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Flag-Draped Coffins

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Bert died of a heart attack last Saturday. They had his funeral on Tuesday. Bert was my wife's uncle. Sort of. Her aunt divorced Bert twenty years ago, then continued living with him. A member of two fast-vanishing groups, Bert was a full-blood Choctaw Indian and a World War II veteran. The funeral was an interesting blend of Methodist, Choctaw, and military traditions. The ceremony commenced with a bi-lingual prayer. Next came a song in the Choctaw language, chanted by a strong, clear baritone lead singer backed by four harmonious treble voices. Another Indian song followed the eulogy. At the graveside, an honor guard did the twenty-one gun salute, folded and presented the flag, and ended with one member playing the Taps. Choctaw Indian veterans all, a single bald eagle feather dangled from each of their dark berets. Most funerals in Oklahoma end, and the attendees disperse, before the casket is placed in the coffin-liner and lowered into the grave. This time we waited the lowering of the fringed blanket-draped casket, then ended the ceremony by scattering handfuls of dirt in the open grave while the Choctaw singers chanted the final refrain.

Bert was born in 1922 and was 85 years old when he died, the same age my father-in-law would be if he hadn't died of lung cancer three years ago. A flag covered Bill's casket too, the result of being an Army Air Corps crew chief on a transport airplane that pulled gliders and dropped paratroopers over Belgium, France, and Germany fifty odd years ago. It was hazardous duty, but probably safer than being part of the cargo. Healthy and active, with longevity in Bill's genes from both sides, I had him figured for at least a century of life despite a light heart attack in his fiftieth decade. The heart attack ended his smoking habit; Bill claimed he smoked his first tobacco at the age of four. Who would have thought lung cancer would claim his life twenty-two years after he smoked his last cigarette. He was a good friend and neighbor for many years; I had a hard time saying goodbye.

Earlier this fall, I said goodbye to another old friend. Gary was also a veteran, from the war in Viet Nam. Actually, I recently learned he spent little time Viet Nam; most of Gary's tour of duty was spent among the mountain folk across the border in eastern Cambodia. I never learned the details of his mission or why he was in an area of the world that our government denied being in at the time. It was only in the last few years that Gary, a member of the Army Special Forces, talked about his wartime duty. It probably had something to do with electronics; that was his specialty.

Gary and I became good friends in the fifth grade. His mother was our teacher that year. After we graduated from high school, Gary briefly attended several Oklahoma colleges. He even spent part of a semester at the school I attended. Gary definitely believed in having a good time. So did I, but my fun was muted by the need to earn my way through college. Time and money were scarce for me. Gary, on the other hand, spent his mother's money and found extra time by not attending classes. I almost flunked out that semester, trying to keep up with him. Later he moved on to a small school in El Paso, TX where he completed electrical technician training. Following that, Gary joined the army.

After college, life took us in different directions and we only recently reconnected. Both of us had done some traveling, some hard and fast living, got tired of all that, married late, and raised one child. I'd retired and Gary was a department head at a college in Missouri. He'd smoked longer than I did and had some heart problems. He died of them one Saturday morning, resting in a recliner, a cup of coffee on a table beside his chair.

Gary's wife preceded him, passing away several years ago of a massive stroke. She was Japanese and a Buddhist. Although Gary was not religious, he had a refined sense of humor, so I guess it's not surprising he chose to have a Buddhist funeral for all his bible-belt friends to attend. What I remember most about Gary: he smiled a lot, had a quick chuckling laugh, and had a great sense of humor.

I'll end this journal entry by quoting an email reply I sent to several classmates of Gary's and mine.
We went to the funeral along with Pete and Shirley. Apparently, Gary mentioned us to his family because everyone seemed to know us.There were about 30-40 people there: local friends, relatives, and co-workers at the college. Everyone felt Gary touched their lives in a positive way.

The Adcock Funeral Home was in an old decommissioned church complete with old oak pews and a simple altar.

The ceremony at the funeral home was Buddhist, apparently at Gary's request. That and the ceremony was explained at the start. The priest knew Gary through his wife Cookie who was a Buddhist, even though Gary was not. Several passages of litany were chanted by the priest who rang a bell numerous times. The litany was not in English. The voice of the priest was augmented by a half a dozen or so of his congregation. After the chanting, the attendees were given a chance to add granules to the incense burner, a positive act that would aid Gary's passage to his next life. The ceremony ended with volunteers sharing stories about Gary. It was a very pleasant experience. Gary was well respected and involved with many people.

Gary's ashes were buried beside those of Cookie near his mother and father in the Wyandotte Indian Cemetery. Before the burial, the Army did a short ceremony and presented Gary's daughter with a folded flag.

I also have several of Gary's emails that I haven't deleted, so I know what you mean. I also realize that he is the first of our class to pass due to what is considered "old folks" ailments. And I still consider myself "middle-aged."

We're going to miss our friend and classmate, his wit and humor.
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[User Picture]
On December 11th, 2007 02:19 am (UTC), misswrite commented:
I'm sorry to hear about your friend. He sounds like a very extraordinary man.
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