Not a Job, but a Ministry

The funeral director called us ahead of arrival to tell us that he was bring a decedent for cremation in our crematorium. That is nothing unusual as we perform cremations for many other funeral homes. What was a little different – but something many more are doing: he was bringing the family with him.

The shocking news was then revealed: the deceased was a six-year-old, dead of natural causes. Last week he was in school with the rest of his classmates, playing with the best of them. Wednesday, his life on earth ended suddenly of possible cardiac arrest.

Although I never knew the family, or the mother and father, my thoughts immediately turned to trying to even slightly imagine their emotions, thoughts, faith, and grief.

I could not. It was impossible.

They arrived and watched as we removed the casket from the hearse and moved it into the crematorium chapel. They stood there to carefully observe our every movement, holding each other for physical and emotional support.

They watched as the casket was placed into the crematorium retort, or oven, and watched as the door was closed.

They watched as the cremation was started and then asked if they could wait in the funeral home. I led them in and began some small talk, before asking them to relax, perhaps read a magazine, or just wait. They chose to wait.

In a few minutes they asked if we had a selection of urns that they could see, and looking at the funeral director, He motioned to let them look. They did, but they then wanted to look at photos in a catalogue.

After an hour of so they approached me to talk.

“We don’t see anything we really like, but we want an urn shaped like a star . . . and we want it built of old heart pine.

They don’t know me, but I have a barn full of recycled antique long leaf pine. It is by far my favorite wood, and I could easily tell it was theirs. We talked about its characteristics as my mind began to see how a star shaped urn could be constructed. We discussed that as well.

We discussed the difficulty of jointing the many angles, and then the solution appeared. I have some 3″ thick rough heart pine that could be cut into the shape of a star after being planed.

The insides of two halves could be hollowed out on a drill press using a Forester drill bit, placed together and sealed. The exterior would be sanded and finished naturally with oil and polyurethane.

To them it was perfect. Now my job is to find a skilled woodworker.

After a little over two hours the cremation was complete. The mother and father stood together as their son’s cremated remains were removed from the crematorium and placed in a cooling tray.

They stayed as their son’s cremated remains were processed and placed into a temporary urn and handed to the mother. I was then led to hug both of them and sincerely offer my condolences.

Standing back and looking at them a simple thought came to my mind: their son’s spirit is now with God, his earthly flesh has been widely dispersed into the December air, and his earthly remains were being pressed tightly against his mother’s heart. What a comfort he must be experiencing.

As they left to return home, the mother and father apologized for keeping us after our normal hours.

I was truly not aware. Funeral service is not my job, it is what I do, it is my ministry.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The life lessons are too valuable!

Songs Merry and Sad

Songs Merry and Sad

Throughout life we meet many people that through some simple display of concern, reaching out, and caring; they become forever sacred and revered in our memories. That would accurately describe Jack and Jewls. Both were exceptionally good people, but in other ways they could not have been more different.

Saturday, we received a telephone call from one of Jack’s friends. Jack had died at home.

Arriving at his home to find the Scotland County EMT and some friends waiting, I stepped inside to see the earthen vessel of an almost 89 year old friend, sitting peacefully in his recliner. There was no suffering; only peace.

My next glimpse, and sitting upon his coffee table, was the book, “Songs, Merry and Sad” by North Carolina Poet Laureate and Scotland County native, John Charles McNeill. We both shared a love of his poetry.

Picking up his book of poems, my thumb instantly opened to the poem, “Sundown,” and by heart I recited the words as a tribute to my departed friend:

“Hills, wrapped in gray, standing along the west;
Clouds, dimly lighted, gathering slowly;
The star of peace at watch above the crest—
Oh, holy, holy, holy!

We know, O Lord, so little what is best;
Wingless, we move so lowly;
But in thy calm all-knowledge let us rest—
Oh, holy, holy, holy!”

I can’t recall when I first met Jack, so it is safe to say that I’ve known him all of my life. He had a daughter that started first grade and graduated with me, so seeing him and his lovely wife were memories from my earliest days.

Certainly, it was important that Jack was a US Navy veteran of World War II, Mason, a Southern Baptist, and there is no telling how many other titles he could carry; but most important he was genuine and caring – traits that he shared with anyone.

