INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Death can bring many surprises about people. Sometimes those who know the decedent best are as much in the dark as everyone about what was really special in their heart. All of the necessary tasks associated with last minute funeral plans and execution including determining actual funeral costs and sources of payment (burial insurance and funeral insurance, etc.) are made even more difficult with this uncertainty. A well organized decedent who was prepared in advance makes it much more manageable.
In the case of a popular man who lived alone, the tasks of initially organizing the home for visitation and planning funeral meals and death notice and eulogy writing require immediate attention and can be stressful, but when something is learned that is unexpected yet positively displays the content of the man’s heart, things become much more a pleasure than a chore. This story is about one of those situations.
John and Mary Walters had been friends with Ben Williams for nearly twenty years. Ben was a good next door neighbor but since the death of his wife, Susan, three years ago he was a different man. His jovial nature had become subdued and he just seemed lost without her. The Walters’ knew that Ben had some heart problems but they had no idea if the problems were critical or just of a cautionary nature and he never offered any information. They still stayed in daily contact with him but things were never quite the same since the “light of his life” had been taken from him.
Ben’s only daughter, Sheila, had died about two years before his wife, and after both of his loved ones were gone his devotion was to his little pet dog, Rocket, a lively Jack Russell terrier. Ben bought the dog about fifteen years earlier as a puppy and after Susan died he was his constant companion, accompanying him wherever he went. He even had a license plate on his car which read “Rocket and Me.”
As if it was the last straw for Ben, Rocket developed a tumor and died two years after Susan and Ben was devastated. He took the little dog’s body to a taxidermist and had it stuffed and mounted on a wood block that he could keep. After he brought the figure of the dog home, no one ever knew what happened to it. Even Ben’s best friend John would not bring the subject up; he knew that Ben felt this third death in a short time put him at his limit.
One beautiful spring morning while out on their morning walk, John and Mary realized that things seemed unusual at Ben’s house. He was usually an early riser and his biggest enjoyment left in life was his prize rose garden where he could usually be found in the cool of the morning. The couple couldn’t remember a day in months when Ben wasn’t out there working on his flowers during their walk. They usually stopped to chat with him, sometimes even joining him for a cup of coffee before continuing. John made a mental note to check on Ben if he wasn’t seen moving about by lunch time.
After lunch and with still no sign of Ben, John and Mary walked over to their friend’s home. The garage door was open with the car parked; the hood was cool to the touch and it had not been driven. Ben usually took a quick trip each morning to the hardware store he had owned for thirty years and sold just after Susan’s death. The new owner loved Ben and always was glad to have him around, even offering to let him work part-time if he desired. The fact that he had not been out of the house all morning increased their apprehension greatly.
John called Ben’s name and knocked hard on the inside door which led to the kitchen; there was no answer. Calling his name again, he tried the handle and found it open. Walking into the kitchen, he found the portable counter TV turned on but no John in sight.
Both now being fearful, they entered the living room where a full cup of cold coffee sat on the coffee table next to an unopened newspaper. From there, they split up, Mary going one way and John the other.
As John turned into the hallway toward the master bedroom, Mary shrieked from the Florida room. Rushing to her, he found her sobbing and kneeling beside Ben’s body, face down on the Arabian rug he loved so much. There was nothing they could do as he had no pulse and his body was losing normal temperature.
After calling 911 and waiting for the body to be removed, John went to John’s business desk in the study. Even though retired, John, an attorney by trade, had agreed to be his friend’s executor and he knew where to find his important papers. There in the center drawer was an oversized clasp enveloped with Ben’s signature across the seal and annotated “to be opened by John Walters only”.
John carefully opened it and found a series of smaller business envelopes, each labeled separately. One was his last will and testament which John had prepared for him, the second was labeled property and financial information and the third contained funeral instructions. John started with the funeral plan envelope since it was the one thing that required initiation right away.
