03 January 2008

Memorable Toast To A Great Friend's Departed Father

This morning, one of my best friends buried his father.

At the cemetery following the funeral at the family church, we gathered in the chapel for final prayers, and a most unique send-off I had only read about but never witnessed. We drank a toast to Len, but it was no ordinary toast.

My friend Ron Herman is a master carpenter and student of history. He built, by hand, a replica of a "hind box," more commonly known today in some circles as a "pall bearers' box." The box is a tradition handed down by Christians dating back to the 1400s and 1500s, and was frequently found aboard sailing vessels, stored in the "hind" or rear of the ship. In the box are six liquors that could be made aboard ship -- whiskey, vodka, port wine, rum, cognac and gin. There are 12 shotglasses (6 reserved for the pallbearers), and a special glass for the departed. My friend's family brought extra shotglasses today for other members of the family and friends who wanted to drink a toast to "the old man." Inside the box is a place for the head pall bearer to inscribe his name, the name of the deceased, and the date of burial.

The history of the box goes back to the days when the bodies of sailers, if they died aboard ship, were kept on board until they got to land -- an island or a continent, it didn't really matter. For in those days, the belief was that you would not get to Heaven if you were not given a Christian burial on land, and a marker, a cross, be erected to mark your grave. A burial at sea was feared. The way a ship captain would keep the crew civil if there were bodies for burial still aboard ship, and land still days away, was to keep them in liquor. I am told that several phrases we use today come from these ancient traditions -- for example, the idea of seating in rows at a funeral come from the six men who would "row" the deceased to an island for burial. Also, the phrase "pick your poison" comes from choosing which liquor in which to partake.

At the grave site, as all are ready to toast, a special "vocation" to the deceased is read. The vocation is handed down from the Scots (the vocation was found in a museum in Edinborough, Scotland and updated into modern English). Today, sons, daughters, in-laws, cousins, brothers, sisters, a wife of 50 years, and special friends raised glasses in unison. I was pleased to be in the company of good friends David Buda and Carol Schneider for this old tradition, which was new to all of us.

The Scots had it right (disclaimer: I am of Scots-Irish descent). The English stole their lands. The English stole their arms. The English stole much, but they could not steal death. It was the one thing a Scot owned outright. And so, death was to be celebrated, often with strong drink. For the deceased had gone on and taken with him that which could not be stolen. He had his freedom from the English yoke. In a modern world, death is still the only thing each of us owns that can never be stolen. And so today, we celebrated Len's life, and death, with a final drink.

It was a moving moment for all today (and thankfully somewhat warmer than it would have been had we stood at the actual graveside with snow cover and a temperature hovering around 10 degrees farenheit). Moving for all, but there is more. What Ron did not share with the larger group during the toast is that in making the box from photos and plans he found on a website from a historical museum in Maine, he used several different types of woods -- all 250 years of age or older. And every hand tool he used to cut, plane or otherwise create the box were fabricated in the 1850s or earlier.

This "pall bearers' box" is a final, special gift from son to father. While Ron's father never saw "the box," he had seen the plans when its construction began a couple years ago. Len was aware of the tradition, the vocation, the toast, and thought it all wonderful.

I first met this fascinating, humble, irascible man some 33 years ago. I last visited with him on Christmas Eve afternoon. He died four days later. Today's toast to Len was a tradition I was proud to witness. Moreover, it was an honor to participate in a send-off to a truly gentle man.

Mr. Herman, you will be missed.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

a wonderful and moving tribute...I wish I could have seen it.

Andy Miller said...

Mr. Greer,
I met you at the Gun Rights Policy Conference in Kentucky this fall. I have enjoyed your columns here at the Ready Line blog. Your writing here with this story is a wonderful memorial to your good friend's dad. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, and teaching the tradition of the pallbearer's box. It really came from the heart. I am glad I read you regularly.

Brent Greer said...

Andy, thank you. I remember our conversation. I don't know what to say about your comment, other than thank you for your kind words.

Anonymous said...

very moving thank you for sharing

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