Later, it seemed that many of the men of Jack’s generation now deceased that I had found to be positive influences were also Jack’s close friends: Spec, A.V., B.P., Francis, and the list could go on. Now it appeared to narrow down to three: Bill, Bill and D.J. and some of the younger ones at his breakfast group, or even some at his afternoon “Stubbs Daycare.”

Jack’s most valuable commodity was his time and his attention, and they were in abundance. He was one of those special men who gave you full attention when you spoke and if a reply was necessary, it came with years of precision tested wisdom. You see, Jack was a printer, and precision and accuracy were his trademarks.

After I had heart surgery and returned to work in February, Jack made it a point to pay me a visit: “You know, I can’t die unless you’re here to bury me!”

I replied: “Jack, PaPa didn’t retire until he was 85 and Pa didn’t retire until 84, and I’m not going to break the mold. You’ve got a long time to go!” We both shared a laugh.

Before I could completely focus upon my memories of Jack, news started filtering in about “Jewls,” or Julie. I’m one of the last to believe gossip, so I refused to believe what I heard and read. Her last post on Facebook that day was: “Broken heart.”

Julie was a generation younger, a beautiful young lady with a vibrant personality. Following our loss of our son nearly three years ago to a drug overdose, Julie called me. She spoke lovingly of Michael and commended me for be honest with my feelings and frustrations. Momentarily, I would have thought that a psychiatrist was speaking with me, but Julie was honest: “I have the same problems as Michael.”

Michael had many problems that plagued him in life, and as I learned, Julie in some ways was not much different. Both had personalities that were full of charm, and both would sacrifice to help others in need.

I remember thanking her for her frankness and understanding, and offering her assurance that she was a unique, and special lady with a wonderful family.

It was Julie’s parting statement that will never be forgotten: “Drugs can alter our physical bodies but not our souls or spiritual bodies. The devil is like that for he is after our physical bodies, so drugs are the devil. When Michael died he broke the bond with the devil and his spirit was freed to be with God.”

To that statement I was both stunned and enlightened at what those words meant to me: Michael is alive spiritually, free from drugs, and in the presence of an omnipotent God!

Thank you, Julie!

Sunday morning the reality that something had happened to Julie became all-too-real. Her friends left posts on her Facebook page, and others began asking me for more information whilst at I was at church. All I could do at the time was to think about that long and very important telephone call we shared in late 2011.

Julie’s father later called and asked if I could come over that afternoon. The personal reality was there was no “I.” My wife Lynn agreed to go with me for much needed emotional support, and she proved just how much support she can be.

We met with Danny and Carolina, Julie’s parents, for an indefinite length of time. As Danny reminded us upon our arrival, “You’ve already lived this story.” Looking back it is hard to tell just who helped who during our visit. All of us have lost beloved children in what could be called socially unacceptable ways; and freely sharing our feelings that “we’re not alone in this” was sometimes painful, but always supportive, and uplifting.

We reflected on Julie’s positive side as a caring and giving young lady: her times helping youth, her times helping hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana, and her spontaneous gift of helping others and animals.

Carolina shared Julies Bible devotion from Saturday, a devotion that proved to be prophetic from Psalm 37:40 – “The LORD helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.”

Jewls or Julie is now completely in her spiritual body, or as she has said: “my spirit has been freed to be with God.”

Reflecting back – Jack and Jewls; they were two unique folks in their own right that left a positive impression not only upon myself, but their families and many, many friends.

Yes, we all have our bad sides, and we can choose to dwell on the negative, but even the worst of us have a positive side that is visible if we chose to look. Jack’s positive side was easy to see, as it appeared that was all that he had. Julie had her demons, that at time controlled her actions, but looking on the positive side she was a helping angel in disguise for so many others.

The truly untold story of Julie (and Michael) knowing their abilities, drive, and outgoing personalities; they both had chances to live a long and productive lives of service much like Jack. Just how great their impact could have been within that scenario will never be known. Instead, mind altering substances not only controlled them, but also denied them of possibly 60 or more years of love, life, and memories – the very real human tragedy.

The Rivertonian/Sunburnt Boy

Sometime before 1807 the Rev. Daniel and Catharine White left Greenock, Scotland and sailed to North Carolina. Settling near the Lumbee River that now borders Scotland and Hoke Counties, they began the slow backbreaking work of clearing land and establishing a homestead. Today, the homestead remains in the family and is known affectionately as Riverton.

Along the way, Daniel also started Spring Hill Baptist Church in 1807, and it is still strong after 207 years!

