“Lord, he looks so peaceful,” Miss Alice said tearfully. I braced myself for a long two hours at my post—and that was before the funeral started. Interrupting my thoughts, she looked up at me and spoke in a whisper that was loud enough for Pastor Brown, who was standing on the other side of the casket, to hear. “We’ve missed you at church, Jimmy. Don’t be a stranger!”
I’d been a stranger at Zion Baptist Church for two years, ever since I’d started Arkansas State University here in Jonesboro. Most of the girls I’d go to youth group to see were gone now—off to college in Little Rock, Memphis. And when I started going on call nights and weekends at Johnson & Son, doing removals and assisting at funerals, I came up with more reasons.
“Howdy, Jim—I almost didn’t recognize you!” whispered Sam Manning in a faux hillbilly voice, shuffling to the left of the casket, vise grip on my right hand. “Don’t let that book-learning get you all corn-fused.” I smiled and nodded.
The visitation line had died down after about a half-hour, as those who had to work and wouldn’t be staying for the funeral had gone through, and the crowd of those family and close friends who would stay for the funeral hadn’t yet arrived. Buddy Parkin—today’s “case,” as my boss had said—was dressed out in a nice blue polyester suit brought over by his daughter, Sarah, the day after we’d picked him up, wedding ring showing on his left hand, folded over his right. I’d known the family since I was little—saw him and his wife, Miss Jolene, at church every Sunday. She’d passed on a few years back. Breast cancer. Sarah, their only daughter, lived across town. They’d have catfish and hushpuppies every Thursday night at the Fish Boat.
Pastor Brown walked over and took a long look at Buddy and sighed, almost happily. “Well, he does look peaceful,” he admitted, glancing toward me as he finished.
I grimaced slightly enough to merit his question, “Whatta they have you doing over here at Johnson? Is that a pre-med internship or something?”
“Pre-law,” I corrected him, trying to sound respectful, “I’m pre-law at school. Actually, it’s just a job. They’d rather have someone else do the removals and stand here for two hours, at half the pay. It’s still better—”
“Better than flippin’ burgers!” he agreed, with a wild-eyed look that suggested not really. “What’s that involve, removals?”
“Well sir, you know, when we get a case . . . when somebody passes, the family or whoever finds him calls the funeral home or the Craighead County coroner, and one way or another, Johnson’s got to come out and get him, even in the middle of the night. So they call my cellphone and I throw on this suit and meet one of the directors here. Got to be here in 30 minutes. Then we drive over there in the van—people say ‘hearse,’ but they don’t call ’em hearses—and have to get him . . . ”
“Well, you’re a big strong fella, so I reckon that’s why . . . ”
“Yeah, but it’s tough sometimes. Like with Budd . . . Mr. Parkin. He was in his bathroom upstairs when his heart gave out, and you gotta put him on a gurney and get that thing around the corner and down the stairs.”
“Sarah, honey,” Pastor Brown interrupted me, calling to a row of chairs on the side of the room, “if you or Tom needs anything, just let me know, OK?” He’d caught her sobbing out of the corner of his eye. She smiled and nodded. “Thanks, Pastor,” her husband affirmed.
“That’s gotta be difficult, Jim. Was she real upset when y’all got there?”
“She found him there next to the sink,” I answered. “Coroner said he was probably gone before he hit the floor. Said he must’ve had several blockages. When we went in there, . . . ”
“Looked pretty bad,” Pastor Brown finished.
“He looked pretty bad, you were gonna say, right? He wasn’t . . . didn’t look ‘peaceful.’”
Now I was staring at Buddy Parkin. “No, to be honest, his face was sort of distorted,” I said, after a long pause, then stared some more. “I mean, people always say ‘she looks so natural,’ or ‘I bet he was seeing Jesus,’ but they . . . ” (I dialed down my volume a little more) “that ain’t how they look when we get there.”
“That surprise you, Jim?”
“Well, no, I mean . . . what do you think he was seeing—or thinking?”
Pastor Brown smiled, but seriously. “I don’t know, but I bet he was thinking, ‘Lord, my chest hurts!’”
