I get a phone about once a week. “Hey Jeff, can you do a service for me?” The answer is usually yes and then I ask for contact information for the family so I can visit with them about the deceased and prepare for the service. Then I ask for a little bit of information from the funeral director—a little hint of what I’m in for.
“The two sisters don’t get along.”
“Great family, lots of stories.”
“Kind of a loner.”
Or words I hate to hear:
“Car accident- she was 23.”
“Father of two little kids. Suicide.”
And about every other month I hear:
“He was a Good Time Charlie.”
Good Time Charlies are found in every economic stratus. They are invariably men—they can be working men who hang out at the neighborhood dive bar, or members of a country club who hang out at the clubhouse. They have a ton of friends who like to laugh and tell stories. These stories are well-polished, told a million times, but in the harsh daylight hours, where the drink in hand is not an adult beverage but a cup of coffee and the audience is not the bar regulars, but me and a few shell-shocked family members, the stories lose their cadence, punch lines are heavily edited, and language is deleted often with a nervous laugh.
“I don’t know if I want this one said in front of everybody but…” Then follows a story that is often quite funny, usually involves alcohol and occasionally involves a petty crime. I laugh because I like a good story and that usually uncorks a slew of other, bigger and better stories. The language gets coarser and the people relax a bit.
One of the things I like about people is their willingness to put the newly-deceased in the best possible light. Some people hate that—the way mourners gloss over the facts with lies and half-truths, but I consider it a final act of mercy. We are all too willing to spread gossip and slander about the living, but at least we are kind for a few days when they are dead.
To help with that, I ask for things they might have done in the community. The answer is that Good Time Charlie was the community—regular “meetings” after work at a bar where arguments were had, drinks were consumed and laughing was done.
“Did he belong to any clubs or organizations?” The answer is no, Charlie was a good guy but there is no proof of the kind I’m looking for.
From there I need to tread carefully, Good Time Charlie usually has been married once or twice, and it’s a little tricky to bring up family—hard to say which of the kids belong to which mother.
Songs are usually jukebox favorites, Sinatra, Beatles, Hank, Eagles—whatever their genre.
If I’m lucky, I’ll get a fellow Charlie to get up and tell some stories. I know the audience will appreciate it.
“No crying—only a celebration of his life.”
“Charlie hated funerals. When we’re done, invite everybody over to the bar. That’s what he would want.”
I then look at the kids—the ones who are trying hard to hold it together. “You want me to find a verse or two out of the Bible?”
The silence stretches out as the children look at each other with a mix of awkwardness, yearning, hope and doubt.
“Nah. He hated organized Religion.” I nod and say that the only verses in the Bible I’m looking for will be words of comfort and direction from Jesus.
Again a pause, and a shake of the head. “No offense, Pastor, I mean Charlie had a spiritual side and all, but no, not any of that stuff.” I nod again; I’m not a pastor and have said so. But I did bring up God and I am wearing a suit coat, so I understand the confusion. After the meeting, I set about giving the family the service that they want.
And they are pleased when I’m done. The service looks more like a celebrity roast. There is a lot of laughing. People shake my hand. “Man, I never laughed so hard at a funeral before!” They filter out quickly, heading to finish things up at the bar. Their faces have a fixed smile to mask the pain underneath, eyes bright with unshed tears.
And I go home and wait for the next phone call. People ask if it is hard to do the funeral for a suicide or the tragic death of a young person or child and the answer is an unqualified yes.
But the funerals that wake me up in the middle of the night and haunt me long afterwards are the ones for Good Time Charlies.