(Random notes on the funeral of Glenn D. McKeever, held Sunday, February 9, 2014.)
This weekend was one none of us will ever forget.
It was painful, tearful, memorable, sweet, blessed, and heart-rending.
We buried my big brother Glenn Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, across the road from the family church just outside Nauvoo, Alabama. He was laid to rest a few feet from our parents and not far from our youngest brother Charlie, who died 8 years ago.
In many respects, it was a typical funeral, I suppose.Our oldest brother Ron, one year Glenn’s senior, and I worked with home church pastor Mickey Crane who also sang two hymns. It was similar to hundreds of funerals the three of us have conducted over the 150 years combined we have logged in ministry. Except this time it was personal.
Glenn had had angioplasty last week, and in our judgment (as well as the coroner and medical examiner, too, as I got it), the hospital sent him home too quickly. He came home on Thursday and died of a blood clot the same evening. We have given him back to the Lord, and Glenn was ready, so we’re mostly okay on this. He had suffered so much the past few years.
He suffers no more.
We are the ones who suffer. Our hearts are aching and the tears will not stop flowing.
Glenn was our family’s star athlete. From his high school years and into his mid-to-late 20s, he was a baseball pitcher like few people in that part of North Alabama had ever seen. He was movie-star handsome, shy, and well-built. For reasons we never quite have been able to figure out, no baseball scout discovered him, so the most important baseball he played was for Vandenberg AFB during the early 1960s as he served his country for four years. (His military service ended just before the U.S. got into Viet Nam, for which we have long been grateful.)
The VFW sent out a team for the gun salute, presentation of the flag, and to play taps, at the cemetery. They did a wonderful job and it was most inspiring.
In 1963, Glenn married Peggy and adopted her children John and Margaret. They all shared the front pew along with various grandchildren that afternoon. Earlier, Peggy had bent over the casket and kissed her husband on the mouth and told some of us, “I told my darling I loved him every day for fifty-one years.”
I remember when Glenn and Peggy were married. He had called me a couple of days before. “Do you have a black suit?” I said, “I have a charcoal.” He said, “Can I borrow it?” Some weeks later we found out that they had gotten married that day. I told the congregation Sunday I had bought that suit for twenty dollars in downtown Birmingham, so I knew it was a good one. (That was meant to bring a smile; it was dirt cheap, even then.)
Ronnie, a retired pastor also, told the hundred or so in the audience a story about the two of them. Ronnie was born August 16, 1935 and Glenn came along 364 days later. In 1951, Glenn made 15 on the 15th and Ronnie 16 on the 16th. Our mom sent that tidbit in to the newspaper “The Grit,” which everyone we knew took on a weekly basis. They printed it and paid her a dollar. Mom said it was the only money she ever made off them. I had forgotten the rest of what follows.
Many years later, as Ronnie told it, “One of my brothers who shall remain nameless, but is presently sitting on the platform here”–laughter–“made up a fake letter and sent to mom from the editorial offices of The Grit. It said, ‘It has come to our attention that the dollar we paid you in 1951 was under false pretenses. Your sons are not 15 and 16, but are presently 71 and 72. Therefore, we are asking you to return our dollar. At 6 percent interest, compounded annually, this means you owe us $251,336.25. Please send your check to this address immediately or we will turn this matter over to our lawyers.” (I had forgotten that, but enjoyed hearing it.)
In between the reminiscing Ronnie and I did in the service, Pastor Mickey Crane, now in his 35th year at New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, accompanied himself on the guitar and sang “Lily of the Valley” and “Beulah Land.” After Ron and I spoke, Brother Mickey brought a fine message on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mickey remembered the day in 1992 when he and his wife Barbara were driving to a nearby town for some last-minute Christmas shopping. He went into the bedroom where his 16-year-old son Carlos was still asleep. No, Carlos did not want to accompany them. His girlfriend had a Christmas party going on and he would ride his motorcycle over there. Brother Mickey said, “I stood over my son and wanted to hug him so badly. But I didn’t. Not knowing I would never see him alive again.”
