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The Death of a Veteran

May 25, 2009

Stonewall Jackson Long was my father-in-law. He grew up on a red dirt farm in Saluda County, South Carolina. During World War II he served in the United States Marine Corps. When he entered military service he changed his name to Jackson S. Long. He said he couldn’t tolerate the thought of going through the war being called Stonewall. 

Mr. Jack was a storyteller, with a quick wit and a wry smile that endeared him to almost everyone.  His speech was salted with Southern witticisms and profanity. 

Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, he and I had a private conversation.  Mr. Jack’s acceptance of his impending death was evident.  “This path that I’m on is getting mighty narrow.  I don’t believe I’m going to be able to turn around this time.” 

He went on to assure me that his relationship to God was in order.  He asked me to conduct his funeral. 

Concerned for his wife, Mr. Jack said, “Kirk, you’re going to have to look out for Lib.  She’s going to need help, and I know I can count on you.”

He told me that he had written two letters to the family.  One was to be read immediately after his death, before arrangements were made for his funeral.  The other letter was to be read immediately after his funeral.  I would find both letters inside a ledger in the top right hand drawer of his rolltop desk.

Two weeks later Mr. Jack died. The family gathered the morning after his death, and I read the first letter aloud.  He had included so much of himself, so much humor, that we laughed together for nearly an hour.  His directions on finding pallbearers were especially funny. 

“Now that I’m gone,” he wrote, “they may all refuse to attend.  But they all owe me in one way or another.”  He explained that one lost a bet to him and had never repaid him.  Another, he said, should make a good pallbearer but only if he could have a little snort of bourbon before the funeral. 

At the local mortuary in Leesville, South Carolina, the family made the funeral arrangements for Mr. Jack.  We selected a polished pine casket because he had enjoyed woodworking. The funeral director then showed us a selection of vaults. 

“We have three to choose from,” he said in a somber tone.

“What is the difference?” I inquired.  

Pointing to one he said, “This is our top-of-the-line model.” He paused and added, “It comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

I stared at him in amazement. “Whose lifetime?”

He stammered, “I don’t really know.”

“How can a vault have a lifetime guarantee?”

“No one has ever asked that before.  That’s just what they told me to say.”

We purchased the bottom-of-the-line model.

You can imagine the laughter in Mr. Jack’s service when I told the story of the selection of the vault.  You may also be able to imagine the chagrin of the funeral director.

Mr. Jack’s body was to be laid to rest in the churchyard of Emory United Methodist Church.  The plots for the members of his large family had been designated for years.  There had even been a family feud over who was to be buried in which plot.  One brother and one sister had refused to be buried next to each other.  For some, sibling rivalry continues beyond the grave. 

Thankfully, Mr. Jack’s grave was undisputed territory, but when the mortuary sent a crew to open the grave, they encountered a natural granite slab three feet underground.  They solved the problem by partially opening the grave designated for future use by Miz Lib. They excavated under the granite deeper than the usual six feet and slid Mr. Jack’s bottom-of-the-line vault containing the pine casket sideways under the slab. 

I explained this at his funeral and speculated about what he would have said about it all.  Laughter was the congregational hymn at his memorial service.  Family members enjoy remembering it to this day with comments like, “Jack would have loved every minute of it.”

Following the drive back from the country churchyard, I gathered the family to read the second letter.  We could hardy wait.  It was a sweet, touching letter about his love for each of us.  He included a section on how he had tried to provide for his wife and his children.  Then this line, “Lib, I believe there will be enough for you to live out your days in contentment and comfort.  You will not be able to live in the lap of luxury, and there is certainly not enough for you to have a live-in boyfriend.  If you take up with somebody, I may have to come back and straighten things out.”  There was no word on how he expected to get past that granite slab on top of his inexpensive vault.

Because Mr. Jack was a veteran, the family received a United States flag at his service. Clare and I still have the flag. We have used it for Boy Scout ceremonies when our sons received their Eagle Scout Awards. Mr. Jack’s flag reminds us of his service to this country. We have displayed the large flag at our home on special holidays. It is one of the ways that we celebrate Memorial Day.

 Kirk H. Neely
© May 2009
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