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Small town or rural life has a touchingly sincere social side when there is tragedy or sadness. Oh, we celebrate weddings and graduations, but if you want to see rural America at its mawkish peak, you need a funeral. Nothing brings us out like death. I don’t generally attend these events myself, though on occasion I will if I feel a real connection to the deceased or if I want confirmation, like checking a lottery number to make sure. I’ve found peace and comfort beyond God’s own understanding looking down at the face of a mean-hearted old skunk who won’t be doing that any more. I don’t usually wish they suffered, but the thought is not unknown.
You may fault me for callousness and disregard. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking ill of someone who doesn’t play by the rules of appearance made up so long ago. But maybe there is a higher rule that recognizes joyful relief when a soul such as Hitler’s dines on cyanide, or a suicide bomber experiences premature “Akbar” and goes off taking a dozen associates who hadn’t intended the funeral to be their own. I’d suspect the virgin reward in paradise is nil if your last phrase to the almighty-one was “OOPS.”
In some locations, the funeral is a pre-auction review where attendees get a chance to scope out who else is interested in John’s new tractor they are all hoping to pick up at “a steal.” Now that, I assure you, is not callous disregard of the dead. That is simply good savvy along with an acute sense of business and value. There can even be elements of the spiritual and philosophical if we simply recall that some good can come of anything. Draw your own conclusion about a long, debilitating illness leading to the best auction in a decade. And don’t tell me you’d never attend such an auction because it was too morbid or for some other weepy reason. If there was something you fancied, you know you’d be there wearing a solemn attitude of bittersweet where heavy hearts and hearty smiles do battle, depending on the success of your bid.
I’ve been places where life was an ongoing mix of coming and going in a common context. Cars and the spread-out nature of most American homes make social life more contrived and artificial than earlier times when neighbors lived and worked much more closely. These days a person might see more of their UPS driver than people on the next lot or at a nearby house. I guess you could call contact with the driver a social event, but as the driver has a schedule to keep, it’s a safe bet you’ll never have coffee together unless you bump into one another at the feed following a funeral. But what eulogy, really, can the driver contribute? “I’ll sure miss delivering old John’s prescriptions.” What response is there to that? If you need to say something, I’d try “Don’t be a stranger now.” That phrase seems to work for lots of things and rarely brings a visit as a result.
The quirks of rural life are hard to define in a fair manner. The divisions (they are as clear as the vehicles people drive to church) fall cleanly along lines of property, which everyone has to some extent but seldom with equal degrees of management skill and successful reward. Some live in houses so spotless they’d make a saint feel uneasy. Others live a more organic style of life, with a few reaching a condition close enough to mulch that it’s hard to tell where outdoors ends and the indoors begins. But not to be negative—I’ll say life under such circumstances is bound to build a robust immune system, though if it’s OK with you I’ll pass on the offer of a cup of coffee all the same.
A story I heard involves two parties in 1920. One was a robust local man with hands so large his thumb to little finger span could pick up a dinner plate. The other was a summer resident, a city attorney who’d become a judge. The success-income level of the parties was wide. If there was such a thing as an impoverished judge, no one in these parts had ever heard of him (note the gender bias of the era). The judge, seeking order in the woods as in court, asked the local man to come around with his horse and remove some pesky trees. (I’d suppose they were suspicious spruce or aspen quaking in guilt.) When the man arrived, the judge met him at 9 a.m. looking properly outdoor-natty for that time of day. The scene was set. The judge, hands folded judiciously over the start of a carefully built belly, announced he would pay man with horse twenty-five cents an hour. On hearing this opening, the man snapped his reins, turned the horse, and left. The two parties did not speak again for a decade.
A modern listener hears twenty-five cents an hour as shockingly low and good cause to turn around. But for the era, $2.00 a day was an acceptable wage, and was so into the mid-’30s when my father proposed marriage after getting a nickel raise. But you see, the key to the story isn’t the wage number. The wage is only a symbol for a larger divide of status, class, and association that prevented each man from crossing that separation. Either man could have asked a question or begun a discussion, but neither did. Each stayed within his own zone of association. It is easier to stay in your own circle, but it seems to me that doing so is a central tragedy of so much human history. Whether involving a judge dealing with a worker in 1925 or the terrorists of today exercising their holy writ of persecution and misery, the one-way flow is humanity’s burden. This is made so much worse when those acting thus think there is a god who smiles on man’s inhumanity.