Looking back on my growing up years, it seems to me the folks in my hometown had an unhealthy infatuation with death.
Unlike bigger cities, there weren’t a lot of activities outside of school and work, so funerals became full-scale social events. However, the infatuation with death didn’t end there.
Even things like cemeteries and tombstones took on a life of their own. We had three cemeteries in the Valley. Depending on where you were buried, the grieving process could vary greatly.
For Baptists, chances are your final resting place was at First Baptist Cemetery, just south of the church. My Baptist childhood friends used to tell stories of meeting up with ghosts as they played near the cemetery after evening services.
The Catholics had their own cemetery. As a child, it seemed especially spooky because the statues and gravestones were much larger than those in our other cemeteries. The Virgin Mary might seem peaceful and angelic in daylight, but at night her shadows could be downright scary.
The Methodists had a small cemetery next to their church. Members liked having the cemetery there for insurance, among other reasons. Methodist churches, it seems, are combined into "conferences." These conferences have the ability to create new congregations and close churches that have dwindled in attendance numbers.
"Cemeteries," Essie Kennemer would say, "are like insurance. They can’t close a church with a cemetery. If they do, who’s going to take care of it?"
Fortunately, the Lennox Valley Methodist Church wasn’t in danger of closing. But as Essie would say, "It’s good to know, just in case."
If you weren’t a member at one of those churches, your eternal rest would probably take place at Shady Acres Cemetery, between Lennox Valley and Springfield.
There are plenty of stories of folks who found religion as they advanced in years, simply to be sure they were buried in the Valley, and not down the road toward Springfield.
Funeral traditions varied with cemeteries, it seems. Our parents would tell us stories of "sitting up with the dead" when they were growing up. Thankfully, that tradition faded before I was born.
In my childhood, Baptist funerals tended to be three-day affairs, with two nights of "visitation" before the actual event. As a teen, sitting in a room full of relatives dressed up in their Sunday best for two straight nights seemed like punishment. I understand the good folks at First Baptist Church have come to their senses since.
Visitation wasn’t the only drawn out aspect of a Baptist funeral. Brother Billy Joe Raymond knew he had a captive audience at funerals and preached as if everyone was going to meet their end before tomorrow.
The Methodists and Lutherans had it easiest. One night of visitation, a 20-minute service, then casseroles and cake.
It wasn’t until I was an adult I realized Catholic wakes weren’t nearly as scary as they sounded to a young Protestant. Usually, a priest offered a prayer, followed by friends and family sharing stories about the dear departed.
Folks gave a good bit of thought to their own funerals. More than one Lutheran left specific instructions. Brother Jacob was to wear shoes if he presided at their services.
Most Methodists had become comfortable with a female pastor after four months, but some older members sent requests to Glynn Vickers, their former pastor, asking if he could perform their funerals when the time came.
Speculating who was next was a routine conversation in the Valley. To some, it was almost a sport.
As November 1998 neared, most figured the odds favored Emma Woods, who was 102 years old. Not far behind was none other than A.J. Fryerson.
Marvin Walsh might be have been sure it was A.J.’s voice call-ing "Renderings with Raymond" on Friday, but others believed he was dreaming.
Yes, odds were Emma or A.J. was next. It wouldn’t be long before we knew.