Small towns in America sit there in what the big city folks call flyover country. You could look out the window of a jet going from NYC to LA and you might not even see these little towns. There might be lives in those small towns which are tied into the fabric of those little specs outside your big jet window. The ties might go so deep as to represent generations. The love and trust of those ties might shine a little. But not enough to reach your big plane in the sky, I suppose.
I have a client who is an undertaker in a very small town about an hour from where I live. It's one of those little blips on the map which used to see a lot of traffic from Highway 70 between Little Rock and Memphis, before the Interstate made it a place where the young folks can't wait to leave and a lot of the old folks are dying on a regular basis.
I've come to know some of these small towns on a very intimate basis. I'm the Insurance Man for some of these towns. They trust me, and I love them. I've known some of these families for a long, long time. And one family I know quite well is the family of this Funeral Home Owner (I think he'd like that, rather than undertaker). I've dealt with him on many occasions when someone died who had life insurance with me. He knows that I'll do the right thing and make sure the claim is paid as soon as possible. And he knows that I really care about the folks and, like him, I’m not just in it for the money.
You may think this "industry of death" is macabre and weird and you'd rather not think about it. I heard a story on NPR by some twit the other day who'd written a book about the evil "funeral industry." As with most stories on NPR, the sarcasm and hatred for any American institution was dripping through the radio so badly that I had to turn it off before it soiled my floor mats.
But, let me tell you this: If you were a family in this small town and your only daughter had just wrapped her new high school graduation present Camaro around a light pole and someone had to go pick her up and put her pieces back together and get her ready for a burial, you can damn well bet that you'd feel better if it was someone you knew. And ever better if it was someone you'd known for a long, long time, who lived in your small town and you trusted. And even better if he knew the girl and would throw his arms around you like a brother and cry those tears with you and tell you, "Let it go. Get it out. I loved her, and I love you. I'll take care of her now."
This client of mine has done that his whole life in this small town. One scene after another of a death and a hug and tears and a burial and a closure and all at a fair price and all with real concern.
I met with him last year and he told me that he was worried because he was getting on in years, and he was not sure what would happen with the funeral home when he was gone. I asked him if his family would not sell it if he wasn't there. And then he told me how his son, who is the local pharmacist, would have to take it over, because the town needed this family to do this job. That seemed strange to me, because his son owns the only pharmacy in town. Also, the son is gay, in a town where that's not really understood. Everyone seems to "know it," but no one really discusses why Byrum isn't married and why he lives with another man, at his age. Then I learned that the daughter in the family was going to pharmacy school just so she could take over the pharmacy and let the son run the funeral home.
The plans that were going on in Joe’s head, just so this family could continue to bury the folks in this small town, was astounding to me. So I asked Joe if he thought I should write him some more life insurance just in case the kids needed some help if something happened to him (we always say "something happened" instead of "drop dead"). He said that might be a good idea. He was in his mid-60's. I got a medical done on him, and there was an abnormality with an EKG. The first company I tried turned him down. This surprised me, because he was the picture of health for a guy his age. Diminutive, not fat, gleam in his eye, etc. And I'm used to healthy folks having a glitch in an EKG. It happens all the time. So I tried it with another company, and they said "OK."
Six months later, this May, Joe died while he was eating out at this little town's only decent restaurant. The little blip on the EKG turned out to be a very good indicator of trouble. (The owner of that restaurant is also a long-time client of mine. He's the one who called me the next day and told me "something happened" to Joe.)
Tonight I delivered the six-figure check to Joe's widow and his son. I'm sure it will help, but they both told me they would burn the check right now if they could just have Joe back for another year. The son told me that he still didn't know all he should have learned from his dad about how to prepare the bodies. I suggested that they consider selling the business. They both looked at me and said, in unison, "He wouldn't have wanted us to do that." And neither would the small town.
I can't tell you how many folks in that small town have told me how much this death meant to them. This was the man who had buried their moms and dads and grandmas and granddads and (in the worst cases) their children.
So, Byrum, the kid who grew up to be a pharmacist, will now become an undertaker. His love for his dad will ensure that he does it well and with a love that he knows is to be expected.
I don't want to hear anyone make fun of that career choice.