Holding on to the Flag
March 2013 marked the passing of my favorite Marine, my great Uncle Cleve. He was the patriarch of our family, a butcher and grocer in a small Texas town, and a deacon in his church. He was also a proud member of the first group of men in the 2nd Marine Division created during World War II. God bless him, he lived independently for 95 years, drove himself to the hospital and died a day later. Uncle Cleve was cool.
Funerals are very much like weddings. They are a family and community celebration, with ceremony, food and significance. He was a single man, so my mother and her sister were his closest relatives. He had six great nieces and nephews that he treated like grandchildren. We all gathered together in the ancestral town of our family to celebrate his life, where he alone had remained his entire life.
His town is settled on the breaks of the plateau in north central Texas, where sagebrush and pinion pine stubbornly grow in the red caliche clay dirt that daily meets a broad, blue sky. This is the rangelands of isolated cattle ranchers, that built their small town for mutual dependence, a small main street lined with churches, banks, local shops and cafes, and a sheriff’s office.
I flew down to Texas and picked up my mother, to drive with her to the funeral. Four hours of asphalt lined on each side by barbed wire fences. Mother and I talked of tasks to be done, wondered who we would and wouldn’t see, apprehensive to return home. Her sister and my cousins were heading to the same spot on the map from different directions, merging toward the appointed place and time. We met at the funeral home. This was the same funeral home that had solemnly buried other family members in years past. The gathering parlor with the same mahogany fireplace and formal sofas for visiting, the flowers already arranged and filling the room with the fragrance of lilies and roses. Of course Uncle Cleve looked ‘good’ but not himself, the way unoccupied bodies look. As requested, he wore his Marine bolo tie and 2nd Division lapel pin, dignified and appropriate.
Uncle Cleve had called us all home and we were together in the same room for the first time in many years. It was lovely. There were 2nd cousins, neighbors, and other kin to hug and chat with. I heard funny stories, tales of intertwined histories, and we shared photos on iPhones. We compared how much the kids have grown. I especially appreciated visiting with the other war hero in our family, Cousin Billy who was a Screaming Eagle. He’s a quiet, gentle soul with a soft, drawling voice. Thinking about him parachuting out of planes in Europe is difficult, just like it’s difficult to imagine Uncle Cleve in Iceland, New Zealand, Iwo Jima and Saipan. But I’ve heard the stories and seen the pictures, it was all real. As real as this funeral gathering.
After a night’s sleep, we spent the morning preparing for the burial. Texas funerals are formal, with suits, starched white shirts, and dress cowboy boots, black dresses and pearls. The one thing that prevented me from giving this funeral a perfect 5 out of 5 is that it was at the funeral home chapel rather than in the church sanctuary. Uncle Cleve had been a deacon for his church for decades, I personally felt his funeral should be there, but the sisters didn’t agree on it, so it was in the chapel. At least the Baptist choir and the pastor were there to officiate. I’m not sure this pastor had done many funerals yet, he was probably on his first church assignment, but he did well and I made sure to tell him so at the luncheon afterward. My prediction is that he will develop into a really good funeral preacher, an art that is difficult and delicate, but important. Anyone that’s heard a generic, limp funeral preacher can tell you that.
After the eulogy in the chapel we rode in the limo to the cemetery. As usual for this part of Texas, it’s windier than hell, probably 30 miles per hour. We watched the pallbearers carefully remove the casket from the hearse and simultaneously grasp the edges of the flag covering the casket to make sure it didn’t blow off and head for New Mexico. The funeral canopy creaked and leaned against the wind as a large spray of flowers shot over the heads of the crowd. No one flinched, this is Texas. After a few well-placed words and a prayer, the Marine guards skillfully executed their graceful ceremony. Taps were played, the guns were fired, and the casket flag was perfectly creased and folded, despite the gusting wind.
We shook hands and gave hugs, then visited the other family grave sites with flags and flowers, remembering our roots to this place. Then we met up at the church for homemade lunch. Baptist ladies can put out a fantastic spread, with thick ham slices, fried chicken, and an amazing variety of vegetable and fruit salads. Of course there is fresh pie and coffee. What a gift it is that church ladies give to grieving families, the gift of a home made meal and a place to rest after the emotional toll of a funeral. Because even a funeral like this one, of a long life well lived, is still difficult because of the goodbyes. We gathered for a family photo, gave more hugs, shed tears, and smiled about how good it was to be together. A very good funeral it was for my favorite Marine. Semper Fi, Uncle Cleve. Enjoy your new guard post.
“Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By UNITED STATES MARINES.”
Musical pairing: The Marines’ Hymn, author unknown, in use since the mid-1800s.