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Partial to Home: A country funeral

 

Birney Imes

 

 

We are standing in the graveyard of a country church talking in hushed voices, about 60 of us. Hollywood could not have come up with a more beautiful setting for a funeral. Oaks, sweetgum and ancient cedars provide a canopy on a day mercifully overcast and cool. The white wooden country church, pristine and lovingly preserved, sits on the rise behind us. All of this plopped down on a sea of perfect grass in a far-flung corner of Noxubee County in rural Mississippi. 

 

Despite the remote location, the visitation prior to the service had drawn a crowd. The deceased, a 41-year-old mother, served in the Coast Guard, worked in law enforcement and came from a family with deep roots in Noxubee. Police officers she had served with, sharp in their dress uniforms, cluster together. The coffin is draped with an American flag. 

 

Pastor Glenn Miller talks quietly with the family, who under the funeral-home tent, are momentarily deprived of the splendor of the setting. The birds overhead, undaunted by the solemn proceedings below, seem unusually riotous. Then, without warning, a Coast Guard trumpeter standing next to a tall cedar near the road begins "Taps."  

 

The sound of the lone instrument makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Like the Clark Siler Family, a six-member a cappella group who sang during the service, the music is eerily beautiful, both mournful and soothing. 

 

Bud, the father of the deceased has, until recently, lived on family land a few miles north of the church. He is a beekeeper, who for years hosted an annual roundup that drew apiarists from across the South. About a half dozen of those beekeepers are here. 

 

Afterward, the ladies of the church serve a lunch of fried chicken, barbecue and covered dishes. I opt for fried chicken, new potatoes, squash casserole and a table with the beekeepers, who need little provocation to talk about their hobby and vocation. 

 

One, Schawee of Paulina, Louisiana, who cooked alligator etouffee at one of Bud's bee round-ups, is hoping to secure a bee removal contract from oil refineries near his home west of New Orleans. Another, Alan, who tends a hundred-plus hives near Ft. Payne, Alabama, ascribes paranormal powers to honeybees. "Man is the main problem bees have; if we would only learn to let them do what they're going to do naturally," he said. 

 

Later that afternoon, in a different setting, the phone rang. It was an old friend who grew up here and occasionally calls to catch up.  

 

The friend, an artist, was scuffling for dollars drawing caricatures in an ice cream shop in Louisville, Kentucky, and had a break. He's also a retired guidance counselor passionately concerned and deeply frustrated, about youth incarceration in his adopted hometown. 

 

Normally, when he calls, we talk about what's going on in our lives. This time was different. 

 

Henry was euphoric. He wanted to tell me about three encounters he's had recently including one with a young woman he sketched while she was in jail years ago. "I want you to know that really made my day," the woman said. The other was with a couple who sympathizes with his frustrations about youth detention and offered to help advocate for change. 

 

"I'm just grateful," Henry said. "I wanted to tell you about it." 

 

Yes, more gratitude, not that you need a reminder having just come from a funeral. I was grateful for his call. 

 

That evening, unable to sleep, I wandered out into the yard with a flashlight to check on the zinnias and sunflowers coming up from seeds. A passing thunderstorm left the night air fresh and cool. A large, hot-pink 4-o'clock was blooming. 

 

Turning to the other side of the yard the flashlight's beam reflected off the glistening dark purple leaves of Mrs. Kyle's cannas (so named for the late Verla Kyle from whom they came). Soon, before many more days pass, they will be as tall as a human and bear lovely orange blossoms. 

 

Birney Imes is a former publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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