And Then He Said...(Not What You Think)
By Jim "Gymbeaux" Brown June 3, 2015
There I was at my desk when she called on the intercom, "Mr Brown, can you come up front, I have a package for you." I was pretty certain I knew what the package was. One of my assignments as the Chief, Military Personnel Officer in the Third Coast Guard District office was also the Decedent Affairs Officer so you can imagine what was in the package.
As I approached the desk I could not help but notice the package had been damaged in shipment and there was grey dust coming out of the hole that had opened up. I said, "Oh that must be Commander Henderson." Real name withheld to protect the deceased. That is all it took, the receptionist who called and to whom the mail was delivered remembered what my job was and what was now all over her desk. She freaked out like I have never seen anyone freak out before. Seriously, she jumped away from her desk and went screaming down the hall. We cleaned up the best we could and put the good Commander back in his receptacle. It was a good hour before the receptionist would return to her desk.
On another occasion, same receptionist called, "You have another one of those up here, come get it quick or I may quit!" This time the package was in tack. There was a problem however. There was no return address and there was no paperwork inside the wrapped receptacle. I had no advance warning of the package arriving like I usually got therefore I had no idea whose remains were in the package. I put the package in the cabinet next to my desk on the top shelf out of harm's way. It sat there for a long time. The days, weeks and months passed by before I received telephone call from a member of the deceased's family. This is how issues become major issues because at first there was anger over the perceived treatment of the deceased member. That simply was not the case. There was no way to know from where it came or whose remains were in the package. Once everything was cleared up, all went well.
So you know, we did not carry out funeral proceedings but we arranged for them most of which were requests to be buried at sea. In fact everyone that I handled were such requests. We would check the sailing schedules of the Coast Guard Cutters that sailed out of New York where my office was and then transported the deceased to the ship just before departure. The Commanding Officer would contact the next of kin to set up any ceremony they desired on the dock before departure and on some rare occasions the next of kin were even permitted to sail to the site where the ashes were scattered at sea. The problem with this is that they are Coast Guard Cutters and they can be diverted on a moment's notice to participate on a Search & Rescue Mission and they really shouldn't do that with visitors aboard. So sailing with visitors is a very rare occurrence; why I am including this I have no idea. Maybe because of the next incident.
While serving aboard the U. S. COAST GUARD CUTTER ALERT (WMEC-630) that sailed out of Cape May, New Jersey, the Commanding Officer received a request for a burial at sea. I do not know if he was told or not but when the hearse pulled alongside the ship, a full size casket was unloaded. We had burials at sea before but never a full size casket; always ashes. After a discussion, the Commanding Officer accepted the casket once he was satisfied everything that was required had in fact been done. Specifically the funeral director was required to drill large holes in the bottom of the casket and additional weights added to insure that once put in the water it would fill with sea water and sink. That was the plan. The casket was loaded aboard and placed on the Flight Deck. Okay just so you know, the ALERT was only 210 feet long but it did have a Flight Deck that would accept helicopters. Off we sailed, all hands on board plus one, a casket. I can assure you that there were some of the "all hands" that avoided the Flight Deck like the plague. It was not long before we were on station and the Commanding Officer instructed most of the crew to form on the Flight Deck where the he followed all the protocols and eventually the casket was lowered into the sea with the proper salutes. We all remained at attention as this was designed to take only a few minutes. So when it didn't immediately sink the Commanding Officer placed us all at ease but we remained in place. Time passed - it seemed like hours but it surely was not that long. The Commanding Officer finally dismissed us but most hung around the flight deck and leaned on the ships' railing to watch the casket which was now bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean. It obviously did not want to sink. We could all see the holes they were now on top, not on the bottom where the water would enter as intended. I specifically remember the Gunner's Mate asking permission of the Commanding Officer to ready the 50 caliber gun which was denied. Instead the Skipper tried to maneuver the ship, remember it was 210 feet long next to the casket using the rudder and ships' screws. He was trying to get the ships' wash off the stern to wash over the casket, fill the casket enough through the holes for it to sink.
You can imagine a bunch of young men all leaning on the ships' railing and the comments that started to freely flow. For example, one was overheard to say "He must have been a swimmer." Another, "Do you think the Skipper will shoot it to make it sink?" Finally it sunk and then the comments changed to what the Officer-of-the-Deck would put in the ship's log as to WHERE the deceased was buried at sea, like, "Seaman John Doe, buried at sea somewhere approximately 100 miles off the coast of New Jersey at a location unknown between New York City and Cape May, New Jersey. So you wonder why the next of kin are not usually invited to sail with their departed. Not a good idea.
And then there was the request to be buried at sea in the Hawaii District. I cannot swear this actually occurred but enough people have told the story and that makes it true, right? The way the story is told is the request came in just like it did in my office. Unfortunately there were no ships that were going to sail any time soon so someone thought of burying the deceased at sea from the air; what could possibly go wrong with that? The deceased was delivered to the Coast Guard Air Station and placed aboard a helicopter, an HH-52 to be exact. Some of you who know aircraft are already beginning to snicker. The helicopter lifted off and went over the Pacific Ocean to a designed spot and the copters crew perform the dignified ceremony as is so often performed by ship captains. But here is where it gets nasty. If you are familiar with helicopters you know that there is a tremendous down force of wind created by the helicopter's rotors and this copter was no exception. So when the ashes were released, yes, you got it, some went into the sea rather quickly, but most, yes indeed most were blown back into the depths of the helicopter not to mention all over the air crewmen who were performing the task. The helicopter was cleaned as best it could be but there is no doubt that there are parts of the deceased flying all over the Pacific Ocean garnering more air time than anyone could ever possibly achieve.
