It's a grave matter to get answers to dumb questions


Invoking my rule that the only dumb question is the one you do not ask, I asked the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery if growing up in a cemetery had been weird.

The superintendent of Arlington lives on the grounds and the current superintendent, John C. Metzler, is the son of a past superintendent.

And so Metzler, who was sitting at a banquet table with me and was wearing a nifty little golden shovel tie clasp, had grown up among the headstones and monuments of the nation's most famous cemetery.

Was that weird? I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Definitely."

See what I mean about asking dumb questions? How else are you going to learn? I was giving a speech to the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association in Westminster and I was learning a lot.

As a group, for instance, funeral directors are not at all gloomy. They were planning a cruise and had just received their new golf shirts with their logo on the chest: Their name surrounding a large golden crab.

I asked why a golden crab was the symbol of the funeral directors.

"Well, it's not," one funeral director explained. "But what were we supposed to put there? A coffin?"

Good point.

I had figured the funeral business must be recession-proof -- when you gotta go, you gotta go -- but I was wrong.

"Actually, it was a very slow summer," one funeral director told me, "but things are picking up now."

You mean you actually have slow periods and busy periods? I said.

"In the funeral business," he said, "it is either feast or famine."

Personally, I would not use food metaphors if I were a funeral director. But I got his point.

Funeral directors must not only know the technical side of their business (I asked what embalming really involved and found out what I thought all along: I didn't really want to know what embalming really involved) but also must know how to be psychologists, comforting people in difficult times, as well as business people. It is a very demanding job and, in my opinion, a fascinating one.

I'll bet you know, for instance, that famous people like John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, William Howard Taft and Earl Warren are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But did you know that Joe Louis is buried there? Or Frank Reynolds? Or Abner Doubleday?

Not just anybody can be buried at Arlington, but it is not quite as difficult to get in as people generally believe.

If you ever won a Purple Heart, for example, you can be buried at Arlington. You will get full military honors, and it will be free, including the marble headstone.

Arlington won't run out of space on its 612 acres until about 2025, so plan on dying before then.

Like the funeral directors, Superintendent Metzler took his job seriously, but was not at all funereal.

What kind of funeral service does a private get? I asked him.

"Eight pallbearers, a bugler, a chaplain, a seven-member firing squad and one NCO [non-commissioned officer]," he said. "The firing squad fires three volleys."

And a general?

"Everything a private gets plus a caisson, a flag bearer, a riderless horse with the boots in the stirrups turned backward, a saddle blanket on the horse with the same number of stars the general had, two marching platoons, an escort officer, a marching band and three cannon. A one-star general would get 11 volleysfrom the cannon."

And a five-star general?

"Nineteen volleys from four cannon," Metzler said.

The rules for entry into Arlington are much less strict if you are cremated and have your remains sealed in a niche behind a marble plaque in the columbarium. Basically, anyone in the armed forces who dies on active duty or a former member who served on active duty and got an honorable discharge can be inurned at Arlington.

[I am not pushing cremation, but I have a feeling it is going to become a lot more popular, especially among those concerned about the environment. A graveyard is, after all, just another kind of landfill.]

Once again falling back on my dumb question rule, I asked Metzler: Can Dan Quayle be buried at Arlington Cemetery?

"No," Metzler said. "His National Guard service does not count. The president, of course, has the power to make an exception for him."

By that time, however, I doubt if President Caroline Kennedy would want to.

The talk among the funeral directors was largely about things people like you and me never think about: funeral music, for instance.

Edward M. Ranier of the Baltimore law firm of Lord & Whip specializes in "death law" and he told me: "ASCAP and other unions are saying that if funeral homes use recorded music at funerals, they must pay royalties. Songs in the common domain are safe, but using other songs could result in a lawsuit."

In other words, "Rock of Ages" is free, but "Rock Around the Clock" might not be.

This news devastated me. I have always wanted the second side of "Abbey Road" played at my funeral. "Abbey Road" is the last album I ever bought because I didn't think music could get any better. (And nothing has caused me to change my mind since.)

And now I learn that my estate is going to have to pay royalties to Paul McCartney or Yoko Ono or Michael Jackson or whomever. Like they really need it, right?

"It is just one more thing funeral directors must worry about," Ranier said. "You know, funeral directors are very nice people. It's a caring profession. They really care about their fellow man. And I must say, they are a heck of a lot more fun to drink with than lawyers."

On the other hand, who isn't?

Just down the table from me, Sally Lowe, the executive secretary of the group, was exploring another problem with her colleagues.

"At a funeral, a mourner falls in the open grave," she said. "What do you do?"

I turned to a funeral director near me. What would you do? I asked.

"I'd push some dirt on him," he said. "Real quick."

See what I mean about dumb questions?

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