I was still staring, and the humor slipped past me. “People don’t know it, but those looks aren’t natural. They fix ’em up with cotton in their cheeks to make a little almost-smile. Then they shoot this—they call it a ligature—this plastic thing into the mouth to keep it shut looking like that. Then they run that embalming fluid through. Colors their skin. You know, you can actually see that stuff travelling through their veins, if they’ve got good ones. You can watch the arm go pink again.”
I was fixing to start telling him about how they’d cover up bruises and wounds with makeup and blue lighting when he interrupted again. “Well, none of that’s too big for God, Jimmy.”
“You don’t like hearing about how ‘he looks peaceful’ because of what you’ve seen. But you’re not taking into account the Resurrection. You know, when they laid the Lord Jesus in that tomb, He was . . . ”
“Pastor Brown?” a female voice half-whispered through a bereaved grin. “I’m Buddy’s cousin Irene, from Lepanto.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m so sorry for—”
“I was hoping to sing this number—I’ve got a tape with the background music, and I was planning on singing Buddy’s favorite song at the service.”
“Ma’am, we’ve already planned out the service and selected some fine hymns—‘In the Sweet By-and-By,’ ‘Beulah Land,’ ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and—”
“I am family!” she furrowed her brow.
“We worked this all out with Sarah and Tom on Tuesday morning after he passed on.”
“I Saw the Light!” she said, indignantly. When Pastor Brown didn’t reply for a few seconds, she added, “Hank Williams?”
“Yes, I know,” he assured her.
Irene looked at Buddy, as if she hoped he’d back her up. “I just know he’d want us to hear that Gospel message.”
Pastor Brown put his arm around her shoulder firmly. “Excuse us for a minute, Jim.”
Quickly, she shoved a cassette toward me: “Here’s that tape—you’re with the funeral home, right?”
As Pastor Brown started to guide her over toward Sarah and Tom, he turned back. “Jim,” he said over his shoulder, gravely, “What do they look like when they pull them out of the water?”
Flummoxed, I glanced back to notice that the line was building again. As I drew breath, I noticed Pastor Brown, Cousin Irene, Sarah, and Tom were already having it out on the side of the room.
What did he mean? I wondered, as Buddy’s extended family filed by. That boy they pulled out of Lake Frierson was white—soapy looking. I’d seem him on the table—adipocere, they call it, where the layer of fat beneath the skin—
The pianist started playing through a verse of “Sweet By-and-By,” and, startled, I hurried to the back, next to the pall-bearers, whom I’d forgotten to instruct. There’d be time after the service, I thought nervously. We sang four verses, and Pastor Brown went up to the podium and, in typical Baptist fashion, opened in prayer, then read the obituary. “Lyle ‘Buddy’ Parkin, 64, born in West Memphis to A.V. and Louise Parkin, died Monday of a massive heart attack. He is survived . . . ”
He’d been missing for six months when some fisherman found him, turned up near the big weedbed where the bass are in spring. We’d picked him up at the morgue—his mama was weeping uncontrollably. “He looks so white,” she kept saying, “like an angel.”
“Brother Buddy loved Gospel music,” Pastor Brown was saying, “and his favorite was an old song written by Luther Pres-ley. The Zion Baptist Quartet is coming now to sing it, and you can join in if you know it—‘Praise the Lord! I’ll Have a New Life.’” And away they went.
On the resurrection morning
When all th’ dead in Christ shall rise
I’ll have a new body,
Praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life
Sewed in weakness, raised in power
Ready to live in Paradise
I’ll have a new body,
Praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life
I couldn’t help thinking, This music is a little too happy for a funeral. What were they thinking? Then, I felt that tape in my pocket and glanced over at Cousin Irene. She was fuming.
Pastor Brown cleared his throat—he was in the middle of a Scripture reading, something from Revelation. And he was looking right at me. “‘And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.’
“Dearly Beloved, when I asked Sarah what her daddy’s favorite verse was, she said ‘Revelations 20:13.’ I said, ‘That’s a funny verse to be your favorite. What made him like that one?’ And you know what she said? ‘Cause he knew that, if the Lord could put someone back together who’d fell in the sea, He could raise up anyone. Nothing’s too big for God.’”