format was the same as the earlier service with the exception of one minister, and a service involving a cremated body is as rare among Native Americans as collard sandwiches are to Yankees. Truthfully, the service was more spiritual in its planned format.
As in the previous service, Bishop Al Gwinn let Jerry’s writings tell most of his story. In an earlier meeting of his cabinet of District Superintendents, Jerry had written them eight pages of spiritual challenges, and they were read as if Jerry were speaking to us. The minister at Prospect, the Rev. Herbert Lowry, entered the ministry under Jerry’s guidance, and humored the congregation by giving surreal demonstrations of Jerry’s mannerism and voice.
Once more Doreen, Ana, and Elena placed roses by Jerry’s urn and serenaded everyone with a spiritual hymn. A final congregational hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven” followed and then the benediction.
Once more in the church fellowship hall, the Lowry family received friends as they filed by. Visible on one wall were a projected presentation of photos detailing Jerry’s life.
As nine o’clock neared, the family was able to depart. We drove over to Laurinburg and enjoyed a meal at Arby’s before departing for Sanford. Once more, the Lowry family sang . . . for the full hour it took to get back to their home. Once more, the music made the time pass quickly, as we arrived back in Sanford by 11:30 p.m.
Grief has never been made clearer than upon Jerry’s death. We grieve, not for him, but for ourselves. As a faithful Christian who is prone to failure as nearly everyone else, I know that Jerry has obtained the ultimate goal, but we grieve because we have lost him, we will miss his presence, and we will miss his love and guidance. Jerry truly left the world a better place for those fortunate enough to have known him. The greatest tribute to him would be to share what he gave us with others. “Wherever there is a hell on earth we must bring . . . Love.”
It started out as a typical North Carolina summer day; warm and humid, but before the day was over I will have driven over 270 miles. . . some of it in a 1922 Model-T. A friend and fellow funeral director, Scott Greene in Gastonia, had called the previous day and asked if I could help him with a “special” funeral. Of course I agreed.
Loading the Ford Model-T Henney built hearse on a trailer, I was ready to set out early for the 130 mile trip which proved to be uneventful, save for the rubbernecks along the drive through Charlotte and on Interstate 85. I’m lucky a traffic jam or a wreck did not occur.
Arriving at Greene Funeral Service before 11:00 a.m., I went inside to announce my arrival.
The service that afternoon was for a man who was the head of a classic/antique car club. Restoring cars was their passion.
Scott immediately got in the Model-T and we drove out in the country to show to a well-known antique/classic car restorer. There I was treated to a once in a lifetime look at a large garage full of restored antique and classic automobiles; everything from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.
A restored 1952 Wilkes County Sheriff’s car was even there along with a photo of stock car racing legend Junior Johnson sitting in it. The story behind the car is that it once chased Junior over the roads of rural Wilkes County back in the days when he was hauling moonshine. On one such episode, Junior ran out of gas, got out of the car,and raised his hands expecting to get arrested. The deputy asked: “What’s wrong, Junior?” His reply: “Ran out of gas!” The deputy siphoned some gas from his car into Junior’s and they continued the chase. As the story goes, Junior excelled at teaching the local deputies how to drive, especially on chases.
As it came time to return to the funeral home, I cranked the Model-T and the famous automobile restorer immediately asked me what was hitting. Truthfully, I heard nothing. Cutting the car off and raising the hood we discovered that the fan belt was coming apart. A spare was not available, so a prayer was given for the current one to last through the day.
We arrived back at the funeral home, went out for lunch, and returned to prepare for the funeral. I drove the Model-T about 3 miles to the church for the service. Already at the church were a number of antique or classic automobiles.
Our arrival at the church completely was completely unannounced and unexpected. As planned it was a surprising and meaningful addition to the funeral by Scott Greene.
Scott and his staff went about the hot task of lining up the automobiles in the proper sequence, while dozens in attendance posed for their photos to be taken beside the hearse with many saying they wanted us return to Gastonia for their funeral.
At the conclusion of the funeral we gradually exited the church parking lots and began the long journey to the cemetery and the mausoleum. Fortunately, the fan belt lasted, but another problem arose.
If you’re not familiar with a Model-T, then here’s a quick primer: it has two “gears” or speeds; low and high, and the transmission does not have gears. It has belts. There are three pedals on the floor: 1) far left pedal is to change gear; pressed to the floor it is in first gear and completely released it is in high gear. 2) The middle pedal is for going in reverse, You advance the brake lever in the floor half-way to disengage the forward gears, press the middle pedal to the floor and it goes backwards. 3) The pedal on the far right is the brake. Simple enough?
