While I’ve made some pretty good decisions in my career of forty years here at Oakey’s, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had my fair share of mistakes. Heck, “mistakes” would be putting it mildly: I’ve made some moves that were so boneheaded I would’ve probably been fired (or, at the very least, disciplined) if I had been working anywhere else. One of the downsides in the funeral profession is when you make an error, it is often quite noticeable. And, unfortunately, it’s impossible to go back in time and retract the miscue.
One of my biggest screw-ups was in the late 1970’s, when I was serving my apprenticeship. As usual, I was on flower van duty. In other words, it was my job to ensure that the flowers from a funeral were packed up and transported to the cemetery at the conclusion of the service. More importantly, said floral pieces MUST arrive and be set up around the grave before the procession rolls into the gates.
While this may sound like a pretty easy task, I was filled with terror each time I zoomed off in the van full of flowers. “What if I don’t get there in time?”, “What if the flowers blow down?”, “What if cars are already parked in the cemetery and blocking the processional route?”
Yeah, I know, I was pretty paranoid about what seems like a simple duty. But I just wanted everything to go perfectly, and had no contingency plan in the event of a problem.
My mistake, and it was a doozy, occurred when I was on a funeral at our North Chapel. Upon the preacher’s “Amen,” I packed up the flower truck and tore down Peters Creek Road and Airport Road to Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens. I knew I had made good time and had hit mostly green lights, so was feeling pretty confident that afternoon. However, as I drove through the cemetery, I could not for the life of me locate the tent to signify where the graveside was located.
Getting a bit panicky, I pulled out the memorial record from my coat pocket and underneath “Interment” was “Fair View Cemetery.” Oh. My. Gosh. While I probably uttered something a bit more off-color than that, I immediately knew I had gone to the wrong cemetery. My heart was pumping blood like crazy and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I even had trouble trying to figure out how to get to the proper cemetery, a place I had been to dozens of times!
As you might know, Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens is located right next door to one of the runways of the Roanoke Regional Airport, and no plane ever executed a better takeoff than me flying out of tha cemetery at supersonic speed. Executing NASCAR-like turns back onto Airport and Peters Creek Roads, I neared Melrose Avenue to see a sobering sight: the last car in the funeral cortege which I was supposed to guide into Fair View.
I thought about trying to pass the whole line of cars, but chickened out and meekly followed the last car as it traveled toward the cemetery at the customary 20 MPH. You can imagine how bad I felt about my boneheaded move. After the graveside service, lead director Joe Jamison asked me why there were no flowers (or Sammy) as he arrived at the grave. I told one huge lie, and told him the van had broken down on the way to the cemetery. “Boy, he scolded me, don’t you think I would’ve passed you on the side of the road with the procession if you were broken down? You went to the wrong cemetery, didn’t you?” Realizing I couldn’t even LIE well on that particular day, I admitted my goof and took the mental lashes I deserved. “Look at that family and look at that grave, boy. This family had to sit in those chairs and not have a single flower surrounding the casket. You need to remember that.” And almost forty years later, I still do.