“Don’t forget to hug those you love,” he said. “Tell them you love them. You never know when will be your final opportunity.”
Later that day, Carlos’s motorcycle hit a bridge on his way to see his girlfriend. He is buried a few feet from our family members. The pain for those who love him is as fresh today as it was two decades ago.
I told the congregation that my big brother Glenn was a daring soul. If something was out of place, he wanted to know why and to put it right. That’s why he and son John did what they did many years ago with guns across their shoulders.
After I went off to college, no one farmed our Uncle John Chadwick’s land any more, so he sold it. Over the next few years, it changed hands several times until a yankee couple moved in and erected “No Trespassing” signs and put a fence across the road. Anyone trying to drive down that road–which felt as much a part of our farm as our house itself did–was turned back at gunpoint. They erected a sign out on the highway saying “Navaho Lodge.” On weekends, cars went in and out of the gate. The sheriff drove down from time to time to see if they were growing anything illegal. They weren’t.
One day, when Glenn and his adult son were visiting, his curiosity got the better of him. “John, go get the guns. Let’s find out what they’re doing down there.”
They walked five miles and came in from the back side of that property. Eventually, they stood at the pole barn we had helped Uncle John erect. So far, they hadn’t seen a thing out of place. Then, a man and woman walked by, said ‘hello,’ and kept on walking. As naked as the day they were born.
It was a nudist camp.
The world had come to Nauvoo, Alabama. Thanks to Glenn, we found it out. (The rest of the story–which I did not tell in the funeral service–is that that bunch moved out in the middle of the night, leaving unpaid bills. When Dad and I walked down there to look the place over, we found four beds pushed up together in the front room and perhaps a hundred empty plastic jugs labeled “developing fluid.” Making porn? That was our guess.)
Saturday night, my sisters and their husbands went out to eat with my sons Neil and Marty and me. We sat around the table at the Country Market Barbecue near Carbon Hill, Alabama, remembering and telling stories and laughing, in between the tears. All the while, I kept looking for the definitive Glenn story around which to build my eulogy. At one point, I blurted out, “I have more stories about Ronnie than about Glenn. It’s a pity he couldn’t have gone first.” Everyone burst out laughing, and Ronnie enjoyed it most of all when we told him next day.
When the burial was over and everyone was standing around chatting before heading out their separate ways, Jerrod, one of Ron’s sons, pulled out of his coat pocket several papers and showed my sons. “These are the printed funeral programs for Uncle Charlie’s funeral in 2006, Pop’s in 2007, Granny’s in 2012, and now Glenn’s.” That was amazing, we thought. “Not so amazing,” Jerrod said, “The only time I wear this suit is for funerals.” That brought a nice laugh from everyone.
Annie Coalburn, one of three remaining sisters of our dad, had attended the funeral and was now waiting in the car for her son Billy Jack. I introduced my sons to Annie, who is approaching 91 years of age. As she broke into a huge smile, she was the very image of her mother, our wonderful Grandma Bessie McKeever, who died in 1982. My heart ached again.
Heaven is getting fuller and fuller all the time. And this world is holding less and less attraction for some of us.
“As for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness. I will be satisfied with Thy likeness when I awake.” That’s Psalm 17:15 and as fine a promise as I find anywhere in Scripture. One day, I shall go to sleep here on earth but wake up in glory. When that happens, I will be looking on the face of my Lord in all HIs righteousness. When that occurs and whatever it is like, I will be satisfied.
That’s good enough for me.
More and more as I go through life, I find that there are only two alternatives left as I contemplate my last years and what lies beyond: Either the darkest of bleak despair or the glorious promises of God in Jesus Christ.
I have thrown my lot in with Jesus Christ. I’m “all in” with Him.
“For me, to live is Christ. And to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
Amen and amen.