Some occupations just get a bad rap. Several years ago USA Today conducted a poll of the most dreaded occupations and then published the results. I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere in the top ten of least coveted jobs was that of undertaker/mortician. Of course, anyone living in the Jacksonville area will refute this since the folks at Buchanan and Cody Funeral Home and those working down the street at Williamson Airsman-Hires are some of the nicest and frankly happiest people I know. At least they appear that way. And to those agreeably jovial folks I would add my Uncle Harris.
The Bradbury Funeral Home was a fixture in my hometown as I was growing up and my Uncle Harris was not only one of the most respected men in Perry, but he was also among the most humorous. Toward the end of his life he contracted gangrene in one of his legs and had to have the limb removed. He asked the surgeon to save the leg for him and after the procedure he embalmed it then made its own little casket. Word has it that Uncle Harris buried it in his family plot with a sign simply saying, “See you later.” I liked my Uncle Harris.
My dad said that Uncle Harris loved snakes. Whenever he’d see one crossing the road he would stop his car, pick up the snake, put it in his trunk, then release it on his own farm. Harris thought that snakes were good for a farm. Dad was a young boy at the time and didn’t share his uncle’s love of serpents, but it was Dad’s job to plow Harris’s fields with a one-horse plow. Dad tells me that snakes naturally crawl into the furrow when you’re plowing, and the furrow is the very place the driver would usually choose to walk. This resulted in my father following the horse and plow while holding the handle of the plow with one hand, carefully staying as far away from the snake-ridden furrow as possible. But there was another downside to my uncle’s snake gathering. In those days of the 1940s and ‘50s the undertaker was also the local ambulance service. After all, his hearse was the only vehicle in town that was long enough to haul someone to the hospital. To gain a bit more length Uncle Harris had the passenger seat removed, thus allowing the patient to stretch out the full length of the car. All well and good until the day Harris picked up a snake to take back to his farm, but when he opened the trunk the snake was gone. He even had the local mechanic tear the car apart to find the slimy intruder. No luck. All Harris could think about was the specter of hauling some poor soul to the hospital when suddenly the snake begins crawling up through the folds in the sheets. This was not putting the patient on the road to good health. Weeks later the undertaker opened his trunk to find the snake. I hate snakes, but I like happy endings.
Uncle Harris loved to travel and in those days this meant travel by car. I was among his favored nephews so he’d send back postcards from wherever he went. Remember when people sent postcards? One summer he packed up his family and headed out in their station wagon/ambulance for California. He dropped me a postcard on the way that said, “If it took God six days and nights to make heaven and earth, I don’t know why in the hell He didn’t take off Thursday afternoon and leave out Kansas.” One funny guy.
One Harris story that I hope was apocryphal concerned a double funeral where a son and father had died in the same accident. The grieving widow and mother was understandably upset and after Uncle Harris had dressed the bodies she insisted that he switch suits on her departed family members. Harris (with his one available leg) moved the casket to the back room, and after an hour brought out the bodies again. It takes a long time to dress a body. They are absolutely no help. The widow and mother tearfully apologized and told my uncle that he was right the first time. Would he please switch the suits back again? Another hour, Uncle Harris did it. Just before she left she turned and said, “I’m sorry, but could you switch the suits again?” Uncle Harris rolled the bodies into the preparation room and returned in only five minutes. The grieving lady asked, “How did you switch suits so quickly this time?” Uncle Harris said, “Switch suits, hell. I just switched heads.”
Of course in addition to being Perry’s best mortician, Uncle Harris was also one of our most accomplished liars. Still, I wonder if the guys and gals down and Buchanan, Cody, Airsman and Hires have that much fun.