One of the many noted traditions that have followed their descendants for over two centuries would be the adherence to “Scotland time,” of a belief and lifestyle that some things will get done at the appropriate time. When that time is finally set, it will be precise, and that’s how it was with Roy’s service!

Roy was a descendant of Daniel and Catharine. We never met, but we communicated over the Internet. Never did he let on that he had terminal cancer and could not talk. Roy lived in Raleigh, but his home and heart resided in Riverton. He invited me to take a canoe trip on the Lumbee with him and several others last spring. I regrettably could not make it, and only learned today that it was his last trip down the Lumbee.

Roy died three days after his 64th birthday on January 4, 2014.

Sometime in February his father, Robert Leroy McMillam, Jr., called me and set a time for a graveside service: 2:00 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at Spring Hill Cemetery, a serene, rural cemetery that holds the mortal remains of many family members. By that time his granite memorial will have been installed and half of Roy’s cremated remains would be poured into a hole under the memorial. The other half would be scattered in the Lumbee.

April 12 arrived as a perfect, sunny, warm, and low humidity day.

Before the service the carpet grass was pulled back to reveal Roy’s memorial. It concluded with A “Sunburnt Boy.”

Jim Smith, a Presbyterian lay minister and a cousin started the service, sharing many memories and inviting many others to do the same. Humor was also the rule as it was noted that Roy once went to a party carrying a case of wine to which someone stated, “Roy, you don’t drink that!” Roy responded, “I know, but the ladies do, and then they get friendly!”

Father, Robert L. McMillan, Jr. Delivers eulogy to his son, Robert L. "Roy" McMillan, III.

Robert McMillan, Roy’s father, is 91 years old and he stepped up – dressed in his trademark seersucker suit – and delivered the main eulogy on his beloved son. He touched heavily on the lessons of love that he personally learned early in his life, and the lessons Roy also learned. Concluding, he reflected back upon his own distinguished career as a criminal defense attorney: “When arguing a case if I can’t use the law, then I use the facts. If I can’t use the facts, then I use the law. If I can’t use either, then I simply state: ‘He had a good mother.”

“Roy had a good mother.”

Pastor Jim concluded the service with a prayer, and Robert then invited everyone to the Lumbee “where we will sing, ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ and read ‘The Sunburnt Boys.'”

Daughter, Sarah, adds first sand to Roy's grave.

Before departing the cemetery different family members used their hands to fill Roy’s grave with cool, light, Sandhills sand, another outward symbol of their closeness with Roy.

A "Sunburnt Boy"

At the River, Robert briefly shared more reflections and everyone joined in together with the old hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Roy’s brother and Roy’s daughter then entered the canoe to commit the remainder of his earthly remains to his beloved river – flowing by in front of us. As they departed, those on the bank read “The Sunburnt Boys” by their cousin and late North Carolina Poet Laureate, John Charles McNeill. The final verse was prophetic with the events:

At the Lumbee River

Brother, Duncan, and daughter, Sarah, committing Some of Roy's earthen vessel to the Lumbee.

“You will not — will you? — soon forget
When I was one of you,
Nor love me less that time has borne
My craft to currents new;
Nor shall I ever cease to share
Your hardships and your joys,
Robust, rough-spoken, gentle-hearted
Sunburnt boys!”

As a final tribute, three men then went swimming in the coffee-colored, sacred waters of the Lumbee. No one told them that the water was 52 degrees F, but they didn’t seem to care.

Swimming in the Lumbee

Can You Hear Me?

 On the morning of December 24, 2013 I was driving myself 35 miles to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital. Yes, it was the day before Christmas, and I was having chest pains and shortness of breath.

As I drove my fear of uncertainty sent me into deep personal reflection. Was I going to live, and if not what?

My religious faith rose to the surface, becoming paramount in my mind as I pondered my own life and my own faith.

Yes, God is real and He is a real part of me. His will shall be done, but my will at that time was to live, and to continue my life as a husband, father, and servant.

Which would it be? I really didn’t know, but I was afraid.

As I explained my symptoms to the lady in the emergency room, I was surprised to quickly feel a wheel chair at my legs and someone pushing me to a room in a rapid fashion.

Immediately I was hooked up to machines and oxygen. Initial results showed what I already knew: my heartbeat was irregular.

My wife, Lynn soon arrived in my room.

