Tuesday, April 8, 2014


My Uncle Haywood, like many other young men of his day, was called to serve in World War II. He left his home outside Jackson, Tennessee, and ended up serving on a PT boat in the Pacific Theater. He passed away in 2000 after an extended period of stay in a nursing home in Alamo, some 20 miles northwest of Jackson, which is some 80 miles northeast of Memphis. So basically, this is a West Tennessee story.

I got the call one September morning that Uncle Haywood had died and that the funeral would be held in Jackson on the following Saturday. The week was a busy one for me, so I elected to fly from Atlanta to Memphis, where I would rent a car to drive up to Jackson for the weekend. That part of the plan was executed without incident, and early Friday afternoon, I pulled up to George A. Smith & Sons Funeral Home, on Highway 45 south of Jackson.

I entered the building and was directed to a conference room, where my mother Peggy and her sister, my Aunt Ida, a steel magnolia of the highest order, were seated at the table. My mom gave me a hug, and Aunt Ida, who was engaged in a lively phone conversation, blew me a kiss and continued her side of what was obviously a rather spirited debate.

"Now, I'm telling you, he does NOT know what he is talking about....yes, I KNOW he's been out there and he THINKS he knows where everything is, but I want someone to make sure...yeah, I think that will be fine. OK, thank you, and we'll see you tomorrow."

Aunt Ida, who owned a busy beauty parlor in Trenton, Tennessee, hung up the phone, turned to me with a broad smile, and said, "Hey, sweetie! Why has it been so long since you've been up to see me?" At a loss for words, I apologized to her and said I'd try to do better in the future. She nodded, as she always did, asked me how Karen and the girls were doing, then turned back to my mom.

"Peggy, I'm tellin' you, that derned old J.E. has got this all messed up. They say he's looked at the plot, but I'm not sure." I asked what all this was about, and what I got out of it was that said J.E., who managed the plots at the cemetery, had directed the funeral home about where Uncle Haywood was to be buried, but apparently, Aunt Ida was not all that happy with what she perceived as his uncertainty regarding my uncle's final resting place.

After a few minutes of animated conversation about J.E., we returned to my uncle's house in the town of Bemis, close by, and went through some of his possessions. There were odds and ends for the most part, except for a stack of old candid black and white war photos in a dark red box. In one of these, a group of sailors was pictured aboard a PT boat, and there in the middle of the group was none other than John F. Kennedy! I showed this picture to my aunt, and she said that she indeed remembered Haywood talking about having served on another boat which often accompanied Kennedy's boat on maneuvers, and that Kennedy was remembered as a fair, fun-loving officer. We brought back the pictures and a few other memoirs to Ida's home, then had dinner and turned in for the night.

Saturday morning dawned bright, sunny, and wickedly hot. We headed back to the Smith Funeral Home for the service, and it was indeed a wonderful tribute to Uncle Haywood. As so often happens with funerals, I had the chance to visit with many friends and relatives whom I had not seen for years. Once the service was concluded, we made the short drive to Lester's Chapel cemetery for the graveside service. Again, a lovely message was delivered.

I suppose it was sometime near the end of the service when I looked around and realized that, at least according to what I'd seen on the plot map, Uncle Haywood was about to be buried in the wrong row of the cemetery. In fact, he was about to be buried next to his second wife, and not in the family row to which he had been assigned. I waited for the service to finish, then turned to my mother and said, "I know this may not be the best time to say this, but I believe Uncle Haywood is being buried in the wrong place."

My mom looked around at the other markers, and then a look of total incredulity passed over her face. "Laaaaawws, Richard, you are right. He is NOT in the right spot. We're gonna have to tell Ida Mae."

Instantly recalling Ida's animated conversation from the day before, I replied, "Well, I'm not gonna be the one to tell her."

We waited for a few of the friends and family to disperse, and then my mom and I walked over to Ida together to deliver the news.

"Ida Mae, Richard just noticed, and I agree...they're burying Haywood in the wrong place."

Ida looked around, mirroring the earlier reaction of my mother, and said, "Laws, Peggy, you are right. That derned old J.E. If he'd a' kept his mouth shut, we wouldn't be in this mess!"

At about that time, a lanky gravedigger with very few teeth, resting beside one of the tent poles, overheard what we were saying and exclaimed, "Y'all, I'm gonna tell ya...if he ain't in the right place and I need to dig another hole, I need to know right NOW, 'cause it's gonna get dark."

We called over the funeral director, a pleasant young man, who apologized profusely for the error. He told us that after the crowd dispersed, his crew would cover the freshly excavated site and dig a new one in the correct row, after which time the casket would be lowered into its proper resting place. We all agreed that this was a fair settlement, and as the last of the friends left, my Aunt Ida, my mother, my cousin Marion and I stood there, turning the whole incident over in our minds. And at that moment, my dear Aunt Ida came up with the perfect West Tennessee response to a situation of this magnitude:

"Well, y'all...I guess that'll work. There's really nothin' else we can do. Let's go get barbecue."

And so, Uncle Haywood came to a peaceful rest, right where he was supposed to be.