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Burying Joe Miller

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Burying Joe Miller
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Oct. 2006

 

On Saturday, October 21, we buried our friend Joe Miller. Joe was in his 80’s and was as cranky, demanding, and a bitchy pain in the ass that you would never want to meet. “Direct” did not begin to describe this man.

 

Joe had a place and catering business the City for years.  He died there a few months ago and was cremated. A native of Valatie, He always kept a house here and his ties active. Illegitimate, his family identity was important to him and his wishes were to be buried with his mother and family in their plot here. Gay, his long time partner, Michael, wanted to bring his ashes back to China when he retired there.

 

Michael’s offer of compromise was to split Joe in two. As this process progressed, we were to tell Michael “No” several times.

 

Joe was one of ours, so we met our social pact and gathered. We had to find a preacher to say the right things over the grave and a couple of old women to sing Amazing Grace.

 

Paul, the consummate organizer, took on the tasks. We lucked out on both counts - the preacher was a popular, thoughtful and local man, and we were honored by the presence of two old sisters who are known for their singing and who have sent more than one man to the other side.

 

October 21 broke as a cool, breezy, but clear morning. Michael called early to admonish us not to spend too much on flowers. We bought a very nice, expensive center piece :-) Paul, in his 60’s and Jason, in his 20’s, went to the cemetery to dig the hole before the burial ceremony. Neither were very comfortable with digging the hole but in the end, Jason did the labor, still fearing he would “hit something”.

 

I was asked how deep the hole should be and I commented that “It’s Joe Miller, put his ashes on the ground and the Devil will pull him down.” We settled on about 2 feet.

 

We arrived on time and about 20 people showed for the burial. Paul - always thinking of details - had brought a stool with a red silk sheet, to put Joe’s ashes on during the ceremony. In front of it we propped up a picture of Joe in World War II – Seeing this handsome young man (who had married the then Ms. Georgia, and who was later was awarded a Bronze Star in Korea) I wondered what turns and terms a man has to negotiate in the 50 year that takes him from young to old man.

 

Michael had wanted to take pictures because all of Joe’s friends were there. We explained that Joe would not get to see the photos, and, “No”, it was probably not appropriate to take pictures at the cemetery.

 

The preacher said the right things. We all wandered into our own thoughts, maybe thinking about Joe’s life, but more about our own mortality, faith, fears and hopes. I watch the glorious leaves blowing off a strong maple and saw all our lives passing and saw the names and years on the stones in this yard of peace and death and permanence, where our time of being ends and the time of forgetting begins.

 

The old sisters sang Amazing Grace. The pure words left on the autumn wind, but left our hearts clutching at what was left.

 

Michael had earlier pointed out that it was a waste to bury Joe in that beautiful Cherry box with mother-of-pearl inlay. It would just rot. Wouldn’t it make more sense to save the box? We explain to Michael “No”, Joe was being buried in the beautiful box and it will rot right there.

 

We took Joe’s ashes off the silk draped stool and set him in that rectangular hole that Jason had dug. Michael laid a yellow rose on the box and we cried as he cried.

 

Paul, Jason and I carefully set the clods of dirt over Joe in his Cherry box. When the hole was filled, we reset the sod to its place and the earth had swallowed another of us, with only a name and dates carved on a stone.

 

We all placed a yellow rose in the centerpiece we had bought for Joe. The locals talked about their youthful times, their lost youths, and how close everyone had been back then. A few smoked. We all shook hands and hugged. And then the car doors started closing – warm clumps like the earth we had just put on Joe.

 

I considered our ages, Jason - young, me - not so young, and Paul - not so young ever again, Joe never growing older again. I was satisfied with the gathering of our friends over generations to fulfill a duty that we thought necessary and right.

 

We went back to food at Paul and Leslie’s house, catered by Michael and the remains of Joe’s New York staff. We talked of Joe, of politics, of life. Some smoked cigarettes. We shook hands and hugged again. Then departed for our own lives….

 

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