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Finding Humor in Grief

August 6, 2012

Mr. Jack was my father-in-law.  He was a storyteller, with a quick wit and a wry smile that endeared him to almost everyone.  His speech was as colorful as my grandfather’s, salted with Southern witticisms and profanity.  Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, Mr. Jack and I had a private conversation.  His 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 asked me to conduct his funeral.  He said, “Kirk, you’re going to have to look out for Lib (his wife, my mother-in-law).  She’s going to need help, and I know I can count on you.”

I felt the burden of that responsibility, but I would not have had it any other way.  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 went on to say, “Kirk, I know you’re a Baptist preacher, but you may have to give them bourbon whiskey if they’re to be pallbearers. They’ll do better if they’re liquored up.”

With that first letter, Mr. Jack had established an attitude of joy for his own funeral. The men agreed to be pallbearers, and I didn’t have to get them liquored up. They took care of that themselves.

The family went to the local mortuary in the small town where Clare’s parents lived to make 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 the top 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 are we talking about?”

He stammered, “I don’t really know.”

“How can a vault have a lifetime guarantee?”

“No one has ever asked that.  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 vault selection.  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 all the way to the grave.

Thankfully, Mr. Jack’s grave was undisputed territory, but when the mortuary sent a crew to open the grave, they encountered a problem.  About two feet down, they found an underground granite slab.  They solved the problem by partially opening the grave designated for Miz Lib, excavating under the slab deeper than the usual six feet and sliding Mr. Jack’s bottom-of-the-line vault containing the pine casket sideways under the slab.  I, of course, 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 again 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.

The wisdom of the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Laughter is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, it has no adverse side effects. There is, as Scripture affirms, “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”

In my experience, grief is a time for both.


Kirk H. Neely
© August 2012

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