A Lesson from Aunt Esther, God Rest Her.
Have you ever thought about what your funeral will be like? Who would come? How many would show up?
I went to a fantastic funeral on Tuesday. My Aunt Esther, 74 years old, died of liver cancer. Discovering the cancer in its advanced state, the doctors advised her to go home and live out her last days with her family, enjoying them as best she could. The cancer went untreated because it was untreatable and a couple of months ago, the doctors bluntly warned the family “Now is the time to say your goodbyes.”
Death loomed for several months. There was a long period of gradual decline and whenever I asked my mother about her sister, she’d say “She’s going down hill. She’s slipping. She’s doing the best she can.” And for about the last week, Aunt Esther laid in her bed, unresponsive, unable to eat or drink, with family gathered around until finally she died on Saturday night. Death was welcomed.
At visitation Monday night, 1200 people signed the register. Twelve hundred people! In Bladenboro, North Carolina. A little farm town where my aunt was born, lived and died. I’m not sure that there are 1200 in all of Bladenboro! Where did all these people come from? Were they imported mourners?
She was a simple woman. Never elected to public office. She wasn’t a mayor or councilwoman. For years, her husband was the only barber in town, and he is bald. She was a homemaker. She raised two sons and two daughters, all who grew up, married and moved away. The closest lives nearly 100 miles from the old homestead.
The funeral was at 11 am on Tuesday. I drove 220 miles to get there, left at 10 minutes till 6 am with my wife and kids in the van. I was missing work; abandoning my Histology students that day even though my mother repeatedly told me: “You don’t have to do this, I know you’ve got other things to do.” But I had missed my other aunt’s funeral and realized later what a mistake that was. I vowed not be so callous again.
My family and I arrived about 10 o’clock and I strolled through the big Baptist church where the sanctuary was already filling with people while others waited in line to sign the register. Off to the side, there was a room full of silver-haired old ladies, wearing their red sweaters on this warm day, adjusting their glasses, and waiting. Not going into the sanctuary. Who are these people? What are they doing here?
When the service started, these ladies were seated as a group up front, near the family. During the remarks by the preacher, I learned these ladies belong to the JOY Group. Members of the group joke that JOY means “Just Older Youth” when in fact it represents the philosophy of these ladies: “Jesus, Others, Yourself.” These were Aunt Esther’s Sisters in Christ.
One wonderful thing about Galeed Baptist Church is having the graveyard in a field right by the church. So we walked to the graveside. Not riding slowly in cars with headlights burning in the middle of the day. Just a short walk home where most of my mother’s family is buried. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents.
Then back to the church activities building for a feast served up by the JOY Group! Fried chicken, pork chops, salads, string bean casseroles (which I don’t care for, but the intention was good), ham biscuits, and home-grown butter beans. These aren’t store-bought butterbeans. You can tell by the purple and gray. They’ve never been in a can. These must have been hand picked and shelled while sitting on the porch. They must have been frozen last summer because it’s way to early for butterbeans this year. This is some families’ finest, gold from the freezer, being served to friends and strangers. Somebody gave their most precious, their best. Why? And why 1200 people?
Who is this woman that so many would honor her? What has she done to deserve this? During the service, a preacher recounted her life and told of her generosity to others. She fixed meals for the sick, visited
shut-ins and drove the sick and elderly to their doctor visits. She taught
Sunday School and tended a garden, growing flowers, and made her home a pleasant place to visit. Little sacrifices of her time for others. JOY. Maybe she’d miss a TV show to cook for somebody. It meant
staying inside on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon to get ready to teach a Sunday School lesson. It meant rousting the old bones out of bed to take a neighbor to the doctor when she’d rather sleep another 30 minutes. It meant going to see the kids’ ballgames even though you’re bone tired from picking and shucking and canning corn all day. Little decisions, day by day, that cumulatively made her who she was. I can’t think of one monumental thing she ever did. Nothing like the “One shining moment” associated with the Olympics or the crowning of a national college basketball champion.
No, there was no single major pinnacle of achievement in her life. She did the seemingly little things that required self-discipline. But these little things made a big difference. Doing the right thing, not the easy thing, not the selfish thing, not the more pleasant thing. Doing the right thing when nobody seems to notice. Doing the right thing when maybe she’d rather do something else or even do nothing at all.
What an impact this woman had because she did the right thing, the generous thing, the sacrificial thing. Not for credit. Nobody made her do it. It was self-discipline. JOY!
What do you do when you think nobody is looking or nobody will notice? Do you take the easy way out? Take shortcuts? Not give your best effort? Head for the sunshine and abandon the basement? You see, a suntan may last for a summer, but a reputation lasts a lifetime.
How many people do you expect at your funeral? 1200? Why should they come to honor you?
G.R. Davis, Jr.