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I have had a few funeral experiences in my 44 year career, but none has basically surpassed my experience at the United States Mortuary at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu in 1992.
I was asked to make a presentation for the Dodge Company at their annual Sunshine Seminar. After the seminar was completed Jake Dodge came over to me and asked if I would like to join him and take a tour of the U.S. Military Mortuary. I jumped at the chance and off we went.
Our first tour was the actual mortuary where we were treated like funeral royalty. The staff, all licensed funeral directors and embalmers, were outstanding.
As impressive as this part of the tour was, the surprise came, and the life changing event happened, when it was announced that we were going to be allowed to tour the MIA Identification laboratory.
We were allowed into the lab and almost immediately a young lady approached me and asked “Are you a funeral director?” I responded that I indeed was, and I asked her what she did in the lab. Her answer was that she was a member of the identification team which were actually like modern day detectives, much like Sherlock Holmes, whose job it was to piece together the intricate puzzle of who exactly these dead people were.
I was in for a learning experience no doubt. I was taught that the remains of MIA’s literally arrive from all parts of the world, and from most of the past modern wars – even World War II, and beyond. At this time there were the remains of two pilots whose plane had crashed over Tibet in the middle of the World War II and their remains were frozen in a mountain glacier where they were discovered by mountain explorers some 50 years after their crash and deaths. They were now to be identified, and my interest was on high alert.
This young lady, I will call her Amy, was also a trained anthropologist and during the tour she told me quite frankly that she did not believe in funerals until she had a life changing experience connected with her job at the lab. She further explained that she had really taken the job to work in Hawaii.
However now her attitude had changed, and it had changed in a big way. She shared this story with me. One day she received the assignment to identify a box of bones that had arrived at the lab. Sure enough in time she had a positive identification, and she also was informed that the deceased serviceman’s mother was still alive, living in an Eastern state and now in her 90s. The mother of the serviceman was duly notified and instructions were received that the mother wanted her son’s remains returned “home.” This lady’s son was killed in 1942.
My new friend Amy, through a series of unorthodox circumstances, went along with the escort on the flight back to the mainland to take the deceased home. Amy confided to me that the trip was also an opportunity to visit friends on the mainland that she had not seen since her move to Hawaii.
The evening after the remains arrived and the flag-covered military casket was lying in state at the funeral home, Amy and the escort stopped by after supper. The elderly mother was standing in the foyer and ignored both Amy and the escort, but did ask the funeral director to move the bouquet of flowers that had been placed at the head of the casket and in its place put a folding chair for her to sit on.
The funeral director did as the mother wished and the elderly mother sat by the head of the casket with the American flag in her hands, rubbing the end of the flag on her cheek and crying inconsolably. Amy thought this was the strangest type of behavior she had ever witnessed and confessed that she wanted to leave the funeral home then and there.
Two days later a military funeral was held. After the funeral and flag-folding ceremony, all seemed completed and Amy started walking to her rental car when she heard the elderly mother calling out: “Young lady, oh, young lady!” The elderly lady was waving from under the committal tent. Amy walked back to see what the old lady wanted, being somewhat confused because the mother had totally ignored her throughout the entire funeral process. But now things were different, something had happened, and something needed to happen and to be said in finality.
Here is the conversation Amy relayed. The old woman said, “The undertaker tells me you are the person who identified my son, is that right?” The mother was holding the folded American flag tight to her breast. “It that right?” she asked again. Amy replied, “Yes the body in this casket is indeed your son; I am sorry.” The mother next asked very firmly, “Are you absolutely sure, are you totally certain, that this is my son?” Amy said, “I can assure you with all the sophistication of the lab in Hawaii, with all our equipment, and with my knowledge and experience that this is indeed your son.”
Then tears welled up in the old lady’s eyes, and she took Amy’s hand and asked, “Honey do you know what it is like not to sleep for 50 years?” “Every night for 50 years I would lie in my bed wondering, if he is alive, is he OK, and if he is dead why can’t they find him and bring him home?” But then the mother added, “But tonight I will sleep the sleep of the saved and innocent because I know exactly where my baby is.”
This mother’s son had been dead for one half of a century.
Amy returned to Hawaii believing in and now knowing the value of the funeral, the value of saying farewell, the value of ritual and ceremony, and value of one dead human being.
I believe this incident is a telling lesson which everybody who is involved with this honorable and noble calling needs to ponder and reflect on – even for just a split second. I personally believe that type of connection, that type of attachment, that type of funeral experience is in essence the authentic foundation, the raw core of this great profession. It is the very reason why we are here in the first place.
Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB