In Savannah, there is a room off the service hall, close to the double doors that lead to the carport where the hearse lives and families park for funeral services. We call it the flower room . . . because it’s the room where florists leave flowers. But in the corner of that room, tucked away where most people won’t notice them, are boots—nine pairs, to be exact.
Those boots are strategically placed in that corner because they’re out of the way but readily accessible when a service ends in the chapel. If the weather requires it, the funeral staff heading to the cemetery will grab their coats from the rack nearby and their boots from the corner of the flower room. And then they make their way to the hearse or the flower truck, ready to wade through whatever muck and mire may be awaiting them at their destination.
I looked at those boots the other night, as I passed through the flower room and into what is known as the casket receiving side of the garage . . . as opposed to the first call car side of the garage which is on the other side of bookkeeping . . . which occupies what was once the center bay. All of which is beside the point. When members of the funeral staff grab those boots, it’s because they know the next few hours are going to be messy, possibly cold, definitely rainy, or perhaps snowy (though that’s not likely around these parts). They know even if the family chooses to visit the grave later, when the work is done and the weather is better, they’ll be going now unless there’s an approaching tornado or violent thunderstorm. Monsoons don’t count. Neither does bitter cold or sweltering heat. They will be escorting someone’s loved one to their final resting place. Because that’s what they do.
But to me those boots represent a whole lot more than protection from Mother Nature’s messier moments. I see in them a willingness on the part of our staff . . . actually, any member of anyone’s funeral staff . . . to go when they are called, no matter the day or the hour or the conditions they will be facing. They may be headed to the local hospital in the middle of the day—or Florence, Alabama in the middle of the night. They may be called to the scene of a fatal accident, to homicides or suicides. Many of them walk into an arrangement room to sit down with the families and help them find a way to honor their loved one. Many of them walk into the preparation room and diligently work to give families the best last memory possible under the circumstances, while others make certain things are ready at the cemetery or all the paperwork is processed or the building is clean.
There’s an awful lot that takes place from the time the phone rings until long after the last scoop of dirt fills the grave or cremated remains are returned to a family. And all of it requires going and doing on the part of every employee, from housekeeping to maintenance, from the grave crew to the secretaries—and of course, the funeral personnel—every one of whom wears their own pair of metaphorical boots. Unfortunately, compliments of COVID, the phones at funeral homes all across the United States have been ringing far more in recent months . . . and sadly many of those calls are coming from the same families time after time.
We’re tired. For a lot of us, we’re beyond tired, to the point of being overwhelmed. Mentally. Physically. Emotionally. But we continue to go, despite how heavy those metaphorical boots are getting. The real ones provide some protection against the elements; we can take them off, clean them up as best we can, and pile them in the corner until the next time. But the others? As long as this storm is surging, we cannot put them away.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.