By the way . . . I didn’t tell her that I was on the way to the hospital. She called me to find out. I truly didn’t want to ruin her day before Christmas.

As I lay in the room in the emergency area, I began to ponder life even further. Yes, I did not want to be here, but better than 95% of the people in the world do not have access to the quality health care that I was receiving. I thanked God for my fortunate position, and asked Him to be with me.

The knock soon came at the door, and I replied, “Come in!”

A man of about 70 years old entered, looked at me and asked: “Are you a Christian?”

I responded that I was, and a very devout one at that.

He went on to describe the number of people that he met in this hospital who were not.

I can relate, but due to the nature so my profession; I accept it as human differences and as a part of life.

It was just nine months earlier that I sat with my sister and her daughter at Duke Medical Center as a minister met with us following the death of their husband and father. His words and compassion were comforting.

Meanwhile, back in an emergency room in Pinehurst I was still thinking to myself: “Am I going to be okay? Will I live or what? What is really wrong with me?”

Our visitor introduced himself as a minister in a local church, and initially I was relieved that someone was present to hear my fears, and offer some reassurance.

As I shared my faith, he began to tell me that I had to be SAVED or that I would face hellfire and damnation.

{Pardon me, I thought . . . I am saved, but I am afraid of this uncertainty that I am facing. I even pondered what would he be doing if I were Jewish or some other religion?}

The preaching continued and the “preacher” became more animated and louder. I’m not a physician, but I truly did not feel that hearing hellfire and damnation in a small hospital room was good for anyone with a weak heart.

{My thoughts shifted momentarily to anger. I was connected to tubes, monitors, and oxygen; mentally and spiritually communicating with God, and here is what seemed to be a raving maniac in my room telling me to repent and be saved!}

Certainly, the “preacher” meant well, but he failed to HEAR me, and to understand my situation. He did leave me a book containing the book of Psalms and the New Testament when he departed.

He meant well, but . . . he missed the mark.

I am severely hearing impaired, so I do know something about listening. I struggle to hear, especially on the telephone. For me, listening requires not only my two hearing aids, but also visuals. I must read lips, and I readily observe emotions and expressions. Hearing involves observing, closely watching, and understanding verbal and non-verbal communications on different levels.

I have since thought: What if the “preacher” instead of launching into a mini sermon on redemption, had simply asked about how I was handing my situation physically, mentally and spiritually? What if he had searched for some common grounds on which we could have some truly meaningful discussions that let me get a “load” off of my chest?

That approach would have been truly comforting, reassuring, and more of WWJD!

I had never been as close to death as I was at that moment. Faith, family, and friends were foremost in mind, and I wanted to live so that I could remain with them for many more years.

 

Yes, faith is foremost in such a situation, and support is necessary. When support uses fear rather than love and respect, the results will be less than desirable.

Whether communicating points about religion, faith, and even politics; it is always best to listen and truly hear from the other person or persons, digest the message as completely as possible, and then respond in a non threatening manner, or by paraphrasing: “So, what I hear you saying . . .,” or “You have shared a clear understanding of your faith, and just to clarify one point, how do you feel about . . ?”

Misunderstandings occur when we fail to hear and listen to another person effectively. To communicate most effectively we would be much better to hear the whole story before responding.

A Transcending Southern Gentleman

Image

A Transcending Southern Gentleman

Francis Bullard


We know them in America as the “Greatest Generation.” They indeed are or were! They are the generation that struggled through the Great Depression only to face the devastation of World War II. After the “War” they defined through their hardships the traditional American lifestyle and goals for decades.

Today, or in 2013 their numbers are in fast decline as their members are in their 80’s, 90’s or centurions. They were also the ones that through their values defined the traditional American funeral, or in our case, the traditional Southern American funeral of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s.

As their passings accelerate and are gradually replaced by my generation, or the “Baby Boomers,” – the children of the rebellious 1960’s and 1970’s – funeral service is facing a similar transition, as we transform to serving the values new generations.

This year or in late September, 2013 a long-time 96 year-old friend passed away. He was a humble Southern gentleman, always shunning the limelight to give praise to others, fixing anything and just about everything for anybody for just a simple “thanks,” and staying true to his rural, Southern Baptist upbringing. Francis grew up in a small town on the North and South Carolina line. Neighbors on one side were in South Carolina and neighbors on the other were in North Carolina. Borders or boundaries never existed in his life.