It gets better. At an official burial in a local cemetery, the Chief Boatswain Mate, a good friend of mine, performed a flawless ceremony. As he stood alongside the grave site where the casket had been lowered, the Chief turned to the next of kin with the properly folded American Flag and presented it to the next of kin and said, "On behalf of a grateful nation....". But that is when it all went wrong. He stood erect, saluted the next of kin, did an about face and yes, you may have guessed it, he fell into the grave site on top of the casket. As he lay there, he closed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest as he knew everyone would now be looking into the site. Even the next of kin had to laugh.
One more, I promise. I had a new instructor teaching a class of about 30 Coast Guard members. I was suppose to observe him and give him tips after the class. Somehow we finished a bit early and the discussion in the class was turned to decedent affairs because that is what the new instructor did at his last duty station. So as he stood behind the podium, I stood on the floor a little lower than the podium with my elbow resting on the podium. He then proceeded to tell the class exactly how a military funeral was to be conducted including exactly what is to be said to the next of kin. I was totally silent during his description of the event. When he was done there was a silence in the classroom. That is when I said and I quote, "Make sure to wash it in cold water so the red won't run into the white." The instructor had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. The classroom remained silent, no one moved, no one laughed. Finally the instructor had to let loose and roared with laughter. One of the students put his hand up and asked, "Petty Officer Brown, do you mean you don't really say that?" We all had a fantastic laugh about it and realized we had to be careful what we said in the classroom because they could not always tell when we were joking.
This all leads up to the real reason I am writing this. I am concerned about when my turn comes, and come it will. With each passing day it is closer than you anyone could actually know. Could be today, tomorrow, next week, next month or years from now - no one knows for certain even those with terminal illness. I have been to a lot of funerals. Not sure how anyone other than the deceased's immediate family can say they want to be there yet there are a lot of people who attend to say their last goodbyes. That may be true but I believe most are there because they expect that others expect them to be there and they don't want anyone to think they didn't care. Personally I don't want that to happen to me. In fact I would (1) prefer to be cremated and I'll explain why and (2) that a formal funeral not be conducted. If the immediate family wants to do something on a small scale that would be fine. But in truth I would be gone from the planet and why would I care what they do? Let me tell you why....
You probably have been to a funeral, most people have. Tell me this does not happen. Let's pretend that I am in my casket which is now open to the public for viewing but dead as I may be, let's pretend I can hear what is being said. Ready?
Shhh, someone is approaching. I don't recognize them. Then one says, "I didn't know he was in the Coast Guard, did you?" No answer. Then he says, "Come on dear, there are people in line, let's move on." Ahhh, I remember these folks. AND THEN HE SAID: "Geeeze he doesn't even look like him does he?" "Actually I haven't seen him in a while, looks a little old to me." That is just what I needed to hear; there are more coming. "Oh my, what happened to him, what did he die from? Must have been horrible, he looks terrible." Again that is just what I wanted to hear.
You know I could go on. That is why I would prefer to be cremated. Then there is no one to look at, no criticisms to render, no touchy feely going on; you know that is what happens. If a wake does happen they can look at a box. What could you possibly say about a box? More importantly I would hope they would remember how our paths crossed and that their lives were touched in some positive way because they crossed; not about how I look or not look. It is hard to think in those terms when you are looking down upon a body that does not look like me or you for that matter. A quiet family-members-only ceremony at the grave site in a national cemetery would be nice where they put me up on a shelf and close the door but remember THAT IS NOT ME. No one needs to come visit me; I'm not there. No one needs to place flowers that will eventually die; I'm not there. I promise, I'll come back to haunt anyone who places plastic flowers on my site; I'm not there but I know where you live.
I found this poem in an old book in a deserted and ransacked home and it remains with me. You can change the words on the poem so that it would apply to either a man or a woman. This one is for a man. Plus I added the last verse:
Measure of a Man
Not – how did he die?
But – how did he live?
Not – what did he gain?
But – what did he give?
These are the units
To measure the worth
Of a man as a man
Regardless of birth.
Not – what was his station?
But – had he a heart?
And how did he play
His God-given part?
Was he ever ready
With a word of good cheer,
To bring back a smile
To banish a tear?
Not – what was his church?
Nor – what was his creed?
But – had he befriended
Those really in need?
Not – what did the sketch
In the newspaper say?
But – how many were sorry
When he passed away?
I do not want to assume that I could make the poem any better than it already is, yet I would suggest another verse:
Not -what he achieved
Nor - how much did he make
But - how many did he help to find THEIR way?
How many achieved their life's desires?
Who by not knowing what he did or thought
May have travelled a good many roads,
To a lot of places they'd prefer not to go.
But instead arrived safe and sound
To exactly where they wanted to be
All because they took
The measure of this man.
Now that his time here on Earth has passed
It is time to say our goodbyes
Wrap gently in brown paper
And tie it gently with twine and a note
And in your own hand you write
"Return to Sender and Handle With Care!"