The accelerator lever is on the right of the steering column and gives the engine more gas, but that doesn’t help if you don’t use the spark lever on the left side of the steering column to speed up the spark plugs.
Well unlike Laurinburg, Gastonia is hilly or should I say it is located the foothills of the Appalachians. As we continued in the procession I began falling back further behind the pallbearers. They seemed to always realize this after they had descended a hill and just before starting back up the next. Meanwhile, I was going about 10 miles per hour up the hills and 40 miles per hour on the down side, only to have to engage the brakes and lose my momentum because the pallbearer car had stopped to wait on me.
By the time we reached the cemetery the Model-T hearse was running hot, the transmission belts had expanded due to the heat, and the pallbearers made one more complete stop: At the bottom of a steep hill. As I engaged low gear the transmission only whined as the belts would not tighten. When I tried high gear the 20 horsepower engine was not strong enough to make any forward progress. I was stuck with the pallbearers in front of me and the family behind.
The pallbearers realized my predicament, pulled their cars over, got out, and pushed the 1922 Model-T hearse up the hill. It powered itself the additional 100 yards without problem.
Stopping at the mausoleum, I got out of the hearse and walked toward the family car – a 1956 Chevrolet – to apologize for the unforeseen problems at such a sacred and solemn time.
The widow and children were actually laughing as I spoke.
“Joe*,” they exclaimed, “Joe was a Chevrolet man. It was only appropriate that a Ford carrying him broke down!”
Crowell's limited edition Gibson Mastertone in Laurinburg Presbyterian Church. At the upper end of the neck is an antique banjo head that also serves as his urn.
Lynn woke me Friday morning about 4:30 with the news. It was forthcoming, yet it is tragic. A wonderful life, a wonderful husband, a wonderful father, a wonderful friend to many, and a blessed and talented musician has finished his course in faith much too soon.
Arriving at his home I tried to collect my composure, but reality was staring me down. To one side and to the foot of his bed were two Gibson Mastertone banjos. Like him, they too were silent, but I truly thought I heard a string picked. It was the high “G.”
His face radiated content and satisfaction, mine was swollen with tears.
As we departed I could hear – with the banjo playing lead - “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away. . .”
* * *
When many people think of banjo pickers they first picture the social misfit, evolutionary degenerate portrayed in the 1972 movie, “Deliverance.” That is a fairly accurate portrayal, and we pickers accept it.
Picking a banjo is an exercise in spirituality, relaxation, and personal transformation. You have to be a banjo picker to understand that.
I first met Crowell after he and Debby moved to Laurinburg in the late 1980’s. It was a memorable time. He was a banjo picker, and I had played bluegrass banjo from 1972 until 1987. I stopped pllaying due to our adoption of two children in 1987. Crowell, meanwhile, didn’t let his kids stop him; he just took his banjo into the bathroom and closed the door.
You could call our friendship as a meeting of souls. Only banjo pickers would understand that statement. You see, when you’re watching a bluegrass band, the guitar player may be singing, the mandolin player may be singing, the bass player may be singing, and the fiddle player may drop his or her fiddle and sing, but mostly the banjo player is silent except for the beautiful and upbeat notes coming from within.
To truly properly pick a banjo the picker must become one with the instrument. His mind, body, and soul must merge. The left fingers and the right fingers must act as the conduits and the music created and released comes directly from the picker’s heart.
You can’t speak banjo until you have reached that plateau.
Crowell reached that plateau and became a fixture in the McFarland Road Bluegrass Band. They played nearly every Thursday evening at Uncle Danny’s Pickin’ Shed on McFarland Road and just about anywhere else they were requested.
Crowell and Debby came by to visit back in the spring. He had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone what everyone hoped would be routine surgery that would eventually lead to his becoming cancer free. It didn’t happen that way. The cancer had spread.
As we discussed his life it became apparent that he was content and at peace with his faith, his family, his friends, and in general his life. He accepted his fate head-on. My admiration for him grew in bounds over his last few months.