Opening the envelope, John first found a hand-written instruction sheet on two pages of a legal sized tablet detailing his funeral notice and wishes for a church service at his place of worship, First Methodist Church with burial in his family plot next to his wife in the church cemetery. He even specified type of casket and pallbearers. The listing also referenced an additional smaller envelope contained therein which held additional special instructions.
As he opened it he was totally surprised. First were two pictures of his little dog, one in life and the other as a lifelike stuffed and mounted remembrance, complete with his smiling eyes. A note attached told John to bury Rocket with him in his casket. Also in the envelope was a passbook to the local savings and loan with rights of survivorship passing to John. A note attached said it was to be used for his final expenses and looking at the balance it had more than enough deposited to handle a first class funeral. That was just like Ben, a cash and carry guy.
John covered the house and found the mounted Rocket in the floor by Ben’s bed and made the necessary arrangements with the funeral home to initiate the final funeral plans and include Rocket with Ben in the casket.
Ben took care of all other immediate matters and at the funeral Rocket was ultimately posed beside Ben as if he were sitting at his master’s side in final repose. He remained in this pose throughout the viewing and the funeral and, when all was over, he was placed with his head on Ben’s shoulder before it was lowered in the ground. It was actually very touching to all and was certainly memorable and the large audience saw a new side to the spirit of the lonely man that they liked but didn’t always understand.
John and Mary made arrangements for the reception after the funeral to be held in Ben’s side garden where the roses were in full bloom in the glorious sunshine. They brought in two canopied tents for the caterers for serving lines and all enjoyed the beauty of nature as they chatted about Ben and his life. Even his only known remaining direct relative, his nephew Freddie, came to the funeral. John had trouble locating him and surprisingly found him living only fifty miles away in Wilmington.
Freddie was a retired soldier who had been disabled in Afghanistan. He and his wife and little girl lived in an apartment in the nearby town where they were struggling to make do on his pension. His wife, Sally, held a teacher’s certificate and was trying to get full time placement but thus far had only been able to secure substitute assignments. A real surprise was about to be given to them, courtesy of Ben’s will and John’s astute work.
All of Ben’s estate, which was considerable, was given to charity with the exception of his home. The house was granted to Freddie in Ben’s will and John was going to advise Freddie at the end of the reception. What’s more, using a few contacts and some good luck, John had secured a teaching assignment in the local schools. A teacher had to drop out two months before the end of the year and Sally was being offered the temporary assignment subject to being hired in permanent status if she handled the end of the school year well.
As the last of the guests were departing and John gave the catering crew the okay to close it down and clean up, he walked over to talk with the young Williams couple with Mary. At first, they seemed dazed, then they smiled broadly and finally both Freddie and his wife hugged John and Mary. It was a dream come true and they couldn’t believe their good fortune from an uncle that Freddie remembered and respected but didn’t know real well. John told him it was from an appreciative uncle in honor of his service and sacrifice.
John told them to go back and get things finalized back at their apartment and he would start getting the house cleaned and in order. The belongings left by Ben would be theirs if they desired, otherwise he would have things donated to charity.
That night after the long day, Mary hugged her husband tightly and said, “I’m proud of you, John, and I know that Ben is smiling in gratitude from his new home”.
“I don’t know about that, Mary”, he replied, “but I know there is one thing I did that will get his attention. I donated what was left over from his funeral account to the new dog only park that the city is supporting and there will be a memorial picture at the gate dedicated to Ben and Rocket. And the auto tag everyone in town recognizes will be included.”
As they relaxed and talked about the day, John was right. Ben, who now was looking down with Susan and with Rocket at his side, was grinning from ear to ear. His funeral plans had been administered to perfection and with the added touches made possible by John, dog lovers all over town would learn and cherish the story of “Rocket and Me” for generations to come.
Author page: www.outskirtspress.com/honeyweshouldaboughttheark
Honey, We Shoulda’ Bought the Ark was selected as a Best Read for 2014 by American Pet Magazine