The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh


By Elton Camp


            This is a true story about the death of my grandfather.  He was a distant and aloof figure.  I never had a conversation with him despite being in his presence many times.  It was the same way he treated his large clan of children. 


            After years of gradually declining health, Milas’ death came suddenly.  He took a turn for the worse and was placed in the hospital primarily as a precaution.  He seemed to improve.  It was while my parents sat at his bedside that he fell suddenly silent, shut his eyes, and quit breathing.  He was months short of ninety years old. 


            The funeral was held at Mt. Olive Baptist Church were he’d been a deacon for decades.  At the insistence of his older daughters, Preacher Moore was put in charge of the service.  It was a warm, sunny spring day.  The church was crowded with family and acquaintances, despite the fact that Milas had outlived almost everyone his age. 


            The brown, metal casket with fluffy white lining lay open at the front of the church, directly before the stage.  Milas looked extremely bad, but that didn’t stop the foolish utterances that are customary at a funeral. 


            “Oh, don’t he look natural,” exclaimed a neighbor woman. She looked expectantly at bystanders for affirmation of her statement.  Nobody endorsed what was so clearly untrue.  She ignored the fact that when alive he never wore make-up or lipstick.  In rural southern society, the only time a person “looks natural” is when he’s dead.  Others made equally inane comments when they walked up beside his casket for a look. 


            When it was time for the service to start, the funeral director clicked the lid shut and pulled a blanket of red roses over it.  To both sides stood wreaths of various sizes and types of flowers.  The combination of scents was sicky-sweet and almost overpowering in the small church. 


            After a long prayer delivered in a monotone, Moore introduced an elderly man, Preacher Isbell.  He was to share in the service.  Isbell was obviously confused and unwell.  He made general comments in a shaking voice. 


            “To tell you the truth, I thought Uncle Mile was already dead,” he stated.  The audience shift uncomfortably at his statements and in pity for the elderly man. 


            The old preacher made unclear references to the Scriptures, but when he tried to find a verse to support his thoughts, his hands shook so much he couldn’t effectively turn the pages of his Bible.  Twice he pushed his gold-rimmed glasses higher on his nose and began to read, but the verse he found wasn’t the one he intended.  The mourners sat in embarrassed silence.  Finally, to the relief of all, he ended his part and returned the service to Moore. 


            The fundamentalist minister was up to his usual standard.  He started out calmly enough, espousing the customary views of his church.  As he went on, the man became increasingly excited.  He allowed that while Milas was assured of a heavenly reward, he wasn’t so certain about some of his grandchildren.  He darkly suggested that some of them, despite being teenagers, might well come to reside in “hellfire” if they didn’t change their ways. 


            I punched my cousin sitting next to me on the pallbearers row.  “He’s talking about us,” I whispered.  I was unorthodox in religious views and the other boy was a smoker and drinker.  “Better get a set of asbestos clothes,” I smirked.  “We’re both gonna need them.”  


            The minister continued his harangue, pausing occasionally to mop sweat from his forehead with his white handkerchief.  After nearly an hour, the service ended with another lengthy prayer that essentially summarized all that the man had asserted during his sermon. 


            In the Appalachian Mountain way, the funeral director opened the casket so that the mourners could file by a final time.  Seated near the front, I noticed with revulsion that the pink make-up from my grandfather’s nose had rubbed off onto the white satin lining of the casket lid.  The undertaker tried in vain to discreetly remove the stain.  As the audience passed, his wife Belle and a few of his daughters broke down in hysterical sobbing.  The ceremony seemed to be designed to provoke an emotional display.  It succeeded. 


            Burial was in the church graveyard.  Milas had decided to be placed there rather than alongside his first wife.  He’d been married to Belle far longer than to Miranda and Mt. Olive was his home church, although he hadn’t attended for many years. 


            After another long prayer, the funeral home personnel slowly lowered the casket into the grave.  The family retreated inside the church or to their cars to avoid seeing the necessary work that followed.  Only when the flowers were arranged on the grave did they return. 


            Milas’ younger daughters pulled the tags from the wreaths and noted the type on the back for the obligatory “thank you” notes.  The family scattered to their various homes, not to be together again until the next funeral commanded their presence. 


            On the way home, I remarked to my parents, “That was totally disgusting.”


            “If you had any respect for the dead, you wouldn’t say something like that,” my father accused angrily, completely missing the point of the comment. 


            With the passing of Milas, members of the family shifted a generation in a single day.  He had seemed a permanent fixture, but had gone “the way of all flesh.” 

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Short Story
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The death of Milas, my grandfather and a character in many of my short stories. True account.