Wanting to do something that reflected upon our common love of the banjo, I asked him if I could make him an urn out of antique heart pine and have it laser-engraved engraved with a banjo. That met his approval and Debby’s approval. Later, I found an antique banjo that was badly in need of repair. In fact you could say that it was totally destroyed except for the intact head. Removing the neck I could visualize the head and flange being made into an urn, but the heart pine urn was also ready.
* * *
A few hours following his passing, I returned to his home to meet with Debby, Chris, and Jessica. With me were the heart pine urn and the banjo head. As I expected they selected the banjo head. I would find time during the weekend to transform a banjo head into a cremation urn.
Sunday morning I returned to their home to collect his limited edition, curly maple, gold plated Gibson Mastertone banjo. As he once said, “It is not my best sounding banjo, but it is the prettiest.” The banjo and the banjo head urn would be used as visuals in his memorial service.
The same Sunday afternoon as his memorial service was also the same date as the scheduled Bluegrass Jam at the Storytelling and Arts Center in downtown. In keeping with Crowell’s expected wishes, the bluegrass musicians still gathered to pick downtown, but the usual crowd was diminished.
Many were remembering Crowell and supporting his family at a meaningful memorial service and reception.
“. . . to that land on God’s celestial shore; I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away. When I die – hallelujah by and by – I’ll fly away.”
I last spoke with Emily back in December. She was “back home” for the memorial service of her grandmother, Loma. Although I had known of her all of her young life, our generation gap kept us from truly knowing each other. This day was different.
Standing in her grandmother’s kitchen, Emily approached me with a broad smile and a cheerful greeting. We hugged, she began asking me about my family, and then it was my turn to ask about her life. She was in New Orleans and working at Tulane University where she helped rehabilitate athletes. She also introduced me to her little daughter, Greta, and her partner, Kara. They were a happy couple with a happy and beautiful daughter.
Emily left a lasting impression upon me that day. She could befriend anyone! She was one of those rare people that could make anyone feel like they were the most important person in the world.
On August 21, 2012 I was checking out messages on Facebook when I spotted a notice from my niece, and Emily’s childhood friend, Jamie who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. The message was simply a notice that Emily had just passed away in a New Orleans hospital. I knew that Emily had MS, but how could this be? That post was followed by: “Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened -Dr. Seuss.”
I picked up my phone and called the Rev. Neal Carter, pastor at Emily’s church in Laurinburg – Laurinburg Presbyterian Church – to confirm what I had just read. To my disdain it was true.
A short time later I received a call from Emily’s father, Jim. He stated that he simply wanted me to get Emily’s obituary in several newspapers. There would be a reception and memorial service at the Tulane University President’s home on Thursday evening, and following they planned to drive back to Laurinburg – arriving on Saturday. I could feel and understand the loss and confusion in his voice. I was in his place just over 9 months earlier when we lost our 28 year old son. Total confusion is acceptable.
Emily’s father had retired after serving many years as a local pediatrician, and her mother had recently retired as the founder and director of our local hospice. They were well known and well respected in our community, but I became concerned about how our community would receive Emily due to her lifestyle. The same could be said for her brother, Jason and his partner, Forrest.
It is a fact that those who have an alternative lifestyle cannot usually find peace and acceptance in a small, rural, southern community. As a result, most move to metropolitan areas where their unique abilities and creative talents help those areas grow and prosper.
We were going to have a memorial service for Emily back in her hometown, and I asked God that it would be an event that would be truly memorable and healing. It was.
As Rev. Carter began the service: “If you wish to know about someone today, just dial up that person’s Facebook page and you will get a pretty good picture of who she/he is.”
From Emily: It is official . . . I am going to try out for the Big Easy Roller Girls . . . no joke. It is on . . . others beware . . . I am fast and scrappy. I may be small, but I can handle my own . . . and Greta will think I am the coolest mom on the planet. Wish me luck.
Laurinburg Presbyterian Church was full of people who had traveled from New Orleans, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and from her alma mater, Wake Forest University. Kara was from Alabama, and as Kara’s father shared with me: “Emily got to know more of my neighbors, and family, than I ever did. She was one remarkable young lady!”
From another Facebook post: “Emily had an article on her Facebook page (about Wake Forest University): “Top Ten Universities for gorgeous Men.” Her post following it was: “Not the reason I went there, but it is good to know.”
More from Facebook from August 15th: “Happy Anniversary to my best friend, partner, soul-mate. I adore you. Thank you for the best 11 years of my life and our Greta. I will marry you one day.”
