My people, long-suffering and ever faithful, spent their lives toiling while looking forward to heavenly rest when death finally called.
Most folks these days enjoy life on earth so much that they don’t want to leave it, even for heaven. That would not be my people, the generations gone before. In their eyes, each day lived was one day close to a heavenly reward. Dying was what they lived for.
“That’s the only thing in life worth working toward,” Daddy used to say. “Lookin’ forward to that land of promise where the weary shall find rest.”
With that in mind, they thought a lot about death and talked about it as naturally as they discussed marriage or childbirth. They talked about scriptures to be read, songs to be sung and places to be buried. Daddy’s long-held philosophy was “don’t worry about an expensive casket, but make sure you buy the best vault possible.”
I laugh now as I recall that because I don’t know anyone in my generation who thinks that way. But that was typical for the generations that came before.
Another thing — and this is why I’m thinking about this now — is that they were always squirreling away money for burial. Not one of them saved for their children to have college educations or for them to have retirement. Their life’s savings was to pay to bury them so they could leave this life, having paid every debt they owed.
Frequently, when I was growing up, I heard my grandparents or parents say, “I got to make sure I’ve got enough money to bury me.”
When someone died in our church or community, two questions would always be asked. First came, “What ‘kilt’ him?” and then, “Did he have enough to bury him?”
Everyone wanted to escape the stigma of a pauper’s grave, which is what the county provided by way of a pine box, lowered into an anonymous grave (no markers for those poor souls) by convicts dressed in stripes and leg chains.
“That’s one that the chain gang will bury for sure,” I remember hearing when I was 7 or 8 years old and a very old, penniless man died.
For the last 20 years of her life whenever Mama took money from her savings account to buy something (and, to be completely truthful, this very seldom happened. Mama never wanted anything enough to use savings to buy it), she would say, “I gotta make sure I keep enough back to bury me.”
I borrowed money from Mama once and then spent years trying to pay her back. Every time I offered, she’d say, “Just hold onto it. That way I’ll know I have enough money to bury me if something happens to the money I’ve got put back. I know I can count on you to have it.”
This has come up because, recently, two men, humble and much loved, died and there was little if any to bury either man. Both had served God and fellow man, leaving behind them a sowing of kindness and a harvest of good deeds. So, the community rallied together and raised the money to bury them. No one judged. They just loved.
I was 6 or 7 years old when Daddy stood in the pulpit before a casket and explained that the family had no money to bury the young man killed unexpectedly in a car wreck. The family was so poor that even other poor people considered them “the poorest of the poor.” Daddy instructed that a collection plate be passed as “Amazing Grace” was played. I don’t know how much was collected, but I do remember the undertaker gratefully thanking Daddy for the gesture.
My grandmother had a little, black, homemade pouch that stored carefully folded money. Daily, she tucked it inside her bra. “This oughta be enough to bury me,” she’d say.
And, it was.