Having a photographer at Mama’s funeral. It was an odd request… why, exactly, would we want pictures of Mama’s funeral? I’ve always been opposed to photographing the body of a loved one, which is why we chose a closed casket. But these pictures are different…. It’s hard to explain. Beauty isn’t only in the happy moments; it can also be found in moments of utter despair. It’s a more haunting, subtle, aching beauty, but it’s present, nonetheless. Mama’s going-away party was a one-time event. We knew that, like our weddings, it would all be a blur afterward. And so we asked Tiffiney (of Tiffiney Photography), and although it was less than 24 hours notice, she accepted what is probably her most unusual booking ever. Her work is wonderful – thoughtful, innovative, with a journalistic quality that completely captured the painful beauty of September 20, 2007.
This is only the second, or maybe third, time I’ve looked at these pictures. I’m incredibly thankful that we have them. Although they make my heart ache, I also feel a sense of comfort in the perfection of the pink roses, the carvings of the cherry casket, the beauty of the church, and the blatant NON-black of our party dresses. It’s obtuse… I don’t really understand it myself. But I’ve shared a few of Tiffiney’s images below – I do hope that she won’t mind…
September 20, 2007
The church was filled with people – I was told later that the attendance was between 350 and 400. The day was overcast – I asked for rain, but it didn’t actually come. The sky looked like it was crying with us. Jennifer, Susanna and I were sitting on Mama’s rice bed when the limousine pulled into the driveway – I only have scattered memories of that ride to the church – thinking that the driver didn’t know the quickest route, but that was ok – maybe we could just keep driving forever. When we finally pulled up, I remember seeing the pallbearers – Mama’s escorts – pulling her casket out of the hearse. I looked around for the Virginia people, Mama’s family, but they had already gone in, and Susanna starting crying and saying “I hate them, I hate them” over and over. As the casket began rolling toward the church steps, Daddy, Jennifer, Susanna, and I clung to each other – Susanna was sobbing, and I was patting her on the arm. We just watched the casket, and somehow made it up the steps.
We entered the church and I don’t remember anything – who was there, what music was being played – just my mother’s beautiful cherry casket with it’s cheery array of pink roses & daisies rolling along in front of me. As we reached our seat, I felt my stomach turn, and had I eaten that morning, I would have vomited – it was Susanna who was grasping my hand and telling me to breathe, not to vomit. We filed into our row, and Jim Watson came up and asked everyone to sing “It Is Well with my Soul”, which was Mama’s favorite hymn. I remember looking down and seeing Daddy by himself, head down, mouth clenched. Susanna went to stand next to him, and he wrapped his arm around her thin shoulders as they held each other up. I remember only clips then – Bobby singing, wondering if the hymn was too long, feeling my knees shaking, Jennifer singing in a strong voice like she was truly rejoicing in the beauty of the song.
Once we sat, Brother Thornton talked – he told a story of a ship that, as it sails further and further away toward the horizon, grows smaller and smaller to our eyes, and eventually disappears from our sight. But the ship is still as large and alive as it ever was – just our perspective has changed.
Then Anne Lee, one of Mama’s dearest friends, got up and spoke beautifully. My greatest regret about the entire service is that we didn’t have it videotaped – I so wish that I could go back and listen to those tributes to my mother again and again. Anne cried, but she was well-spoken – as she always has been. She told the three daughters that we were beautiful, and that our mother would live on in us.
Brian Keefer, our former Townville neighbor, spoke next – he told funny stories of Mama’s driving, ongoing battle with the local chicken farmers, and the escapades of living down the street from the Weathers family. He thanked us for the honor of asking him to speak with tears in his eyes.
Bobby was next – he talked about her mothering instincts, and her cooking, courage, sassiness, and incredible sense of humor. He ended with the story of our last family trip to Duke, when Mama flashed her “hooter” at a passing truck driver in response to his bumper sticker reading “Show me your hooters.” The church sat in stunned silence before erupting into genuine laughter – just the way Mama would have wanted.
Then Rachel, Mama’s cousin. She told of Mama’s role in the family – the family newsletter that Mama started called the “Shortt Grapevine,” and how DeeDee kept them all connected regardless of geography. She cried as she shared her earliest memory of Deedee pushing her in the swing at their grandparents house, and flying higher and higher as Mama laughed with her.
And finally, Vicki McCall, a teacher, spoke about Mama’s role at Fair-Oak Elementary, and as a fellow breast cancer victim. She told how Mama’s smile lit up the halls of Fair-Oak, about how everyone loved her and was inspired by her spirit and humor. She told that when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, Mama counseled her and helped make her important decisions clear with sweetness and understanding. And how, when Mama’s cancer returned, her faith never wavered or faltered, but she steadfastly believed that she would receive her healing. Vicki’s final words that have attached themselves to my memory, were, “We all wear the bracelets that say ‘Believe for Denise.’ I think it could also be said that we should ‘believe BECAUSE OF Denise.’”
Then Tom got up and spoke – he did a truly wonderful job. His words were simple, but firm – he spoke of Mama’s faith, of her battle, and of her triumph over cancer – that she had finally received the healing that she had always believe in. He told the story of her last words, as she gripped each of our hands, and we prayed for God to take her and stop her suffering – her last discernible words were “I believe.” And she did. Truly she did.
The service ended with Mike Snyder getting up to sing – for the 6 years that Mama and Amy have taught together, Mama has begged Mike to sing for her, but he refused – it was never the “right time” or “his voice wasn’t feeling good” or “there were other people around.” Well, Mike finally found the right time. He came to the front of the church with his little podium, and then turned his back to the congregation to face Mama. As we realized what he was doing, that he was truly singing TO her, I felt the bottom crash out of me – I bowed my head and sobbed for Mama, for her children, for her husband, for her grandchildren, for her life that was so inspiring to so many, and yet had been cut short. Mike sang “You Raise Me Up” – we had never heard him sing, and his voice was indescribably beautiful – strong, full of life, fitting of Mama’s celebration – and I believe that there wasn’t a person in the church that wasn’t touched by the beauty of the sound, of Mama, of the celebration.
As Mike finished, Mama’s “boys” gathered at the front of the church to carry her casket back down the aisle, and we followed to the limousine, and watched as they loaded it back into the hearse. As we sat in the limo, we watched Mama’s fans pour from the doors of the church and down the steps – people from school, the community, the church I grew up in, our family – all races, and religions – a diversity that only Mama could bring together. And there was a sea of pink – pink dresses, skirts, scarfs and neckties blowing in the breeze – an unspoken tribute to Mama – her spirit, character, courage, strength, and beauty.
It was a beautiful going-away party…. she enjoyed every minute of it.