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  • Writer's pictureDebra M. Dudek

The Final Touch for a Funeral Might be at Cracker Barrel

My family said goodbye to my Great-Aunt Betty this past weekend. She was ninety-one and was my grandma's last living sibling. She passed away at the hospital with family nearby. Aunt Betty had brushed aside my requests for a visit a few times, as she wasn't always up for company. Phone calls sufficed, and she was always willing to answer questions the best she could whenever I needed help with my research. I am very grateful for what she shared.

What I realized during this weekend, wasn't just the sadness of her passing, there was a deeper grief of mourning the past that was before she left us. The golden parts of my childhood - the sweetness of those years when my grandma and her sisters were a major fixture of my life. There was always tea served in cups and saucers, cream and sugar, molasses cookies, and endless conversations about their parents, their grandparents, and if I was lucky, their great-grandparents. My grandma and her sisters drew from a seemingly endless well of stories - their mother's life and family in Scotland, their father's aunts and uncles in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as well as all the stories of seances and spiritualism from both sides of the family tree.

How do you say goodbye to this part of your life?

Aunt Loretta, Grandma, Aunt Clara, and Aunt Betty

I'm writing this and have to keep reminding myself - there is no crying at your keyboard in the car dealership's oil change waiting room.

The funeral brought my Dad's family together in a way we haven't seen since before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had two sturdy four-year-olds and two babies at the service, and they were the quirky comic relief I didn't know I needed. My youngest nephew blew raspberries and babbled loudly during the priest's sermon with impeccable timing. The youngest and sweetest tend to pull us back from whatever void we find ourselves looking into.

One of my jobs as the family genealogist is to have some workable photo archive for the big three family occasions - births, weddings, and funerals. If you're wondering why most obituary photos are awful, it's because most people don't have a head shot lined up for their last sendoff. Most photos you'll find in newspaper obituary sections or in funeral home listings are pulled from social media sites or were taken years ago with low-resolution cell phone cameras. I am asking you all to please have the photos you want to use at your service picked out ahead of time. Do not confuse preparedness with morbidity. It's one less thing to worry about during a stressful time.

I sent everything I had for Aunt Betty's celebration of life to my cousin, and he added them to the multi-media slideshow which played on a loop before and after the funeral service. What I didn't expect to see what a graduating class photo set up on an easel near my aunt's casket. In a handsomely framed photo, my great-aunt is listed as class vice-president. She is strikingly pretty, and I am envious that this one graduation photo is better than any image I have ever taken in my entire life.

I asked my cousin where he found this particular photo? Did my aunt have it in her house or did the school send it over?


It had been on the wall of the local Cracker Barrel restaurant since they opened, and a friend of the family mentioned the whereabouts of the photo before the funeral. I learned that each Cracker Barrel location has around 900 items on its walls, many of which hold local memorabilia thrifted in the area. My cousin drove to the restaurant, handed over his credit card, and asked to borrow the photo for my aunt's service. The restaurant management obliged, and this lovely photo became a gathering point of the room.

Happily, one of my aunt's classmates attended the service, and shared what she remembered about the people in the photo. Who was still alive, who had dated whom, what it was like to graduate with a small group of people you'd known your whole life. My aunt was funny, lively, pretty, and had a knack for making people feel included and welcome. I knew her to have the same attributes, and it was wonderful to hear about my aunt's life in the before times - before she became a wife, mother, and aunt.

Thank you to the kind people at Cracker Barrel, and for their unexpected kindness in an unfortunate time. In the end, we are the stories people tell about us after we are gone, and I have more than a few good stories to tell the younger set when they are old enough to hear them.

I am smiling and crying again, and I am grateful.



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