Death: As It Could Be and As It Will Be

I am so afraid that I will be run over and killed by a Volkswagen driven by a housewife in hair curlers in Sparks, Georgia. When I die I want to be run over by a transfer truck on the main highway through the town square in Nashville, Georgia. I want to be hit "ker-r-r-r-splat" by a refrigerated 18-wheeler carrying a load of watermelons to Atlanta. I fear insignificance in death; I want to die significantly. I want Billy mixed with watermelon splattered on the courthouse on one side of the highway; and red meat, green rind, and bony Caucasian thrown up against the fronts of the buildings on the other side.

I do not want to be a gentle rain drop falling into the Pacific Ocean. I want to be a grapefruit-sized hailstone slammed down to the ground in a fierce storm in some South Georgia farmer's tobacco patch. I want to melt and help flood roach- afflicted, rat-infested, run-down, poverty-stricken, long-ignored homes in Albany. I want to rush turbulently to the Gulf of Mexico cleaning out the rivers as I go with headlines announcing every town I rush through.

Keven Giddeth told me that what happens at death, however, is for the survivors, not for the corpse, not for the dead body in the casket. Keven died in 1992 of AIDS, the first person from our close-knit ninth grade class of 1953 to die. He called his two children to him in the hospital in the middle of the night . . . and died. He slipped away--by choice I think--in the anonymous night. Hugo Baker, another of my close friends from that class of fifteen, also died, just faded in 1993 into the future. Marie Alicia Petros Copes, the leader of our class reunions, was slowed recently with a stroke. Her right side will no longer listen to her brain, but she invited us to her lake- side home in Lake Park for a class reunion last month. We laughed and retold the story of our school hog for the zillionth time. We told how the ninth grade boys fed our hog the slop from the lunch room. Then we told how the class sold the hog, voted for the boys to go to Lake Raburn in mountainous North Georgia, and voted to give the three girls in the class $10.00 so they could have a picnic at Futch's Ferry on the Withlacoochee River just three miles from our school house. They drove their fathers' John Deere tractor and Farmall tractor to the creek, we remembered.

Jane Horris Elmig, one of the three girls in our class of fifteen, frowned as she usually does when we told the story this year.

"Majority rules," we laughed as usual.

We laughed, but I have come to recognize that reunions are really times when we estimate who will die next. With Keven gone and Hugo gone and Maria Alicia and the rest of us going, I think about death more and more. And Keven's observation that funerals are for the living haunts me more and more.

When I die, I want to be buried in faded blue jeans and a loose-fitting, tie-dyed T-shirt. I want to lie in a coffin made of pine wood by a local carpenter. I want the quilt that my mother sewed for me to drape over the coffin. I want Rev. Red Lesters, a frequent visitor to nursing homes, with his deep resonant voice to preach the funeral; and if he so much as says "I seen it" or "He done it," I am going to fling back my mother's quilt, sit upright in my pine wood coffin, and shout, "He did it, damn it; I saw it."

When I was a boy, oh so full of farm-grown energy and rural life, Red and I worked in a little grocery store. I admired him back then because he refused to sell cigarettes, and I admire him now.

"How can I sell cigarettes on Saturday and preach on Sunday?" he asked our boss thirty years ago, before it was popular to dislike smoking.

I want books to be given in my memory, and I want the books to be exhibited in stacks around the casket, some of them with their full title fronts showing. Flowers are transitory. Day lilies wilt after a single day and chrysanthemums after two days. Carnations last longer, but even they turn ugly brown in a week. Books at funerals across the land could, subsequently, fill millions of shelves in thousands of libraries in hundreds of cities. I love flowers, understand. I take a single bloom or a bouquet to church every Sunday and place it on the old pump organ that I play fifteen minutes before each Sunday church service. Books, however, have the ability to influence, and they last for several human lifetimes.