Francis later left for the big city of Raleigh where he worked with the railroad, then World War II started. He joined the US Army and was sent to the rail yards in Florida to keep the steam powered locomotives operating for the war purposes. After the War he and his wife, Mable, returned home, but not to the big city of Raleigh, but closer to his childhood home in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

*

Early fall in the South brings a strange smorgasbord of weather, from drought to hurricanes, from late season heat waves to early touches of winter. Francis celebrated his 96 birthday amongst friends in early September. That proved to be his last rally, as he found eternal peace three weeks later.

As thoughts of Francis’ passing and subsequent funeral passed through my mind, our noted weather forecast was absolutely delightful . . . and that proved essential to a special plan he left.

Francis had preplanned his funeral shortly after he lost his beloved wife, Mable, in 2003. He wanted his service to be similar, but he had to throw in one small request: “I would like to have one last ride on the John Blue Cotton Blossom Railroad.”

*

The noted railroad is also a part of Francis. Reflecting back about 20 years ago I was fortunate to be a part of a small group that sought to purchase and bring an authentic 18 gauge steam engine, gasoline powered engine, train cars and rails from Colorado to rural North Carolina. Francis being a former World War II steam engineer and mechanic promised us that he could make it all run if we bought it. He even helped with the expenses. We got it and he fixed it. When the tracks were placed and necessary repairs were made, the steam engine was christened as the “Francis Bullard” in a surprise public ceremony. For once in his life he was speechless.

*

As his adopted nephew, Whit, and I discussed preliminary funeral plans, we had visions of quietly taking him in his casket out to the historical John Blue Complex which is the home for the railroad whilst on the way to the church to the funeral to fulfill his wish. As we were discussing the details, ironically the local Knights of Columbus, who had adopted the railroad as their ongoing service project, called and offered to give him his final ride on the railroad.

The railroad or the John Blue Cotton Blossom Railroad is a small but prominent part of a rural Southern historical exhibit in Laurinburg, North Carolina. The first noticeable feature on site is the 1885 John Blue House which has been described as a riverboat on land. Behind it are three preserved 200 year old simple homes from our rural areas, a restored circa 1850 mule-powered Chisholm Cotton Gin, a mule powered cotton press, a restored log tobacco barn, a preserved 1882 country store, a fully functioning 1900 saw mill, and of course the ½ mile railroad. Francis had a hand in restoring or refurbishing every item on the grounds from the 1970’s until suffering a stroke in 2008.

Francis’ sister, Kathryn arrived in the afternoon and we began sharing our memories of the last fifty years of this remarkable gentleman’s life and the joy he had working voluntarily at the historical site.

I remarked: “His fingerprints are on every structure and fixture on the site.”

Kathryn paused then to quietly reminisce after which I asked if we could give him one last ride on “his” train. His nephew then injected, “Why don’t we just have his funeral on site. That is where he spent his happiest times.”

Kathryn smiled, and her eyes became moist as the loving contemplated our suggestions: “I think it would be absolutely lovely and appropriate!”

We discussed the expected weather and the logistics with everything appearing not only to be do-able, but also perfect and meaningful.

Yes! We were going to create a most meaningful and dignified ceremony in keeping with his simple tastes, public service, and religious faith. It would be everything but a “traditional” Greatest Generation funeral, but it would feature many of the same traditions.

After we completed the arrangement conference, logistics were set into motion two days before the service. Volunteers arrived and cleaned the entire site, his minister and a musician were contacted and given a description of what would happen, and the preliminary details were easily completed.

Saturday morning of the funeral morning Francis arrived at 9:00 a.m. at the site in his requested 1922 Henney body Ford Model-T hearse. The coal car of the steam engine had been fitted by Knights of Columbus volunteers with a platform to hold his flag draped hardwood casket. Unfortunately, the steam powered “Francis Bullard” could not be operated as Francis was our only certified steam engineer. To remedy the situation the second gasoline powered engine, the “Sybil Sikes,” was attached to the back of the coal car and Francis was given two trial trips around the half-mile track to assure that all would work well.

Friends began arriving shortly after 10:00 a.m. for the 11:00 a.m. service. The pianist began playing a medley of his old favorites tunes at about 10:40.. She stopped playing at eleven o’clock, sharp and there were a few seconds of silence as the cool breeze and distance sounds broke the silence. Meanwhile, parked out of sight and in a tunnel was the train. The whistle sounded loudly and the two locomotives emerged. As those in attendance watched, the train moved slowly around the tracks for what was his third and final time. As it stopped at the crossing directly in front of everyone, the second engine disengaged and backed out of the way, leaving the still, quiet “Francis Bullard” with the earthly remains of Francis Bullard quietly together for the final time.

