7: Covering the Casket

7: Covering the Casket

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Covering the Casket

Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.

~Adlai Stevenson

It took cancer more than three years to kill my father. You’d think that would have given the family enough time to plan all the details of his funeral. While his 6’1”, 200-pound frame withered away to nothing, while his cheeks grew hollow and his voice weak, while he shivered uncontrollably even in the middle of August, you’d have thought we would have asked him what he wanted covering his casket.

But maybe you don’t ask that question of a dying person. Because an answer is a confirmation of what you’re not talking about.

When Daddy finally died on a cold January afternoon, Mother added “pick out casket spray” to the list of things we needed to do before the funeral. “Roses will cost about $500,” she told me, wringing her hands. “Other kinds of flowers, a little less.”

“That’s a ridiculous waste of money,” I said. “Why do we need flowers? Daddy was a veteran. He should have an American flag covering his casket.”

“Oh, honey,” Mother said, “I’m not sure he would have wanted that. He never liked to talk about his time in the service.”

That wasn’t entirely true. Daddy loved to talk about almost anything, including the Army. He told us countless times about how, because he had a college degree, he was assigned to Officer Candidate School after he was drafted in 1951. But a paperwork snafu got him shipped to Korea as a Private in the infantry instead.

He bragged, in a teasing kind of way, about what a fine ping pong player he’d become over there. He showed us how Korean players stood far back from the table and the odd way they held the paddle, with fingers curved like claws around its face instead of gripping the handle the way American players did. If he got any medals while he was in the Army, I never saw them. But he proudly displayed the ping pong trophy he’d won.

He talked about the genuine jade earrings he bought in Korea for my mother and the set of real china dishes he bought for my grandmother.

He told us about the time he went more than two weeks without taking his boots off. His commanding officer had warned the men that it was so bitterly cold that exposed skin would be immediately frostbitten, which could lead to amputations.

But when confronted with the inevitable questions that all children, sooner or later, ask a parent who’s gone to war, Daddy was silent. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he would say in a tone of voice that my siblings and I knew meant the conversation was over.

As hundreds of mourners filed through our church’s fellowship hall to pay their respects the evening before we buried Daddy, I was proud that the ultimate symbol of patriotism, rather than a spray of red roses, was draped over his casket. I was proud that, following a brief graveside service on a gray Tennessee morning, the flag was folded just so and presented to my mother, “with thanks from a grateful nation.” I’m proud every time I pull out the photo album and see a handsome young soldier playfully saluting his buddy who was manning the camera.

~Jennie Ivey

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