I think about my tombstone. I want to use the two refrigerator-sized petrified tree trunks that I dug up with a rented backhoe in College Station, Texas, and transported to the front yard of our small Berrien County farm. I want the bigger one, probably several tons, to sit at the head of my grave and the smaller one at the foot of my grave. I want the small chunks which now cover an area about the size of a king-sized bed to be placed in a pile between the two giant pieces. I will not mind if little boys with curious minds and big pockets pilfer the smaller pieces from the cemetery as the years pass. I want them to doubt the inerrancy of the literal story of Biblical creation and consider the wonderfully old age of the earth. I want their God to be bigger than the provincial god I see in much of South Georgia.

I want a cast bronze plaque attached to the biggest chunk of petrified tree trunk. It will read:

Heah lays Billy Carroll Cornelius a english teacher 1938-2027

According to the Cokesbury catalog, page 9, the plague will cost my survivors $152.00, but the holes to anchor the bolts into the petrified wood may cost more because petrified wood has a hardness of seven on the Mohs scale of one to ten. An expensive diamond pointed drill may be necessary to bore the holes.

I would sort of like my name spelled correctly, especially Carroll since my sudden realization that I did not know how to spell it in the sixth grade was traumatic enough to make my cry. But I smile at the thought of a Southern spelling for here, of a wrongly used article, and of a wrongly used lower case e on English. And I genuinely revel in the thought of spending eternity under the transitive verb lays. What irony! What poetic justice for an instructor who has really tried to move his students cheerfully into the great American middle class with standardized spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Indeed, what poetic justice for a english prof!

I have thought at times of requesting cremation for my body at death. I intrigue myself with having the pilot of a cotton dusting airplane to spray my ashes over a corn patch on our farm. My ashes strewn over a field would fertilize the corn, the stalks would produce ears with well-developed kernels, and the pigs would eat the nutritious grains. That's reincarnation, isn't it? Big Billy Boy's body becomes food for a pig, the hog becomes a ham for a growing Cornelius child, and itty bitty Billy Boy grows up, grows old, and turns into fertilizer. That's my desire in death--to become a Hormel ham, a lip-smacking delicious Hormel ham with my own seven-digit number. Quality meat! 8527692! Eventual fertilizer!

But what Keven said is true. A funeral is not for the dead; the funeral is for the living. Chances are I'm not going to have a bit of fun at my funeral. Sadly, we will have no levity at all. I watched Keven's preacher-uncle at his funeral turn him into a person he was not--a serious religious boy comfortably cradled in the arms of that uncle's Baptist Savior. Malarkey! His family might have been comforted by the eulogy, but I captured fun-loving Keven better in a published piece that included his solid leadership as school principal during the turbulent days of Alapaha, Georgia's, first-time racial integration.

What I want at death and what I'll get at death are two different things. English teachers are insignificant in slowing down the changes in language. The battle for who-whom is lost. The battle for subjunctive if I were you and if it be so is lost. The battle for will-shall is lost. The battle for ain't ought to be lost, but it ain't. The battle for through-thru is being lost. The battle for lie-lay and sit-set is being lost. Smooth transitions from paragraph to paragraph is being lost because of MTV's staccato transitions, many times with three story-lines at the same time with little or no glue at all.

English teachers shine very little light in the universe-- maybe the power of a single flicker of a firefly. Oh yeah-h-h-h, students love an English teacher as long as he or she holds the grade book, but it is a pessimistic thought that few students will attend a teacher's funeral if a ball game or a trip to Disney World interferes.

Only a few neighbors of my New Lois community, members of my small Methodist Church, friends from my ninth grade, and my family will march by my metal casket and see my lying there in a blue suit and a proper necktie. I'll hate the hot suit and the tie choking me.

"How nice he looks," they'll repeat one after the other. "They've really done a nice job on him."

My hair will be parted on the left side, and I'll have on white--white, mind you--underwear. I'll hate both. The mortician will have pumped my veins full of plastic to make me forty instead of eighty-nine.

Dorothia Askins, gracious wife of the richest farmer in our community, will telephone several neighbors.

"Billy Cornelius died of a lung disease in a nursing home last night," she will tell them in a quivery voice.

Yes. Quivery. Lord knows, she'll be 105!

"We're gonna' take covered dishes to the church social hall to feed his family before the funeral. What can you bring?"

"Cold potato salad with onions," they will answer.

