August 2, 2007

A rant. No, I didn't smoke. Yeah-- I actually though about it, as a crowd of frustrated smokers assembled outside the building, 40 minutes into the ordeal. Yesterday morning, 8:25 AM--

We're at Arlington National Cemetery, for the funeral of my wife's stepfather, George. He died recently, after a protracted and agonizing decline, from assorted complications related to Parkinson's Disease. He was a Navy Captain with 32 years of service. The funeral is scheduled for 9:00 AM.

My wife, her mother, brother & sister, her late husband's son, and a few dozen other friends and relatives are assembled inside the Chapel, awaiting the beginning of the memorial service. Outside the chapel, lined up in the parking lot awaiting the signal to begin the procession to the gravesite, is a team of horses with riders (and a riderless horse), a caisson upon which the casket will be transported, and what seemed to be 25 or 30 musicians from the Navy Band, holding an assortment of instruments. Everyone is resplendent in white uniforms. Standing apart from the band, but part of the assembled participants is the honor guard (for the 21 gun salute) and a bugler (to blow "Taps").

There were also the officiating Navy Chaplain and the Arlington Cemetery representative, who were everywhere at once, being completely professional, ingratiating, humble, helpful and polite, dashing here and there to make sure everything went properly.

At about 8:40, the Arlington Lady (that's what they call themselves) comes into the family lounge, just off the main chapel, where about a dozen of us are gathered. "Do you know when the remains and the flowers are arriving?" she asks. It's 20 minutes before the service is to begin, and we don't have a body.

Several phone calls to the funeral home got us a few different stories, mostly involving "She's stuck in traffic" or "She's just 10 minutes away" or "She's passing the checkpoint now".

First of all, several of the people attending the funeral came from farther away than the funeral home (including Richmond and Woodbridge, VA, and made it there EARLY. Secondly, traffic in the D.C. Metropolitan area is widely known to be some of the shittiest around, and everyone with any sense makes allowances for that when planning to get from Point A to Point B. Thirdly, it's not like this was set up on the spur of the moment. This is supposedly a professional outfit that handles these situations every day.

So, there are at least 110 people fidgeting about (this includes the poor swabbies and swabettes in full dress uniform, standing in the sun in the parking lot...) waiting for the funeral home lady to get here with George's body. It's now 9:50...

We start the memorial service without the body. A sailor solemnly walks up the chapel's main aisle, carrying... a folded flag, and places it on the platform in front of the altar rail, and the Chaplain says some stuff, and the organist plays some hymns and everyone stands and sits and prays and sweats. It was warm and humid in there, and we're almost an hour late getting this thing going. I found myself wondering if we were going to be forced to conduct some bizarre, pantomime funeral without an actual body...

It's not like Arlington Cemetery has any slack time, you know. We have troops dying daily in an ongoing war; there's a big backup on processing and a waiting list to get in. Space is at a premium, and time is critical. I saw the schedule on a clipboard inside the lobby, and there were no fewer than 13 other funerals scheduled that I could see on the page that was visible to me. There's another funeral scheduled at 10:30, and they need time to re-dress the chapel.

Finally, at 10:04, we're told that the funeral home car has shown up. Everyone piles out into the parking lot. They're loading the flag-draped casket onto the caisson. Sailors are stretching and picking up their instruments. There are huge piles of horseshit from the team of critters hooked to the caisson; they've been standing (as has everyone else) out there for an hour, waiting for the signal to proceed...

Everyone is FINALLY ready to roll, and we do. The funeral route took us up and down hills, through several turns and  around numerous corners, past the Tomb of the Unknowns. We were spread out for about a quarter mile, with the band, caisson, honor guard, and all the cars containing the mourners. It was a HUGE procession. Tourists stopped to stare at us. Men and women of a certain age either saluted or put their hands over their hearts. Kids were impressed enough that they all stood still and simply gawked.  Dozens of people snapped photos or waved, maybe thinking someone very famous or important was being laid to rest. It was quite a show. So, we provided a lovely photo op for the public.

The graveside service was impressive. The sailors folding the flag conducted the ritual in an almost ceremonial dance-like way. A lot of florid hand gestures and unusual choreography. It was very strange and had a sort of mesmerizing quality to it. I'd seen a few funerals with military honors, but this was my first one w/ Naval protocol involved.

The 21 gun salute and the bugler prompted a flurry of tears and sobs. I defy anyone to stand graveside and listen to one bugler blowing "Taps" and not be moved to tears...

We were asked to please hurry back to our cars, as they had another funeral coming, right on our heels.  Finally it was all over, and we were able to go to George's son's house for some food and drink and to relax. En route, we realized that we never saw any of the flowers that had been ordered.

My mother-in-law--George's widow-- is an old-fashioned, refined, very kindly Southern lady. Very sweet and genteel and patient and soft-spoken and civil. She's also been through the mill for the last year or more, taking care of George as Parkinson's steadily diminished him in every possible way. She wasn't inclined to bellow at anyone. George's son is a nice guy, but also seemed disinclined to make a fuss. Everyone was angry, but nobody seemed quite livid enough to want to seriously jack up the funeral home people over this egregious breach of service, professionalism and simple decency. If it was up to me (which it's not... dammit!) I'd be screaming and gibbering in their entrance hallway until they coughed up something on the order of  AT LEAST a 50% refund.

(That's Miller's Funeral Home, Woodbridge, VA-- avoid them at all costs!!!)

What would you do? I mean, if a restaurant screws up your dinner order, they generally will comp you some desserts or a few drinks, or upgrade your meatloaf to a steak, or make SOME effort to soothe you. What the hell is the proper etiquette for a funeral home that screws up your funeral?

This was just unbelievable. I feel like firebombing the joint. But that would be wrong.

Story Index


Drop me a note with any questions,
comments, criticism, cogent thoughts,
cease-and-desist orders, etc., etc...