Dr Carter continued: “Emily had apparently had some encounter with someone who in some way employed scripture more as a club to beat, hurt other people, rather than encourage, build up, and offer grace to them.”
“Emily made some snarky comment on her Facebook toward God, reflecting her negative feelings about this negative view of faith.”
“I shared with her our Galatians passage: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
“All of the labels that we place on each other . . . place on ourselves.”
“All of the labels and value judgments we ascribe to each other melt away in Christ . . . in our baptism.”
“All of those labels dissolve and we are one in Christ.”
To that I could only think: “WOW!!” I’m never too old to learn something new.
As Dr. Carter so clearly illustrated, we are one in Christ, and only God is our judge.
His illustrations went on to assure us that baptism does not protect us from disease, complications, or the dark, for it is often in the dark and blood that we find life.
As Emily’s memorial service concluded, I led Kara and her father, followed by Emily’s family to the fellowship hall where they spent nearly two hours greeting the hundreds who had come. Greeting many of them, I could sense a common thread from the memorial service: “Neal Carter opened my eyes . . . It was a most beautiful and appropriate service . . . Emily is smiling.”
On the other side of the fellowship hall, lunch was prepared and catered, and once again well over a hundred took advantage to eat, share and fellowship before departing. Large photos of a happy Emily kept watch, and were a reminder to a truly extraordinary life.
” . . . there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is difficult but not impossible to imagine his early life. Born as one of several children to a traveling African Methodist Episcopal minister in Wilmington, Delaware and his wife, Chester soon found himself living in rural, southern North Carolina. What brought them to Laurinburg during his teen-age years unclear to me, but Laurinburg is richer for his ancient decision.
Chester grew up in the years of the Great Depression where even the middle class whites in the segregated South had little, and the blacks had even less. Regardless, he got an education. In 1942 he graduated from Laurinburg Normal and Industrial Institute, a school that was founded in 1904 by Emmanuel Monty and Tinny McDuffie at the request of Booker T. Washington.
Upon graduation Chester wanted to attend Tuskegee Institute, but a war was raging in Europe and the Pacific, and his services were needed by the US Navy. Chester served in the Pacific theatre during World War II.
Prior to departing for military service Chester married his sweetheart, Willie Ruth.
Returning from the war, Chester began working as a brick mason. Many of the finer structures in Scotland County, North Carolina are lasting testaments to his work.
Chester and Willie took up residence in the forks of Stewartsville Road and Caledonia Road in the Washington Park section of Laurinburg where they raised their family of two boys and five daughters.
When he wasn’t busy working he was active in Joseph Temple AME Church and not only helped found Mount Scottish Lodge #188, but also built their building and served as a Past Master. He was their last surviving charter member.
Chester and Willie raised their children in the church and surround by family love and a deep desire to open their doors with education. They all completed high school, continued into college, and have had successful careers.
His children recalled when they read their Sunday school lessons their father would then ask them what it meant to them. He already knew the moral of the various stories, but his test was to be sure that his children understood as well.
I first met Chester over thirty years ago when he and his long term partner, Eddie Pankey, assisted by Leon and Nelson, were a formidable working crew laying bricks for a ramp at the funeral home. Later they did all of the brick masonry when my mother-in-law and my father-in-law built their new house. Within a year they were laying bricks once more when we build a new funeral home, and a couple of years later they did the same for our new house.
I watched and was so extremely amazed at their high degree of skill that I took some photographs. Chester saw what I was doing, and said: “Here, you take the trowel and let me take a photo of you laying a brick.”
I looked at him and smiled: “You’re laying the foundation, and there is no room for amateur work in that.”
We all laughed.
Chester didn’t talk much about himself. When he did speak it was to ask me about my family or perhaps to talk about his family. I came to know him as a very humble person; or one of few words and much action.
About 20 years ago Chester and Willie were struck by a severe personal tragedy. The home burned and was a total loss. For sentimental or whatever reason, Chester and Willie rebuilt their new home on the same site.
Chester and Eddie completed several more tasks for us in the following years in their ever reliable manner, and I was always amazed at their work ethic and his knowledge of the Holy Bible. The last job I asked them to do I was saddened to hear that Chester had retired completely, but Eddie was still working.
Coming to work every day and going home I would pass by the Purnell home. If Chester was working in the yard or his garden I would sometimes stop just to see how they were doing. He was always delighted to see me, and the feeling was mutual.
