Today’s post is by Lou Carlson, who has been a Family Service Counselor at Fairhaven Memorial Park for twenty years.
Dell Eastman had worked at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary for 20 years when I met him. He had begun work as a cemetery salesman, and when the mortuary was built be continued to serve families as an arrangement counselor. He had a warm and engaging smile, kind of bulgy eyes and he walked with a slight limp from years of standing and waiting (we do that a lot in cemetery service!). But he was a wonderful conversationalist because he asked questions. He wanted to know about you, he was genuinely interested in your life and story.
Dell had retired after 20 years. He thought he would enjoy life, relaxing at home. His wife, Ann, however had very different ideas and gave Dell a “honey-do” list every day. The list always included sweeping the garage floor and the front porch. (Dell detested pushing a broom!!) Dell returned to Fairhaven employment in less than a year!! He worked another ten years before he finally retired “for good”.
For ten years, after he returned to work, I watched Dell, who was now serving families as a service director. He was patient, courteous, polite and careful. We talked over lunch in the employee break room, at graveside services as we waited for the family to arrive and at the Elks Club, when Dell took me to lunch there. And most days, Dell came into my office (when I was not with a family) to chat. We became good friends. He had many friends at Fairhaven Memorial Park and in the community where he lived.
Then, a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Dell for a while. I shrugged it off assuming that he might be visiting family, or something. I thought I’d drive by his home (he lives very near me) and see how he was doing. But I didn’t do it. I ignored the quiet voice in my heart that told me to visit him.
On Sunday, the phone rang at my home. Dell had died.
I was shocked, grieved at the death of a long time friend and guilty that I had not tried to visit him. If I had driven by his house I would have discovered that he was hospitalized, then in a nursing home, where he died. I was most saddened to learn that almost no one knew of his health situation, or had visited him during his last days and hours on earth.
Dell had asked me to officiate at his wife’s funeral a few years ago. After the services, he asked me to do the same thing at his (future) services, and I agreed. Twice at lunch at the Elks Club and once in my office, I interviewed Dell about his life. He told me his life story, he told me about Ann and their love, he told me about his military service in the Pacific theater of World War II, he shared many stories about serving families at funerals and of his love for California Lottery “Scratchers” (he bought many of them every day!!). And, he gave me a little gift. It was a card that read:
‘“A hug is the perfect gift – one size fits all and nobody minds if you exchange it.” (Ivern Ball)…. Dell Eastman.’
The staff atFairhaven, all who knew Dell, were stricken at the news of his passing. The ladies remembered Dell’s hugs – he loved to hug people (especially the ladies!). He was one of our own, and now, instead of standing beside the casket of a client, he was in his own casket. He was neatly dressed and looking younger than I had seen him in years. But the smile was gone, his eyes were closed, his hands were folded over his lap, his voice was stilled. Our co-worker, our friend was gone. Thousands of families whom he had served, had lost a memorable funeral counselor and service director. And we had all lost a dear friend.
At his funeral I told the story of his life, recounted his exploits during WWII, shared his love for Ann and gave everyone a personal copy of Dell’s “hug card”. Then, as the service ended, I asked the service directors to give to every guest a Lottery “Scratcher” card. It seemed a fitting way to conclude the services for a friend who had changed our lives with his smile, his hugs and his servant’s heart.
But Fairhaven Memorial Park will never be the same without him. Since his passing I have seen small groups of staff chatting about Dell, sharing memories and funny stories about him, wondering how many people remember him and how many staff never met him. Some were surprised, even shocked to learn that he had died. They had seen him recently – he seemed so well!!
There were some tears, some hugs and a quiet time.
All who work at a funeral home must deal with death and dying, directly or indirectly every day. We serve a mourning community. But it is in moments like these, when we must live through the death of a valued colleague, that we discover again how valuable our friends and family are. And how vulnerable we are to the emotions of grief and loss, when a co-worker dies.