When the phone rang shortly after 2:00 AM to notify me that Jerry Curtis (name changed, obviously) had died, I was, as you may have guessed, asleep. Honestly, I very much wanted to keep sleeping, but I’m sure Mr. Curtis very much wanted to keep living, so neither of us got what we were hoping for that night. For him, not much would change as the night progressed, but being forced awake would end up being the high point for me. I got up, threw on a suit, and headed to the nursing home where Mr. Curtis and his family were waiting patiently for me.
That nursing home had a weird double entry system with just enough space between the first and second door for the cot or gurney or whatever you want to call it to fit and both doors close. Once you and the cot were in the first door, you had to buzz the nurses’ station so that they could unlock the second door from the desk. No one was getting up to help at that hour. It was a system designed to make funeral directors look stupid, and it worked every time.
As I awkwardly held the second door open with my body while wheeling a rolling cot past me into the lobby, Mr. Curtis’s two sons approached. They were both wearing boots, jeans, and plain white t-shirts. One had a cowboy hat and a small mustache while the other had no hat, a semi-mullet, and scraggly stubble. These were young guys — mid to late 20s, maybe. They’d never done this before and had no idea what was going on.
Despite our first impressions, things went smoothly. They asked me questions, and I answered them. They told me what they were planning, and asked if their ideas seemed reasonable, which they did. Then they left, and I signed my papers at the nurses’ desk, got Mr. Curtis, and headed through the weird doors — this time with a whole person on the cot and still no help, so you can imagine how that went — and back to the funeral home. Then I remembered: the ER.
See, that nursing home didn’t have anyone on staff at night who could pronounce someone as being dead — at least not officially — so we had to go to the hospital emergency room and find a doctor to make the death legal. I entered through the ambulance entrance and asked who the doctor on duty was that night. It was Dr. Franks. Dr. Franks was old and tired and not really enthused about being an ER doctor anymore. He stumbled out of his little room with his little bed in it, said something snarky about having to wake up and how he wished I had “waited until tomorrow for all of this” like the whole thing was my idea, and followed me out to the van to tell me that a deceased person was, in fact, deceased. Then he looked at me with a malicious twinkle in his eye.
“This guy’s family is on their way to your place right now,” he said.
“No. I just talked to them at the nursing home.”
“Ha. Not all of them,” and he walked back inside to his little bed.
At this point in time, I’d had my funeral director license about a year and a half. I wasn’t ready to deal with family conflicts at 3:00 in the morning alone. If they were at the funeral home, I’d just ride them out driving around town for as long as I had to waiting on them to get tired and go home. Whatever they felt like they needed to discuss could wait for business hours and a more experienced person. Approaching the funeral home, I scanned the parking lot for vehicle reflectors. There were none. Perfect! All I had to do was get to the back of the building before they got there, and I was home free. If they had been there, they would have parked out front. People didn’t just drive around to the back of the funeral home in the middle of the night. It was scary back there.
As I hurried around the back corner of the building repeatedly checking my rearview mirror, I felt relief. Then I saw the headlights. They were not behind me, though. They were in front of me. More importantly, they were blocking the garage door as well as any potential exit. These people were waiting for me at 3:00 in the morning behind a funeral home. I couldn’t back out. I couldn’t turn around. My only option was to face whoever was at the other end of that building. I was trapped, so I did the only thing I knew to do. I drove forward, opened the door, and got out of my van. Mr. Curtis stayed inside.
Hesitantly approaching, I saw three figures emerging from within the lighted backdrop — one little and two big. The little one was a middle-aged woman with big hair and Grandpa-George-from-the-original-Willy-Wonka-thick glasses. The big ones were fully-clothed cavemen. Then the little one spoke.
“I’m Jerry Curtis’s sister, and I’m the one in charge.”
Quick Lesson: When a person dies, there’s a hierarchy of relatives, and children come before siblings.¹
“Ma’am, I just spoke to his children. They are legally the ones in charge.”
“Oh no they’re not! I’m his Power of Attorney!”
Another quick lesson: Most Powers of Attorney terminate at death. In my state, there is one that doesn’t and that gives the person listed the right to make funeral arrangements.²
A lot of attorneys in my hometown had told me themselves that that particular one didn’t really exist (even though it very much did), so I was skeptical that she had what she thought she had. I offered to look at it after 8:00, but she refused.
“I’ve got it right here!”
Next thing I knew, I was reading a legal document by the headlight of a funeral home van in otherwise pitch darkness with two mouth-breathers hovering over me. Right then I realized something: I could be murdered for just doing my job. If her Power of Attorney was the wrong kind, did I trust the two Neanderthals to be reasonable and cool about it? Not really, and they’d get away with it too because there was no one else around but Mr. Curtis, and he wasn’t talking. Suddenly, I was extremely concerned that she had the proper paperwork. I don’t normally take sides in family conflicts, but, in that moment, I wanted her to have what she thought she had so, so bad. I kept reading, trying to focus despite the warm breath on my neck. Then Ms. Thickglasses started talking again.
“You can’t let those boys do this. They want to cremate him!”
Now, I’d heard plenty of old relatives lament cremation before. It’s the south! Living in the third notch of the Bible Belt, a lot of people believed, and actually still believe, that cremation is of the devil, so I didn’t think too much about what she was saying. Then she continued.
“Those two, they’re just a couple of…”
She paused trying to think of the word. I was listening now. The suspense was killing me. A couple of what?
“…a couple of dugheads. You know why they wanna cremate him? They wanna melt his ashes down and inject them into their veins!”
Yes, dugheads. My best guess is that she was going for dopeheads then decided to switch to drugheads at the last second, but, I sure wasn’t about to ask right then. Whatever the reason, this lady had just looked me in the face at 3:00 in the morning in the back of a funeral home with two redneck nightclub bouncers standing way too close behind me and called her nephews dugheads who wanted to inject their father’s ashes into their veins.
With that, I seriously questioned who I’d be better off dealing with — her or the dugheads — but it didn’t matter because, as I read further, I found the magic phrase: Direct the disposition of remains. That meant that she called the shots, and the dugheads had to go along with whatever she said. It also meant that the two dudes behind me had no reason to club me to death, so that was nice.
From that point forward, things were much better. Mr. Curtis’s sister had him buried near his parents and other family members, and the dughead brothers were able to pay tribute to their father in a way they found most fitting: by backing a boxy, late 80s Ford Mustang with busted, rattly speakers up to the gravesite and blaring George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” louder than anything you’ve ever heard in your life and on repeat until he was all the way in the ground with the flowers placed neatly above him.
Once “No Show” had finished telling us exactly when he stopped loving her for what seemed like the billionth time, Mr. Curtis’s family all left together — the sister, the dugheads, everyone — headed to the church to sample various casseroles while we finished our work at the cemetery. Just like that, it was done, and, the best part was, we got through the whole thing without anyone being injected into anyone else’s veins.
¹Different states have different rules, so you need to check on your state’s hierarchy, but I’m pretty sure adult children over siblings is universal.
²Again, different states operate differently, so you should ask an attorney AND a funeral director in your state if you have questions about this.
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