I'm not the kind of guy who puts much faith in fate. We won't wander into some sort of existential quagmire here, but I think we pretty much determine what happens to us through our decisions, as well as our reaction to things that happen around us over which we – nor anyone else, for that matter – have much, if any, control.
In my mind, serendipity, rather than fate, plays a far bigger role in our lives. Was it fate that determined I'd never find a woman with whom I'd spend my declining years? I don't think so. It was good luck. In any case, here I am, unencumbered with a joint decision maker gumming up the works and complaining about hair in my ears.
Whether fate or serendipity, I have returned to a period in my life that I never thought I'd revisit. Here's the back story.....
My father was a Lutheran minister. This was a late-life career choice that had our family moving every three-or-so years as he completed college on the G.I. Bill, attended seminary and took a call at the two churches in which he ministered, the last of which was in Louisville, Kentucky. There was a funeral home nearby that church. It was there that probably 3 out of 5 funerals my father presided over took place. To say he knew and was friends with the staff there would be an understatement. He probably officiated at a half dozen funerals a year there.
If I pondered it sufficiently, I could probably remember whether it was during the spring of my senior year in high school or my freshman year in college, but the precise time reference is incidental to the story, and I just don't have the motivation or energy to think that hard. The point is that in the course of overseeing someone's send off to the afterlife, my father mentioned to the owner and funeral director who had asked about me that I was struggling to find summer employment. (Yes, this was at a time when kids over the age of 16 were expected to have summer employment.)
Thinking about it for a moment, the funeral director told my father he was a man down and had a spot for his young son, who he knew to be charming and hard working; a “highly motivated go-getter” was no doubt bandied about more than once.
So began my three-month apprenticeship at a funeral home.
A surreal period in my life, it was both strange and fun. Because of my age at the time, I immersed myself in the experience with a degree of irreverence. Not yet 21, death wasn't on my radar. Like string theory, mortality was something for someone else to consider and debate.
As I think about it, my three-month stint was more than likely during the summer of 1970. Not only were there no cell phones, Internet, answering machines and even beepers were technologies of the future.
My primary role at the funeral home was to spend every-other night and every-other weekend there. If a late-night call came in regarding a loved one's passing, my job was to phone whichever licensed mortician was on call that night, roust him out of bed and have him come to the funeral home to get the meat wagon, then accompany him to pick up the stiff.
I likened my workload to that of a firefighter: Days of little action punctuated by sporadic activity. That is to say, many days and nights I was there didn't produce much in the way of activity. In the back of the funeral home was a two-bed dorm where I and the other guy, who covered the nights and weekends I wasn't there, slept, showered and so forth. It had a TV with cable service. My evenings there were typically filled with TV watching. A couple of times a week, one or more of my friends would drop by with a pizza. Other nights, I was on my own. I occupied some of my idle time thinking of different ways I'd like to answer calls when they came in. The one that sticks in my mind is, “If you're soon to join the dear departed, we've got the equipment to get you started.” I crack myself up.
All things considered, it was a positive experience, not only providing an array of war stories with which to entertain friends over the next few years, but also providing experience with death and grieving that you can only get through facing it day after day.
So far behind me, I hadn't really thought much about the experience for years. Not until I became good friends with a couple who have become increasingly more involved in a funeral home in which they were nothing more than mere investors three or four years ago, did my own brush with the funeral-home business surface among my memories.
In the past couple of years they have gone from being behind-the-scenes money people in the enterprise to taking over the day-to-day supervision of the business. Just a week or two ago, they moved the business into a much larger space and added a crematorium. Needless to say, bidness is boomin'.
I never ever thought I'd be back here, but I will be helping them out occasionally. I'll be filling in when their need for an extra hand coincides with me being in town. I've run some errands for them and worked a funeral where – like riding a bicycle – I easily reprized my apprenticeship role by standing by looking solemn during a funeral viewing and service.
Fate or serendipity? Who knows. But, I've purchased a black suit and am ready to go.