University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Riding Hearse

Mr. Atkinson from Smith’s Funeral Home drawled over the phone, “Well, Son, gotta make a little run to the country with the hearse. Need you and a buddy to pick up a body. Ha! Ha! Be by in fifteen minutes.”

As a freshman at Florida Southern College in 1942, I had a part-time job riding ambulance for the funeral home next door to my Alpha Sigma fraternity house in Lakeland. The job was close at hand, paid even when the ambulance didn’t run, and seemed somehow appropriate to a fellow headed toward medical school. My most memorable ride began with that call from Mr. Atkinson.

I enlisted a willing colleague, Levie Smith, and, with curiosity and some dread, we waited for the hearse to arrive. Even though I had come from a preacher’s family living in small towns where life was hardly protected, I had never had a close encounter with the dead. Levie and I joined Mr. Atkinson on the plush leather front seat of his shiny Cadillac hearse. En route, he regaled us with stories of his adventures as an ambulance driver and mortician, none of which prepared us for confrontation with a real dead person.

Just past Haines City we left the pavement for an oyster-shell road, which, after several miles, turned into a corduroy dirt road lightly strewn with pine needles. This led us through a scraggly forest of turpentine pines, just as the last rays of sun filtered through. Sunlight gleamed from a corner of the sloping, corrugated tin roof as we arrived at the Thigpens’ remote back-country cabin. The front porch roof was supported by crooked cypress logs and the weather-beaten board cabin was elevated two feet or so on concrete pyramids, a protection from varmints, termites, and floods. The scene was strangely calm and primitive.

The widow, children, and grandchildren of Mr. Thigpen were seated quietly on the porch in the evening light. They spoke not a word to us, while their hounds chorused loud, baleful greetings. After a respectful silence, Mr. Atkinson approached the cabin stoop and chatted softly with the family. Levie and I unhooked the stretcher and bore it across the packed clay of the front yard, entered the tiny house, and struggled to adapt to the gloom in the dead man’s bedchamber.

Old Mr. Thigpen was laid out on his bed under a crocheted spread, his face a classic death mask, his close-cropped gray hair covered with a stocking cap. He was peaceful and immaculate on this cool fall day, lying in the bed where he had slept all the nights of his adult years. The only jarring note in the dignified scene was Mr. T’s stubble of beard. Mr. Atkinson explained to us how it had continued to grow in the twenty-four hours since his death. He also indicated, before we touched the body, that rigor mortis had set in, but he expected that the stiff, meager frame should be easy for us to handle.

“Let’s ya’ll get goin’ boys,” he ordered, as it became clear that he had no intention of handling the body himself. He supervised us, however, in turning back the bedspread, spreading our clean sheet next to the body, turning Mr. Thigpen to one side to extract the edge of the sheet, and then rolling him back, stretching our bottom sheet taut. One of us then leaned over the bed while together we lifted the body by the sheet onto the litter.

Ambulance litters in those days were simple canvas slings, and Mr. Thigpen was indeed very stiff and certainly not lightweight. In our first experience with a truly dead weight, we struggled to carry the clumsy burden through the bedroom door into the parlor, where his widow was now seated, rocking. As we maneuvered through the door, Mr. Thigpen’s left arm, on the side I had been responsible for bundling, suddenly slipped out of our neat package and, protruding beyond the litter, struck the door frame with a sharp clump!

Widow Thigpen, curious, looked up at us.

Under my breath, I whispered fiercely to Levie to back up, and we replaced Mr. Thigpen and the litter on the bed for repackaging. As a precautionary measure on the second try, we took Mr. Thigpen out head first and then successfully navigated the living room, the porch, the front stoop, and the long stretch of yard to the rear door of the hearse.

Just as we rested the front handles of the litter on the floor of the hearse, preparing to move it into the depths of the vehicle, Thigpen’s main hunting hound, big as a pony, came bounding around the corner howling in agony, a broken rope leash dangling from its neck. We hurriedly shoved the body into the hearse and slammed the door shut — just as the old hound leapt up, scratching furiously at the shiny paint of the car. We scurried into the front seat as the family rushed to restrain the grieving animal. Mr. Atkinson slipped into the driver’s seat, and we pushed off into the darkening piney woods.

Some time later, pulling into the funeral home garage, Mr. Atkinson asked whether we would like to assist him in preparing the body for burial. Levie and I allowed that we would put off that lesson until another day and made a dash for the fraternity house. After we washed the feel of the dead man from our hands, we sat down with our fraternity brothers, who were full of curiosity, to embroider on the long day’s adventure.

I would be hard put to say which was the more appealing part of college life, the long collegial hours in chemistry laboratory and the satisfaction of hitting on the nose an unknown sample analysis, or the “baroque beauty of biology” with its wonders of form and function, or simply the exposure to elegant scholarly minds that opened provocative glimpses of truth and beauty. Unfortunately, none of this wonder appeared in my ill-kept diary of those days and very little of it in my correspondence home, extracted here.

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