Oh, You Can Laugh When the Hearse Goes By

Behind the scenes, some “grim” situations can be amusing.

Posted Jul 17, 2014

I’ve written before about the stories that Father Massey told me from his 32 years in the funeral business. He’s seen some interesting things. He told me the one about his extraordinary experience in Hollywood, which I quote here. But when I was looking something up recently, I ran across his amusing tales from Cemetery Stories.

Here are two more:

"I had a family come in one time," Father Massey recalled, "who wanted to move Grandpa. He'd been buried several years before, but they'd bought a family plot, so they wanted to get him exhumed. We made the arrangements. He hadn't been embalmed, so all that was left of him was a skeleton. We brought that up and put the pieces into a redwood box. Then the rabbi came to say prayers for the reinterment.

"Just then I realized that the workers had put the casket over the grave backwards. The head was in the place where the feet were supposed to be, and that's how he'd get buried. I stopped the rabbi and told him I would have to get the workers backs to get it rearranged.

"He looked down at the casket and said, 'Don't bother to call them.' He reached down and picked up one end. I heard this klunk, klunk, klunk, as the skull rolled to the other end. Then he said, 'Let's proceed.'"

Since Father Massey had been in the funeral business in Arizona, I asked about Native American practices. He laughed and assured me he had a tale to tell.

"I had the Indian contract one time in Phoenix,” he said. “Our job was to do the embalming, but then take the deceased to the Reservation for specific rituals. One day we had a call for a man who had died in his mid-thirties. We picked him up, embalmed him, put him in a suit and casket, and returned him to the Reservation.

"We came back the next morning to take him to the church, and one of the elders called us over and said, 'We have a problem.' 

"'What's the matter?' I asked.

"'Well, we took him out of the casket.' 


"He took us over to show us. There was the dead man, clothed in his tribal garments, lying on the cement next to the coffin. The elder explained that they’d taken him out to redress him and could not get him back in. When I still didn't understand, they demonstrated for me. 

“To give you the picture, we’d put him in a casket with a hinge panel that opens up as a small opening on the top. That's so you can look inside and have a viewing of the face and shoulders. They had assumed that this panel was the way to open the coffin. They'd managed to get him out that way, but couldn't put him back in. He just didn't fit. I walked over to the casket to show them how the entire top opened up, and when I lifted it, the elder nearly had a stroke." 

The ceremony continued as planned, but Father Massey tucked this one away for his story collection.

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