Chester’s time in his yard became less and less and I began to worry about him. Meeting him at Wal-Mart one day I learned that Willie was “under the weather” and not expected to live. Willie passed about 3 years ago, and with her went a big part of Chester’s life. Visiting with his family, I saw his wall full of plaques and honors that I had never before seen, nor had Chester ever mentioned. Once more his humble nature meant that life was not about him.
Chester was blessed by a loving and supporting family. Seeing his house I could tell when they were visiting for holidays and family gatherings.
About three weeks ago Chester’s son, George, came by to talk with me. Chester was very sick and they wanted me to serve them at the time of need. I was humbled!
Whilst Chester was undergoing treatments for his fatal illness, there is little doubt that he was physically uncomfortable. Yet, in his own humble way he cheered up the medical staff that was serving him.
Chester finished his course in faith on July 19. I met with some of his family and they explained that they had a family reunion that weekend, so it would be Sunday or Monday before they could decide on the funeral arrangements. His life will be celebrated on July 26.
The Bible teaches us that: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Chester is in the latter group.
Meanwhile back home we can look at a tall firm foundation and two chimneys reaching for the skies as a continued memorial to this true man of wisdom and knowledge.
I was on my first visit to the flea market at the NC State Fair Grounds in late August 1999 when I spotted a litter of black Lab puppies for sale. They were truly cute and one of them came to the edge of their pen to greet me. I rubbed on him and was told that he was a full blooded Lab, but he could not be registered because his father wasn’t registered. That was okay, and he began the 100 mile ride back to Laurinburg.
Moses arrived to a home in the country that included me, Lynn, 16 year olds Michael and Hannah, two other dogs, 6 year old Chocolate Lab Fiona, 3 year old mixed breed Joe Bob, and some cats. Joe Bob immediately let Moses know who the Alpha dog was, and to Fiona he was just another friend. They roamed the countryside around our home freely during the day and slept inside at night.
Moses was always game for playing and truly did not have a fighting bone in his body. Lynn recalled the time shortly after he arrived at home he was playing or “pestering” Joe Bob, and Joe Bob took a snip at Moses. Moses yelped and ran away. Lynn called him, “Come here puppy,” and he ran and jumped in Lynn’s arms for security.
As he grew older he would get defensive and appear vicious when strangers visited, but that was just his protective nature.
Moses traveled. We took him to the beach once and to the mountains numerous times. He loved the coolness of the mountains in the summer.
When Moses was 5 years old, our granddaughter Lizi was born. Lizi lived with us for 6 months from the time she was 4 months until she was 10 months old. Moses loved her and Lizi loved Moses, Fiona, and Joe Bob. With the three of them she had an army to protect her.
Just over a year later Lizi came back to live with us for good. Once more our three dogs had a “pet.”
Fiona almost lived to be 14 years old, but her death in 2007 proved through Joe Bob and Moses that animals do love one another. They grieved.
Two years later Joe Bob had kidney failure and died naturally under veterinary care. Moses was alone and lonely. A month later we surprised him with a “sister.” A Black Lab that 3 year old Lizi named “Miley” after Miley Cyrus.
Moses and Miley became a playful couple. He once more had a friend that sometimes was more of a pest – similar to how he was with Joe Bob.
Moses loved all of us unconditionally. If I came home after a busy or emotionally day at work, he sensed it and was there to cheer me up. I welcomed his warm face washings, although Lynn would be seated close by saying, “gross!”
Soon Moses and Miley were joined by a couple of rescue dogs, Celidh, whom we saw in the 2010 Laurinburg Christmas Parade, and Oatie, who was a 8 month old puppy that belonged to our late son, Michael following his death in November 2011.
Moses soon began to show signs of aging and pain. On our annual mountain trip in July 2011 Moses was ill and we spent July 4 at a veterinary hospital in Boone. We left with medicine for pain and digestive problems.
Later we began to use a sling to help him walk up day down the steps when he went outside or came in, and in the past month we had to use the sling just to get him up off the floor or ground.
Our week for the mountain trip this year was July 8—15 and we decided that just Moses would go with us. We wanted him to enjoy the mountain coolness once more and he did. He actually surprised us with the walking he was able to do going up and down the natural stone and gravel road that leads to our cabin.
On his final walk on Friday he struggled to walk back to the cabin and had to be assisted with his sling in order to lift the 100 + pounds of weight off of his aching joints.
