Many years ago I worked for a man whom today I call a great American funeral director. His lifelong motto was "Families first, no matter what," and he lived this with a consistency that few men ever achieve.
The funerals he conducted were flawless, and people genuinely admired and respected him. He was a grand person. However, one of the most interesting mysteries which accompanied this man was his "little black book." It was a small black book with a lock on the cover. It looked as if it was very old, and it was his constant companion.
If you went to his office, you would see it lying on his desk. At funerals, he would pull the black book out and scribble brief notations in it. If you picked up his suit coat, you could feel the black book in his coat pocket.
You can imagine the gossip by the staff and speculation around the funeral home coffee room as to precisely what was in the black book. I remember on the first day I worked, I very seriously asked the embalmer what the book was for, and he responded with a very mysterious glance, "What do you think is in the book?"
I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer and very innocently I said, "I have no idea."
"Oh, come on, farm boy," the embalmer replied. "He keeps his list of girlfriends in there." I was stunned! My employer was a womanizing gambler! I could not believe it.
For nearly three years the mysterious saga of the little black book continued -- all the time, the stories, gossip and intrigue getting more and more spectacular and ridiculous.
Then suddenly one day, while conducting a funeral, my boss, this great funeral director, had a massive heart attack and died.
Four days later, we had a grand funeral for him -- he was laid out in a solid bronze casket, flowers were everywhere, and when we took him to the church, the place was packed and the governor was in the front row.
I was standing in the back of the church protecting the church truck (that was my job), sobbing as the minister went on about what a great man my boss was and how just knowing him made us all better people. I couldn't have agreed with the minister more.
Then the minister asked my boss's widow to come up and talk about her husband's character. I thought, Now this will be beautiful, as she rose to walk to the pulpit. It was then I saw she was carrying his little black book! My tears of grief instantaneously turned to sweats of terror.
She walked to the pulpit, stood with complete dignity, looked at the assembly and said, "Thank you all for being here today. I want to share with you a secret about my husband's character."
I thought, Oh God, here it comes!
She continued, "You see this small book. Most of you know he carried it with him constantly. I would like to read to you the first entry of the book dated April 17, 1920 -- Mary Flannery, she is all alone. The next entry August 8, 1920 -- Frederick W. Pritchard, he is all alone. The next entry November 15, 1920 -- Frieda M. Gale, she is all alone. You see when he made funeral arrangements or saw somebody at a funeral that he knew was all alone, he would write their names in this book. Then, every Christmas Eve, he would call each person and invite them to share a wonderful Christmas dinner at our house. I want you all to know that this was the true character of my husband; he was concerned, compassionate and caring. This is what the little black book is all about, and I also want you to know that this being 1971, he did this for fifty Christmases."
There was not a dry eye in the church.
Now almost a quarter of a century after his death, I look back at the inner spirit that motivated this funeral director to do what he did. May this spirit of warmth and compassion guide each of us in this great profession. Just think of the humanitarian possibilities if every member of the funeral profession developed our own little black books. The results of human kindness would be staggering.
By Todd W. Van Beck
Reprinted by permission of Todd W. Van Beck ©© 1999, from Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patty Aubery and Nancy Mitchell Autio.
Story sent by Janet Belden