Francis’ minister rose and delivered a meaningful tribute of his community service and later Whit shared an oftentimes humorous eulogy. As a closing hymn, the congregation sang one of his favorites, “Joy to the World,” which historically was not written as a Christmas carol . . . and Francis could tell you that.

His pallbearers, which included his friend renowned primitive woodwright Tom Tucker, and other friends from all walks of life carefully raised his casket off of the coal car and moved solemnly toward the open doors of the awaiting hearse. Tom Tucker drove Francis’ white Dodge pickup directly in front of the Model-T hearse to his final resting place, where following a religious celebration the American flag was raised above his casket for a final bugle tribute of “Taps.”

*

Today, when the term “traditional funeral” often has little or no meaning to many, and “have it your way” is becoming more common place, Francis’ celebration was a perfect blend of the two. It contained the known staples of the tried and true tradition with the meaningful personalized touches of today’s events. He was of the “Greatest Generation,” but he transcended generations to not only touch others in life, but also in death.

There is a blend of traditional and non-traditional that can transcend a valued and dignified service. Based upon the many comments made; this was not only one of them, but also a loving and dignified tribute to a true friend.

Jeremiah

 

Jeremiah

It was the spring of 1978, I was single, living home with Pa, and also working with him.  Many of those evenings I would take my banjo and go visit some friends, create some music, and catch up on happenings in our little world. 

One of my friends, Robert, with a white (she was registered as “yellow”) Labrador Retriever appropriately named Cotton, who in his words was “about to drop a litter.”  I’d heard about Cotton’s reputation, so the decision was made to choose a puppy from her upcoming litter.

June 11, Cotton “dropped” her litter just out from the community of Hasty near St. Luke’s Church.  About six weeks later to celebrate my 27th birthday, July 24, I gave myself the pick of the litter; or so I though.

As I arrived at the aforementioned location, I met Cotton and her puppies.  They were all playful and of course, flea-full.  I’m not an expert on selecting puppies, so I just started picking each one up, smelling their puppy breath and observing each of them as they played.  As I would walk away from the pack of puppies, one would follow me.  I took him back to the litter, watched a them little more, and once more stepped back a wee bit.  The same puppy broke from the pack and came to me.  Let’s just say he selected me.

Getting the newly acquired flea bag home, I put him in some flea dip and later washed him.  He spent the first night in my bedroom in a boxed bed made of corrugated cardboard.

Choosing a name was easy.  At the time I was studying the Bible and the book of Jeremiah, also my previous Lab was Jesse, so another Old Testament Biblical name would start a tradition.  Also, one of my favorite movies came out in the 1970’s: “Jeremiah Johnson.”  Three Dog Night had a #1 hit “Joy to the World” that began with “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!”  Jeremiah just stuck.

Initially, Pa was not too willing to have a dog, much less one in the house, but the Jeremiah grew onto him.  Pa had been crippled by polio since he was 18 months old, and as he approached 70, his mobility became more limited.  Jeremiah learned, without a teacher, to go outside when Pa woke up and retrieve the newspaper for him.  That led Pa to take Jeremiah to work with him to retrieve the two newspapers that were delivered there.  Afterwards, Jeremiah would lie down behind Pa’s desk nearly all day and wait on the next detail to help Pa.  There’s no telling how many people entered the office and never knew a dog was in the same room, undisturbed by their presence.

Before I go any further, let me explain that Pa and I operate McDougald Funeral Home.  Yep, a funeral home.  Jeremiah did not spend his days at home, but rather with us in the funeral home waiting for either Pa or myself to go somewhere that would allow him to come along.

Every morning at 10:00 a.m. Pa – like clockwork – would leave for the post office.  Jeremiah went with him.  He would jump in through the driver’s door, jump across the seat in two swift motions, and sit by the window on the passenger side.  A lunch time Pa and I would leave together for lunch at Norma’s.  Jeremiah would also tag along and wait in the car – usually napping on the floor board.

Once, another customer came into the restaurant to tell us that we had left our headlights on as the tail lights were glowing.  Sticking my head outside the restaurant door, I hollered: “Jeremiah!”  The tail lights went out and a dog head appeared at the window.  Jeremiah had been lying on the brake pedal.

