After last week’s post On Faux Pas and Grace I received several requests to tell the story of the time my father fell into a grave. It’s a story I’ve thought about writing many times but I always hesitate before I do, then decide against it. To be honest, I hesitated this time and for the same reason I have in the past: I don’t know what to say about it.
I’m tempted to think that it is pointless to tell a story with no purpose other than to make people laugh. I want to tie a giant thought-provoking bow around a story before I present it to the world.
For years I’ve wanted to write about the early spring morning my sister, in a sleepy haze, shuffled onto our back deck with a cup of coffee in hand. I watched from the kitchen as she took a long sip from her cup and let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. Her head then tilted slowly to one side in what I assumed was a moment of reverent awe at the sight of the blooming azaleas and pear trees until she called back, “What’s with all of the feathers in the backyard?”
My heart sank in the same way the hearts of the Byzantine soldiers sank when at war with the Turks and their commanding officer screeched, “Who left the back gate open?” They knew the fall of the Byzantine Empire was imminent and I knew that our dog, Murphy, had killed the neighbor’s pet chicken.
Since then I’ve tried to work out a way to use this story as a launching pad for some great theological truth, but I’ve got nothing. I thought for a bit that I might be able to work in something about confession, seeing as how at first I tried to pretend nothing had happened. I even considered hiding all of the evidence, which was impossible because there were feathers everywhere. I avoided eye contact when coming to and from the house for a good 24 hours but eventually found myself riddled with guilt and knocking on the neighbor’s door. Only after confessing all that had been done did I find any relief.
I then thought of writing about the love and humility of a sister who, armed with only two trash bags, voluntarily went into the backyard and cleaned up what was left of the unfortunate bird and how this one action shattered any pride I felt in being a strong Texas woman (because let’s face it, there was no way I was going in the backyard as long as that headless and mangled chicken was there). But it all feels too contrived to bother writing it down.
I sit on a funny story simply because I see no worth in it other than the fact that it might put a smile on a few faces. What a shame.
Victor Hugo said, “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” Perhaps laughter is a form of gratitude—a celebration of life. It insists that there is still good in this world and there are pleasures to be enjoyed. Laughter is a refusal to concede to darkness and despair.
Laughter is reason enough to tell a good story. And so, without further ado…
My father once fell into a grave. He was a young pastor. It couldn’t have been long after he lodged the old woman in the baptismal font because he only had a half dozen or so funerals under his belt at the time.
It had rained the entire week before the funeral and there were no signs of it stopping for a burial service. As they drove up to the cemetery, the funeral director suggested that my father lead the casket up the hill to the graveside while the family and friends of the deceased waited in their cars, unexposed to the elements for as long as possible. Once the casket was in place, the funeral director would then usher the guests to their seats.
When he got to the grave, my father solemnly inched his was to the head as, I am told, it is the appropriate place for the pastor to stand at a burial. But the ground was slick and muddy from the rain and in his eagerness my father stepped too close to the edge. The earth caved beneath him and he slipped, full body, into the grave. He was desperately clawing his way out as the family arrived. With furrowed brows and mouths agape, they froze and gawked at the awkward sight.
But the funeral director, an imperturbable and slightly pompous man, assumed a rather emotionless face (I imagine something like Jeeves). With no loss of decorum, he continued seating the guests, leaving my father in his Bertie Wooster state—hanging in the grave with his head poking out like a gopher popping up from its hole. Only on his return did the funeral director offer a hand to pull him out.
No explanation was ever given as to why the pastor was found climbing out of the grave. Up to his armpits in mud, he claimed his spot at the head of the grave and performed the ceremony. When the service was complete my father, not knowing what else to do, shook hands with the family members seated in the front row, with their brows still furrowed and their mouths still hanging agape. He then walked down the hill to his car, climbed in and drove away.
This story is legendary within Methodist circles in Texas. So much so that on several occasions a fellow minister has come up to my father and asked, “Have you heard the one about the pastor who fell into the grave?” He hangs his head and groans, “Yeah, that was me.”