Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mountain Willy late for his own funeral, not allowed for men

Had a full week last week, and part of that involved the funeral of a close cousin, really more of a big brother when I was young.  

Mountain Willy kicked the bucket rather spectacularly, deciding that he would not endure the prolonging of irreversible kidney failure. He sent out letters to those whom he had picked for his pallbearers, a couple of close kin, and his only child, a daughter with a kid of her own for his grandchild.  

Then he picked the time and place on the day after we all got the letters, without answering any of our phone calls that day.

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He was somewhat long in the tooth, as the saying goes, and he didn’t have a lot of folks for the procession headed an hour northwest of Pine Bluff, Arkansas – maybe a dozen vehicles all told, behind the hearse and cops and family limo.

My Aunt Caryl and Uncle Bill are both buried in that small cemetery, and when we went by a sign, I told Betsy, “I thought we were supposed to turn off right about here somewhere.”

She thought so too, but the idea in a funeral procession is to follow the hearse bearing the deceased to be funeralized, so we kept on following.

The convoy went up a hill, around a curve, slowed down going down the other side of the hill, then stopped at the bottom, right across from a gravel road with a locked gate. All dozen or so vehicles, with blue-lights front and rear, just stopped in the highway.

“Someone forgot to unlock the gate,” I guessed. “They’re calling to get the sexton. Hope he gets here before the bad weather. It’s supposed to start snowing up here within the hour.”

Suddenly, after ten minutes, the lead police car, which had been waving approaching vehicles around our halted procession, pulled up into the gravel road, backed up, and came by us headed the other way. So did the hearse. So did the limo, though it took him a couple of back-ups.

Nobody stopped to announce an about-face to the rest of us, but like I said, for funerals, you follow the hearse.

The policeman had missed the cemetery turnoff, as I had prophesied!

Fortunately, he had recognized that within a couple of miles, or we might have gone on to invade Oklahoma with Mountain Willy, who was beyond caring where he got planted anyway.  

I made a U-turn with the Mercury when my time came, and we sped back up the hill and around the curve, rather faster than normal for a typical funeral procession. That time, we found the cemetery where the open grave awaited, along with a Navy flag-folding detail and an Air Force firing squad for the final salute volleys, since Mountain Willy was a retired U. S. Navy Commander, with all honors due unto him for that rank.

All my life, I have heard the old saw, “He’d be late for his own funeral,” but I think that’s the first time I ever actually witnessed the phenomenon.

My cousin had also placed me in charge of the proceedings, through no fault of my own, so I reckon I deserve some of the blame, for not at least checking to see if the police or the undertaker really knew where the Rucker burial plot was in northern Arkansas.

Betsy’s Aunt Florrie had a reputation for being late, but she wasn’t thataway for her own funeral, although she was famous in her own right for staying in what they said was a fatal coma for weeks, then unexpectedly waking up.

Her first words were, “Hand me a mirror… My Lord, look at my hair!  Hand me a brush!”

She expired not long after that, but her legend was secure in the family.

My bride herself, like most Southern Ladies, knows that a Real Lady is always expected to be fashionably late, no matter that her menfolks continually fail to acquire that propensity.

Yet she has the grace and humor to then introduce herself as “The Late Mrs. Neill,” when she arrives at the party or wherever. It’s not a problem, since I learned a long time ago that I can never hope to understand women, nor is it Biblically dictated that I do so. Late is okay for Ladies.

Even for funerals, now that Mountain Willy has set the standard for our own family.  

But I’ll bet the next time that Arkansas Policeman gets assigned to lead a funeral detail, he checks beforehand to get directions (Betsy would say here, “A man NEVER asks for directions!”), and that the undertaker does the same thing!