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Graveyard Humor

June 17, 2013

Graveyard humor is a little on the dark side. Some find it to be morbid. I personally find humor in the face of death to be a tender mercy and a gentle blessing. Folks who have experienced deep grief know that comic relief is a welcome shift. If all we do is cry, bereavement quickly becomes boring. The scriptures teach that laughter is good medicine. I find it to be a tranquilizer with no harmful side effects.

Recently, a church member sent an e-mail containing tombstone inscriptions collected from old cemeteries. Three of my favorites from the extensive list are

From Albany, New York

Edsel Smith

Born 1903–Died 1942.

Looked up the elevator shaft

to see if the car was on the way down.

It was.

From East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia

Here lies Ezekial Aikle

Age 102.

Only the Good Die Young

 

From Ruidoso, New Mexico

Here lies Johnny Yeast

Pardon him for not rising.

 

After forty-seven years of pastoral ministry, I have accumulated an interesting collection of graveyard stories. Four of them are included here from your enjoyment.

Last week, I conducted a graveside service at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens. The family had requested a dove release as a part of the occasion. White doves, actually homing pigeons, are also used at funerals. Three birds representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are generally released first. They are trained to circle the cemetery. Then a single bird, symbolizing the spirit of the dearly departed, is released to join the other three as they fly over the grave. This reunion of birds indicates that the spirit of the deceased has joined the Holy Trinity as they rise toward the heavens.

At the Greenlawn service the release went as planned.

A funeral director told me the story of such a dove release for the bereaved family at a service at West Springs in Union County, South Carolina. The release did not go as planned.

The director did not realize that he had scheduled the funeral on the same day that dove season opened. Hunters in a field near the graveyard were not aware of the funeral.

Soon after the first group of birds was released, those at the cemetery heard shotgun blasts. Instead of circling as they had been trained to do, the doves took off like darts back to their owner in Gaffney.

The funeral director released the fourth bird ahead of schedule. The pretty white dove flew directly over the hunters. More blasts were heard.

The following day the owner of the birds called the director and said, “Three of my birds came home, but I haven’t seen the fourth one. Any idea what happened?”

“No, not really.”

“Maybe he’ll show up. Sometimes the males get a romantic urge and wander off.”

Sure enough, two days later the stray returned home, no worse for the wear.

Every mortician and every pastor knows that funerals are fraught with opportunities for things to go awry. A funeral is a somber time, a time to attend to the needs of the bereaved, a time to be serious, reverent, and, well, funereal. Still, the final service for a dearly departed loved one can be the occasion for humor.

The late Reverend Grady Nutt, a friend from my seminary days, was dubbed by the television program “Hee-Haw” as the Prime Minister of Humor. Grady was a master storyteller whose favorite targets were other preachers, men and women of the cloth. He told the story about a young pastor who conducted his first graveside funeral during a Texas rainstorm. Things went pretty well in spite of the steady downpour until the closing prayer. The novice minister was speaking loudly to the Almighty when he suddenly fell silent. After a few moments, some of the gathered faithful cautiously opened their eyes. The young cleric had vanished from sight. It seems he had stepped too close to the muddy grave and slid feet first under the suspended casket into the vault below.

Even a seasoned pastor can make embarrassing mistakes at funerals. A dear friend and colleague had to do two funerals in the same day, each for a fine man in his congregation. One of the deceased had been an outstanding high school and college athlete who spent most of life as a coach. The other had been a more reticent, studious young man who had become successful in the financial world. The first was an avid sports fan; the second had little interest in sports. In the second funeral of the day, my colleague started eulogizing the wrong man. He waxed eloquent about the athletic prowess of a man who had never participated in organized sports. When the pastor caught himself, realizing his mistake, he apologized and added, “He always wished he could have been a great athlete.”

A recent seminary graduate, newly ordained, accepted his first pastorate in a rural area in northern Spartanburg County. Soon after his arrival at the church, he was asked to conduct a funeral for an elderly man. The man was a longtime member of the church but had been unable to attend services in several years because of ill health. The family explained that the funeral service was to be graveside at the family cemetery located at the old home place in southern Union County. The service was to be brief and would be followed by a covered dish dinner provided by the good folks at a nearby church.

The young pastor was nervous as he prepared for his first funeral. He rehearsed the service in his mind as he followed a set of complicated directions to the remote home. He became hopelessly lost on the back roads of Union County near Sumter National Forest.

Finally, almost by accident, he came upon an old house. As he turned down the long driveway, he could see two men under the shade of a large oak tree. The men appeared to be gravediggers. One stood beside a backhoe; the other leaned on a shovel.

The young pastor approached the two men. Though his dark suit and the Bible in his hand gave him away, he still felt the need to explain that he was a pastor.

“Is the family here?” the minister inquired.

“Nope, just left.”

“I see,” the pastor said, embarrassed that he was so tardy.

“Please give me a few minutes,” he requested.

With that, the pastor moved to freshly dug hole, noticing that the concrete vault was already closed. He read a passage of scripture. Though he dispensed with his prepared sermon, he offered a lengthy prayer. He thanked the men for their patience and drove on to the church for the covered dish dinner.

As the young pastor took his leave, the man next to the backhoe lit a cigarette. He turned to the man leaning on the shovel and said, “I’ve been in this business for thirty years. This is the first time I have ever seen anybody read the Bible and pray over a septic tank!”

 

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2013
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