During those early years I was also an adviser of a High Adventure Explorer Post, a coed group of high school aged students who liked to backpack, hike, canoe, and camp.  Jeremiah was also an “honorary member” and had his own backpack.  Of course he shared my sleeping bag, but on an evening when the temperatures dropped into the single digits, that really was a good thing.  Like the rest of us he camped on the Outer Banks, hiked the Appalachian Trail, canoed (and swam) countless rivers, helped cook a pig for our year ending supper.  I know that those now middle-aged adults (I’m being generous here) still remember and can share their own stories of Jeremiah.

Well, times started to change.  I started dating Lynn when Jeremiah was just a year and a half old.  Lynn had a cat named Ozzie.  Ozzie was BIG, like bobcat big.  Surprisingly, Jeremiah and Ozzie got along just fine, and whenever possible they were together.  A sight that I will never forget, Jeremiah got into a dog fight in front of our house and Ozzie ran to his rescue.  The other dog fled – scared away by an attacking house cat.

Ahead of our wedding, I went to the Bahamas for a funeral service seminar.  Jeremiah stayed behind in the care of Pa and Lynn.  Lynn came to pick me up at RDU upon my return, and Jeremiah came along as well.  She held him in the terminal, but once he saw me he broke free and jumped into my arms.  I know you can’t get away with that today.

Jeremiah with Ozzie

We began to remodel our house ahead of our wedding, and one of the details was to fix a leak in the roof on the second floor and add insulation.  While the workers were laying the insulation in the ceilings, Jeremiah’s curiosity got the best of him and he scaled two ladders to see what they were doing.  There was one problem: He could not figure out how to get down.  We accomplished the task by letting him place his front legs over my right shoulder, and I carried him down.  This was only the first of many times where a ladder got the best of his curiosity.

We spent the first night after our wedding at our new home and Jeremiah stayed with Pa.  As Pa let Jeremiah out the next morning to “do his business” he quickly made his way to our house and started scratching on the door.  Sadly, we had to take him back to Pa’s house before we departed.

After our July wedding, Christmas approached very quickly.  Understanding the special bond between myself and Jeremiah, my first Christmas present from Lynn was a professional, framed portrait of Jeremiah.  How many wives have ever thought of that?

One Saturday, Lynn and I decided to drive down to Sunset Beach for the day, and of course Jeremiah came along.  As we arrived at the beach, the old pontoon drawbridge was opened, traffic stopped, so we had to wait several minutes.  We briefly went into Milligan’s Store to collect a few last minute items and returned outside to see Jeremiah walking around and marking his territory.  The town policeman was parked nearby and he began shouting at us about the town’s leash ordinance.  I quickly called:  “Jeremiah!  Get in the car!”

He did -Jumped right over the policeman and sat down beside him on the front seat.

The policeman went ballistic, and it probably didn’t help that Lynn and I were literally rolling in laughter.

I quickly hollered:  “Jeremiah!  Get out!”

He did -Jumped into the policeman’s lap, launched himself out the window, and quickly jumped into the window of our car.

We once more got a lecture from the policeman while trying to hold in our snickering.

On the nearly deserted beach we quickly forgot about the leash law, played Frisbee with Jeremiah, swam in the breakers – with Jeremiah, of course – and relaxed in the warm sunshine.

Another summer event was the Catch ‘N Fetch Frisbee competition in Hammond Park.  Catching Frisbees was a daily activity for Jeremiah, so it was little surprise that he won.  Before then, he had earned quite a reputation in Laurinburg, and we were asked to participate in the competition.  The other contestants were children with their dogs, so truly Jeremiah had a distinct advantage and a hollow victory.  He did give them a great show with his acrobatic moves.

As winter arrived, we went skiing at Sugar Mountain in western North Carolina.  Yep, Jeremiah went along and stayed with us at a condo near the slopes.  Mistakenly believing that he would stay outside of the condo, I got on the chair lift only to watch Jeremiah follow me on the lift up the mountain.  An exhausted Jeremiah slept well that night.

Thinking all Labs were as smart as Jeremiah, we decided to get a female Lab and possibly breed them.  Well, Bonnie was far from being smart, and she was just great at being a lovable dog.  She was spayed, and that idea bit the dust.