Saturday was another bad day, and he was kept mostly pain free with medication. Sunday was similar, but when we began cleaning and packing Moses got excited—knowing that he was going home.
Sunday morning Lynn and I used two slings to lift him up into the back of my Prius where we had folded down the back seats and placed a dog bed for him to rest. The four hour drive home was uneventful.
Arriving at home, Moses was taken from the Prius and allowed to walk and take care of business. Once more, using the slings, Philip our house sitter and I got Moses into the house and into his bed. It became obvious that his pain medicine was not helping as it once did. I grilled steaks for supper, not because I wanted them, but because I wanted Moses to enjoy something special.
Lynn managed to take him outside at 3 a.m. Monday to do his business, and about 6 a.m. she awoke me and told me that I needed to start telling him “goodbye.” His loving eyes were showing pain, but as I knelt by him, he for the last time “washed my cheek.”
Lynn departed Monday morning for an oncology appointment in Chapel Hill, and I left to briefly go to work until his veterinarian at X-Way Animal Hospital arrived at her office. With a 10 a.m. appointment and help from Thomas Locklear, we drove to our home to take Moses on his final ride.
We strapped him to one of our funeral home cots and placed him in the back of an Odyssey mini-van. Miley jumped in and lay by his side and I crawled in the back on the floor to be with him. Whilst there, I prayed for Moses. I thanked God for giving him to us, for his undying love and devotion. I also asked that he be lifted up and enjoy eternity with the others that have gone before us.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m. we arrived at X-Way and waited in the van briefly until two veterinary technicians came out to give Moses his final injection. I left his side so they could get to him and his front leg through the side door and raised the rear door so that I could touch him and we could continue eye contact until the end.
His eyes were in direct contact with mine, but briefly they gazed around before once more focusing back into my eyes. They closed and he ever so peacefully passed. Miley stayed beside me and with her “brother” until the end.
Moses was cremated, and tonight his earthly remains will once more rest at home with Fiona and Joe Bob’s urns. We’ll share our memories tonight and shed our tears. Moses is at peace.
Like God, dogs give unconditional love . . . all the time, and Moses was no exception.
In his memory, and as we have done for all of our other pets, a $250 memorial was be given to the Scotland County Humane Society. In some small way, Moses will leave a legacy of providing care for other animals that are less fortunate than he.
Last night following a children’s play at the First United Methodist Church in which Lizi had a part, we returned home whilst Lynn stayed at church for choir practice.
Arriving at home I was mildly shocked when Lizi said, “Pa, you can watch TV tonight. I want to do math on the computer.”
As I glanced over her way I could clearly see her with the laptop in her lap, bringing up math problems, and occasionally counting on her fingers to get the correct answers.
We’ve been blessed. How many fathers are 53 years older than their daughter, and how many mothers are 52 years older than their daughter? You may say that difference is big enough to notice a REAL generation gap.
Most parents are 20 to 30 years older than their children, and we’ve been through that stage. But by adopting our granddaughter, we’re tackling parenthood once more.
Monday after Lizi finished school she went to day care where she played most of the afternoon with her friends. Then she was taken to softball practice at Optimist Park before coming home to do her homework. Tuesday was a similar schedule except there was a real game. Wednesday is church night and after church supper Lizi is either in a church class or practicing for a children’s choir performance or the aforementioned play. Thursday is once more a softball game.
I had to reflect back to when I was in the first grade. I would walk to school, and whilst at school we would learn numbers and simple “arithmetic” along with learning letters and simple reading. By contrast, Lizi already knew numbers, basic “math,” letters and reading when she got to the first grade. She is reading and spelling compound and complex words!
When I left school I would walk home and get ready for the afternoon neighborhood fun plans that had been hatched during school hours. We may have a softball game planned in someone’s back yard or it may just be an afternoon of tree climbing. I truly doubt there were many trees in the McRae street area that we did not climb, even the big oaks by the street!
Another adventure was building. It seemed that every child had a tree house, and they built it themselves. I’m very fortunate to be alive!
“The Little Rascals” filmed in the 1920’s and 1930’s was one of our favorite TV shows. We modeled our childhood after them. Soap box racers were constantly being built and rebuilt. We would get construction materials from scraps wherever there was a house or building being build, or we’d go to the A&P to get the wooden crates that fruits and vegetables were shipped in to use in our building projects.