I'll hate the onions.

At the church, flowers will cover the front of the church. Round wreaths and heart-shaped wreaths will be stacked on wire holders almost to the ceiling. A few green growing plants will sit here and there, and an expensive large oblong wreath called a spray will fit on top of the gray metal casket. The spray will be pushed to the right end when the half lid is opened so that the mourners, the curious, and the obligated can peer in at the forty-year-old who is actually eighty-nine. I'll hate all the flowers, and, so help me, I'll attempt to sneeze.

Bob, my brother, will look at me.

"That little sap sucker held me down in a fight when I was about ten years old and let his nose bleed on me," he will remember.

Marjorie, my sister, will gaze at me.

"That little varmint poured hot pepper vinegar in my iced tea," she will remember; "and I almost caught him, but he jumped the fence out by the wood pile."

Cawood, my middle son, will stand at the casket between Stanley and David.

"What in the world will we do with all that wood sculpture junk Dad's collected?" he will ask the other two.

They'll stand silently with no resolve. No one will mention firewood, but they will smile knowingly.

Emale, one of the only students to attend my funeral, will glance over my body.

"That teacher loves to magnify himself in the middle of his writing," he will think as he marches by. "Funny dunderhead, that man, but he liked the way I revised my essays."

The preacher will review my life with He done its and He seen its. After a statement or two of biography, he will forget about his tribute to my good life--my hike through the Narrows of Utah's Zion National Park, my lunch breaks at Artist's Point in Yellowstone, my summer among the giant trees in Sequoia, my funny book reviews in Kansas City, my knowledgeable subway rides in Boston, my ability to write happily about death. He will move on to saving the sinners in the audience. The congregation will drag out Amazing Grace among wrong notes from a hesitant pianist. They will sing the last verse and end with "than when we first begun" instead of the grammatically correct "than when we first began." They ought to be bouncing through There's Within My Heart a Melody with a melodious descant. I swear I'll attempt to scrooch up my lips and wrinkle my forty-year-old nose in disapproval. So help me, I'll attempt to groan an M flat.

The marble monument for my death will stand at Long Bridge Cemetery next to my parents' in a little yard covered with crushed rock. Their marble block with CORNELIUS is already there. Only the dates are missing. Down the sandy aisle of grave markers, mourners will see my grandaddy and grandmother Cornelius and my great-grandaddy and great-grandmother Cornelius. There among all those conservative foot-washing Primitive Baptists, I'll lie. I'll hate being a stranger. I'll hate the hot sunshine and lack of progressive liberalism. But I'll have no choice since my Hardshell cousins oversee the graveyard and since Randolph Cornelius sells gravestones for Nashville, my town.

At the grave side, Preacher Lesters will read the Twenty- third Psalm and pray a prayer that hardly anyone can hear, especially those standing on the outer circle of mourners. Even the folks who can hear will be fussing with the outdoors, the men in funeral suits sweating under their coats and tightly knotted ties, and the women in dark dresses walking funny with their high heels all bogged up in the sand. A South Georgia graveyard is always too hot, too cold, too wet, or too windy. A few relatives will sit in folding chairs under a tent on artificial grass. The dirt from the hole will be disguised as a grassy knoll on a golf course.

"We've gone as fer with this loved one as we can go," he will say before he shakes hands with those sitting in the chairs.

I'll hate his statement.

"My dilly dallying days are done, Rev. Dr. Dork," my plastic-laced body will shout with the alliteration of a capable writer.

Some folks will hug each other and say no words as they pat each other's back. Others will feel free to talk and laugh as they leave. Cars with lights on that followed the hearse in a slow ride to the cemetery will speed away to the normal life of ball games, tobacco farming, and Mickey Mouse vacations. Their lights will not be on as they rush away.

Original as my mind is, I'll bet I could be an ex-x-x-x- cellent director of my death, but the originality that I seek in my death is overridden by others whose formality, ritual, and tradition have been solidified by what money can buy. Evidently, mourners get comfort from such unconsidered routine, but I wish funerals were more entertaining, dying more significant, and death more creative.

Billy Carroll Cornelius