A couple of years later we purchased a house and moved to the Scotsdale subdivision in Laurinburg.  Having a home in a residential area was different.  We subscribed to morning delivery of The Fayetteville Times, the next door neighbors – the Hornes – received The News & Observer, and the across the street neighbors – the Pesches – received The Charlotte Observer.  How do I know?  Well, Jeremiah would always take his early morning “tour” and in about ten minutes he would return with a newspaper – not always our newspaper.  As smart as he was, he really could not read.

Some neighbors who lived two or three blocks away – the Ulrichs – had two female Labs that were kept fenced in their backyard.  Jeremiah never met a fence he could not scale, so his visits to see Raven and Snickers became almost daily events.

Speaking of fences, one summer Lynn and I took a six day trip to Los Angeles and we put Jeremiah and Bonnie in the kennel or “doggie hotel.”  We returned to find them safely back home.  Jeremiah kept climbing the fence at the “doggie hotel” seeking an escape route and Bonnie chewed her way through the fence.  We reasoned that they were not raised like dogs and should not have been placed in a kennel for dogs.

In a way, Jeremiah was also like a personal butler.  Getting home from work I would often remove my shoes and relax in my recliner.  “Jeremiah, get daddy’s shoes,” always resulted in his going upstairs and retrieving my slippers.

When Jeremiah was eight years old and Bonnie was four, we adopted four year old twins: Michael and Hannah.  Everyone’s lives were dramatically changed.  The dogs did not know what to think of children, and the children did not know what to think about dogs.  Initially, it was a work in force to get them to live together, but after several weeks, they gradually became respectful of one another.  Of course the dogs dropped their guard first.

Our house was too small for all of us, so in 1988 we began to look at building a larger home.  We went to the country.  Jeremiah and Bonnie must have thought that they were moving to paradise.  Land clearance for the house began in July, the foundation was poured in August, and the home was finished in March.  Shortly after moving in a wild dog arrived.  We fed and cared for it, even giving him a name: Yard Dog.  Jeremiah and Bonnie loved Yard Dog, and he joined our family.

Jeremiah was now eleven and his age was beginning to show.  A trip to the veterinarian raised my worst fears: Jeremiah had cancer.  A supply of medicines kept him comfortable and able to function in a more normal manner.  On October 29, he climbed into my car as I took and later picked up Michael and Hannah from a birthday party.  Afterwards, he went into our bedroom and lay down in his L. L. Bean dog bed.

The following morning he could not get up.  I carried him outside, placed him in the grass, only to see the love and pain in his eyes.  I returned him to his bed, and left to take Michael and Hannah to school.  Returning home, I lay down beside him and tried to soothe him, before making the difficult decision of calling our vets, Jan and Tim.

As they answered the phone, I was crying as I asked them if they could come out to our house.  They did.

Waiting for them to come I lay back down with him once more.  For whatever reason, I began to get up, and Jeremiah tried to get up.  He let out a deep moan, as he collapsed back into my lap.  Moving his head to look into my eyes, I could see his pain as he passed on to the Rainbow Bridge.  Jan and Tim arrived no more than three minutes later and were there to console me.

We buried Jeremiah the next day in our front yard.  Our minister, the Rev. Dr. John Paschal, agreed to do a graveside service.  He shared a scripture about God and the sparrow, and a message of assurance that animals are also God’s creatures.  Hannah made a wooden cross and laid it on Jeremiah’s shoulder and Michael laid a Frisbee on him.  We covered him with a sheet and gently laid him to rest in the sandy soil of mother earth.

Over the years, we’ve had other male Labs: Elijah and Moses, female Labs: Fiona and Miley, and dogs that have simply found their way to our home in the country: Joe Bob, J. R., Pepper, Ceilidh, and Oatie. All were or are special in their own way.  And we loved or love them.

What was unique about Jeremiah?  We were connected emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.  He was a deople, as we called him or a dog/people.  In addition to the 9 dogs that have “had” me since Jeremiah, there were Taffy, Lady, Sugar, Salty Dog, and Jesse before him.  All were loving and unique, and I was blessed to have one as special at Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s earthen vessel is resting in our front yard, his memories still reside in our minds, and we believe that is spirit continues to live with a divine Supreme Creator.

Our Heritage

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.

The Servant

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.”

 

 

 

The Antique Classic Funeral

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!”

 

The Banjo Man

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. . .”

Good-bye, friend.

* * *

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.”