If we had a softball game you could count on one hand the number of players who owned a glove. Most caught bare handed. Little League ball was just getting started and its only attraction was that is meant you had to have a glove, you got a uniform, you played on a level, marked field, and you could bet that the ball used still had a cover on it.
You could say that our formal education was sorely lacking by today’s standards, but our creative thinking was light years ahead. If we wanted to be active we had to find someone or a group and make it happen – all by ourselves.
I truly wish Lizi could have some of those opportunities that I had as a child, but in reality my experiences shaped me to be who I am and what I am for today’s world. Her experiences are shaping her to be what is needed in tomorrow’s world.
Earl would be easy to know but hard to describe. He was as plain as his name and as complex as one of Einstein’s theories. In the South we would know him as a “good old boy.” Hard working, Christian, simple, complex, devoted to his family, and able to seize the best from any opportunity: That’s Earl.
When Hospice called to tell us that his six year battle with liver cancer was over – yes, six-years – I felt relief and sadness. Rumors of his death started a week before, but when it didn’t happen we remembered what he always said: “I want my funeral to be on Saturday.”
I visited with him Wednesday, stopping by to say good-bye and asking God to comfort him. He did not reply, but Thursday was different. When the call came, I immediate drove to his home in my car, ahead of the Paul, who would bring the hearse. Driving the ten mile route, a song came on the radio that brought early tears, and a few miles later a waterfall of emotions. I felt Earl was speaking to me:
“Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn’t take one more step. . . But something touched me deep inside The day the music died. . . Did you write the book of love, And do you have faith in God above if the Bible tells you so? . . .And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye Singin’, “this’ll be the day that I die. “this’ll be the day that I die.” . . .
I did not hear all of the words to Don McLean’s American Pie, but a word or phase every now and then were words that Earl was speaking to me.
* * *
Jason, Earl, and Josh Byrd
When he was seventeen, Earl took his sweetheart, Vonnie, across the state line to South Carolina for a quick wedding. Unlike most teenage marriages, this union thrived. Earl worked for a trucking company and Vonnie went to college, studying to be an elementary school teacher. Along the way they raised two sons.
Earl was a part-time helper at the funeral home over 20 years ago. Helping out when he was able. Between his job, his volunteer fireman’s duties, and his family; free time for Earl was at a premium.
Over ten years ago, Earl purchased a backhoe and began contract cemetery work for area funeral homes and cemeteries. His sons, Jason and Josh, soon were right there with him. This operation expanded to include a swimming pool installation and maintenance company.
In the late summer of 2000 Earl was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was being treated for indigestion by his physician, but a second physician discovered that colon cancer had then spread to his liver. The normal life expectancy for the average person with liver cancer would be measured in weeks. At the same time my wife, Lynn, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She and Earl supported each other during their joint battles, bonding as only true survivors would.
Earl was a fighter and he became part of an experimental program at the renowned Duke University Medical Center. Extensive surgeries and hospital stays were to follow, but Earl never complained about his health. His only complaint came after losing weight while at the hospital. “I want to get home to Vonnie’s cooking.” Before long, he was on his backhoe and fighting fires once more.
The rollercoaster ride had just begun. His cancer appeared to be in remission, but it flared up once more. In one surgery lasting 23 hours, 80% of his liver was removed. Earl rebounded once more.
By the summer of 2005, Earl was told that there were no more that medicine could do for him. Vonnie took a year off from teaching, and they lived that year to the absolute fullest: Alaskan cruises, the Bahamas, the NASCAR circuit, the nearby beaches and mountains became their life as well as the cancer survivors support groups. Earl and Vonnie even had a formal church wedding, something they could not afford earlier.
Surprisingly, Earl did not die that year.
In September 2006 he walked the survivors’ lap at the local Relay for Life, and in October he rented a recreational vehicle and took a trip to the mountains to enjoy the fall colors.
* * *
Earl and Vonnie preplanned Earl’s funeral in the summer of 2005. He wanted a fireman’s funeral and selected a plain, dignified walnut casket. Earl was told that he would not get the walnut casket he was looking at, but rather one made from a walnut tree that we would plant in the fall.
We can reflect upon many services that we’ve performed in the past: The one in the worst weather, the one of a small child, the one for a dignified public servant, and so on, but Earl’s funeral was our most difficult. We were serving his family and friends, yet wanting someone to serve us. Funeral professionals are also humans. We grieve and hurt when a friend dies, but we are also thrust into the role as a caregiver to the family.
