The Day I Became A Kid From Stand By Me

Anyone who has had the joy of watching the great 80’s classic Stand By Me has also had the shock, disgust, sorrow and other mixed emotions of the scene involving the corpse of a young man. I hadn’t even seen one in real life when I saw this movie as a 14-year-old. It would end up being 6 years after that when I’d see my first. It didn’t happen in the woods and I wasn’t packing a gun, but it’s an event I’ve never forgotten. It kinda went like this…

Into the Woods

It all started when the pastor, my boss, asked for a favor. I was a young, idealistic college student — jobless, girlfriendless and somewhat homeless (summers in between semesters are kinda like that) — who’d managed to convince a church to hire me work in a church doing two jobs requiring a ridiculously high amount of effort for a disproportionately low amount of money. (Somehow, I found a church who would be willing to oblige me!) The favor? Go to “the visitation” for him.

As good of a pastor and boss as he was, and as eager as he was to teach me things, there was a problem. I rarely was able to get a word in edgewise. Ok, just keep your mouth shut and be a good listener, I’d tell myself. But more often than not, I would walk away from our one-sided conversations wondering if I really understood what I had just learned. I wanted to ask questions, but by the time I thought there was even a second of dead air he would be needed by someone or had to get back to work in his office.

Here is what he wanted me to do:

A woman in our church had just lost her grandfather. I had heard of this, and feeling sympathy for the family I hoped I could somehow be of some pastoral help. As Nacho would put it, this was definitely a churchy opportunity. But I needed more information. You see, to me “visitation” was visiting folks at their home and praying with them after some pleasant conversations over a cup of tea.

“Yes, I would love to. I…”
“It’s tomorrow at 2:00. Do you know where Sunnyside funeral home is?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering what that had to do with my visiting of this family.
“Ok, well can you ask her when the funeral will be?”
“Uh, sure.”

Turning to to his office door that would swallow him like a giant man-eating Greek lexicon he said, “Ok thanks Troy.” But I was quick this time.

“Pastor Eli?”
He half turned. “Yes?”
“Where does she live?”
“Helen?”
“Yeah.”
“Well… you don’t have to go to their house.”
“Oh. I don’t?”
“No. Just go to Sunnyside.”
“Oh, right.”

The door shut and his office seemed satisfied with tucking this pastor away once again into its thoughtful, spiritual recesses. I stood outside the door thinking I should know what’s going on, but I’d never been to a funeral nor a funeral home. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as family gathering a couple of days before the event took place. As a matter of fact it was two years later that I had even heard of this being called a “wake” (a rather ironic name for it I think).

The Body

So perhaps you can understand why I was so lost. In my mind I was going to visit a church family and for some reason I was to meet up with them at the funeral home, precisely at 2:00 in the afternoon.

The next day I walked up the steps of Sunnyside, opened the big wooden door and looked inside. I saw a social gathering taking place in a room to my right. Shouldn’t there be a front desk or something? Who was I supposed to talk to? And then I saw something that didn’t make sense. It was the name of Helen’s grandfather spelled out on a sign that sat on a tripod easel beside the threshold of the room hosting the pleasant finger food get-together. Were these people and their party somehow connected to him? What in the wide world of sports is going on here??

I decided to take a deep breath and walk into this room. Slowly I walked in hoping no one would notice. I mean, I wasn’t invited! Wouldn’t they wonder why I’m crashing the party? Halfway in is when it happened. There was some kind of big furniture to my right that called for my attention from my peripheral vision. I looked over. A casket. But not just a casket. A casket with the top wide open, as if it was supposed to be. But why would it be? Why… A body!!!

My eyes widened and my insides did flips. What looked like a wax statue of a complete stranger was laying there. And it was an old man wearing an outrageous amount of makeup. All I could think was, why was everyone else ok with this??

Just then the deceased’s granddaughter approached me. I prayed silently and quickly that she didn’t see the shock on my face. I was blindsided. Thanks Pastor Eli. Learned a ton today.

Growing Up

Thankfully I did get accustomed to funerals and all that comes with them as time went on. In fact, in my first pastorate I lived in an apartment inside the church where sometimes I would be sleeping while there was a coffin just upstairs awaiting a service the next day. I guess by then I had finally started to see a human corpse as what so many people had described to me: a mere carrying case for the human soul. Ever since I have always felt at ease at funerals, even at the ones held for dear friends and family members. I enjoy helping people through those difficult events.

Thanks Pastor Eli. And I mean it this time.

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  • DocRLS

    Troy — I liked your short story about your first exposure to a dead body. Mine, as with (I suspect) many, occurred much younger at the funeral for my grandfather. But your article brought back many memories.

    My favorite scene in a movie having to do with death is one of the opening scenes of 1998’s “City of Angels” where Nicolas Cage is an angel perched on a cabinet in an emergency room bay as nurses and physicians work desperately but futilely on a child as she is dying. He is there to welcome her spirit at the moment of death and usher her to paradise.

    Having been in that situation too many times, I cannot watch it without weeping. It is so beautiful. The rest of the movie is not as good in any way as Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” on which it is based, but that scene takes my breath away. I will find out one day if that is the way it really is. God grant it that way… or better.