Vonnie lay in bed with Earl until it was time for us to move him. Paul, James (Earl’s friend) and I moved his body to the cot. As we left the house firemen from all six fire departments in Scotland County had been notified of Earl’s passing and stood at attention as the cot was rolled toward the hearse. Parked by the road were fire trucks from each department. Earl’s son, Jason, drove the first fire truck that lead the hearse to the funeral home. Earl’s friend, Archie, drove a Harley-Davidson bearing the fire department flag, Vonnie and Sue (the hospice nurse) rode in the hearse, and the other fire trucks followed for the ten mile trip. At the funeral home the firemen gathered in a circle for a prayer.
Rural Scotland County, North Carolina is served by five totally volunteer fire departments. Each department is a cohesive group of men and women who meet monthly for meetings and training, and they gather together for competition and other social events. Now they were together once more to bury an honorable and dedicated member of their extended family.
* * *
Paul had earlier promised Earl that he would embalm his body. As I checked into the preparation room, Paul’s face was beet red with swollen eyes as he began to shave Earl’s face. An hour later Paul’s grief was still evident, but he was going to do what he had promised. The tone for our most difficult service was just being set.
Earlier in the week we suggested to Vonnie, Jason, and Josh that they ask some of Earl’s special friends to write down their thoughts on Earl. These stories from eight friends were compiled into a memorial folder that would be given to people attending his visitation. They had also collected over two hundred photographs of Earl that would be shown by projection and on TV during his visitation. Over six hundred friends attended the evening visitation at the funeral home.
The firefighters were not the only group that Earl touched. He was also a member of a motorcycle club and loved taking trips on his Harley. Both groups were set to be an important part of Earl’s funeral.
Saturday began as a warm November day and was to set an all time high temperature record for the date by mid afternoon. Some firemen were dressed in their formal uniforms while many on the trucks were in their more uncomfortable heavy turnout gear. Truck Number 45 would be the hearse and was suitably attired with black cloth covering the highly reflective safety features. A token number of the motorcycle club members were present and would carry the fire department flag, flying from a Harley, ahead of the fire trucks. The firemen were content not only to present their best appearance for the service, but they also greatly assisted us with parking arrangements at the church.
As Earl’s casket arrived at the church, the firemen, with military precision, gently lowered it to the pallbearers who carried it between lines of firemen and motorcycle club members to the porch of St. John United Methodist Church.
Most of us have attended funerals or memorial services that were quite forgetful. They followed a strict protocol, religious guidelines, or perhaps were extravagant without any meaningful reason. Earl’s funeral was neither. The first minister was the regional firefighter chaplain. He shared Earl’s devotion to the fire department. The second minister was Earl’s pastor 20 years ago. He took us back in time; describing the young and vibrant man he once was. The third minister was his current pastor. Earl had been fighting cancer for the duration of his relationship. He shared Earl’s unselfish nature and his unwillingness to seek pity. The final song as requested by Earl was George Harrison’s, My Sweet Lord.
As the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery, two ladder trucks formed an arch over the cemetery gate. Connecting at the peak of the arch was a waving American flag.
A lone bagpiper played a melody of airs as the procession of over 400 people made their way to the graveside. Once more the firemen performed their solemn duty as they placed his fireman’s draped casket over the grave. Parked beside the grave was Earl’s Harley-Davidson. As they stood back, every fireman turned on his pager. Loud and clear for the hundreds to hear was:
“Attention all Scotland County Fire, Rescue and EMS Personnel, This is the final call for Station 4, Gibson Assistant Fire Chief Earl Byrd, Radio call number 401. Goodbye faithful friend. You have served us well. Rest in peace. Scotland Central Fire Dispatch clear at 1230 hours, November 11, 2006.” Not a dry eye was to be seen.
The lone piper played two verses of “Amazing Grace,” turning and fading into the horizon as the music faded from the ear.
In life, Earl taught us how to live. In death, he taught us how to die and planned a service that reflected upon those things he held so dear: God, family, friends, and voluntary service to others.
305 E. Church St., PO Box 187
Laurinburg, NC 28352
Phone: 910-276-2200 | Toll Free: 1-800-414-0466
With an excellent staff, a positive attitude, and increased emphasis on flexibility in service options, McDougald Funeral Home plans to remain as North Carolina's oldest independent, family owned funeral home.