No matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, short or tall, skinny or fat – there is one thing everyone has in common.
We all end up dead, eventually.
How people handle that eventuality – whether theirs or that of a loved one – separates most people. That and the fact that those with money usually go out in grander style than those with not as much.
Finding humor in death is one way to handle a typically unpleasant time in people’s lives. Finding that humor is what retired funeral home director and cemetery owner Lee Downs did in his book, “The Funny Side of Death – A Look at the Funny Side of Death From the Eyes of Retired Funeral Home and Cemetery Owner, Lee B. Downs.”
“It’s notes that I kept over the years from people about their final requests, funny things that happened, famous graves I visited,” said the 71-year-old Downs, a Mineral Wells transplant from South Florida.
Near the end of a 20-year career in the Navy, Downs was stationed in South Florida as a recruiter. He began thinking about his own afterlife – life after military service – and what he was going to do. He took a part-time job with Lehigh Corporation selling cemetery plots and insurance door-to-door.
“My business card read, ‘We cover you from the womb to the tomb,’” Downs said with a chuckle.
He said he never in his life thought he would work in the cemetery or funeral home business – it’s not for everyone – but he said he had experienced death in his life both in the military and his personal life, so he had an idea how to handle it.
He was a good salesman, he said, and made a good living in pre-arranged funeral sales. He had good salesman qualities – patience and perseverance.
He tells a story of one sales call. The lady invited him inside but said he would have to wait until she was finished playing TV Bingo. Downs said she had a lot of playing cards she was busily scanning.
He noticed a number was called that she missed on one card, giving her Bingo. He pointed it out to her. She called in her winning card then turned to him and said, “‘What are you selling, because I’m buying,’” Downs said.
When he retired from the Navy in 1975, with the rank of chief petty officer, Downs said the company promoted him to vice president in charge of cemetery operations. He built a crematory and attended schools and seminars to learn all he could about the business. He later became a partner of Anderson Funeral Home in Lehigh Acres, Fla. He spent 30 years in the business, and experienced just about everything one could imagine in the form of requests and trying his best to accommodate them all.
One of the stories Downs tells in the book involves his son, Terry, becoming a reluctant hero for a family.
Down said a man had come into the funeral home to pre-arrange his cremation. But he told Downs he had 15 ounces of gold safely tucked away – behind his fake eye. Downs at first was about ready to run the guy out of the office, but then noticed, indeed, the man had a glass eye.
“‘When I die my wife wants that gold,’” the man told Downs.
OK, he said. Downs takes the order which includes the instructions to remove the man’s eye, extract the gold and turn it over to the man’s widow.
In the meantime, Downs’ son takes over and operates the crematorium. Sure enough, the man dies and the son reviews the pre-arrangement contract when he comes across the rather grisly instructions.
The son calls dad, telling him he has no intentions of removing the eye and reaching inside the man’s head to pull anything out.
“I forgot to tell you about that,” Downs said he told his son. “I said, ‘Pop his eye out and take the gold to his wife.’ He said, ‘I can’t do it, you come help me.’”
Downs didn’t want to make the drive and told his son to just do it. He said his son called back and said he asked another local funeral home director to come help him. That director declined.
After downing several beers, Downs said his son was able to work up the nerve to complete the task.
“He said, “I did it and I’ll never do it again,’” Downs related.
There were certainly plenty of unpleasant tasks – such as disinterments from crypts. Those get a little messy from liquid, said Downs, noting that this was when smoking cigars came in very handy.
One of the more unique requests came from a woman who had spent a good amount of money enhancing her bust line, and she wanted to show it off in life and in death. She asked to be buried nude with an open casket at the service.
“She had a breast job and she was very proud of her endowment and she wanted an open casket,” Downs said. “A Methodist minister was doing the service, and I noticed he kept looking over at her. I had to follow through on her request.”
One man brought in his father for burial – all the way from Texas, wrapped in blankets and lying in the back of a pickup truck. His wish was to be returned to Florida and buried with his mother.
Then there was the woman who pulled up to Downs’ funeral home with her dead husband in the front seat of their car. They were on a trip, Downs said, and he suddenly died. So the wife simply drove directly to the funeral home.
Asked what led him to write the book, Downs said, “I’d been keeping notes during my time in business. I told stories at parties and people said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ So I did.”
Downs said he advertised for a ghostwriter to help him.
“One lady calls up and says, ‘I’d like to apply for your book, but why do you want to write about ghosts?’”
Downs’ book is available locally at the Booksatchell and at the Vietnam Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2399, where a portion of sales go to a veterans transportation fund Downs said is used to help veterans who need transportation to VA hospitals. The book, published in 2008 by AuthorHouse, can also be purchased on Amazon.com.
Because of his profession, Downs became interested in celebrity’s graves, traveling to see and picture them. He has a strong connection with the late Elvis Presley.
“I knew Elvis,” said Downs. “I was the first one in the house when he died. I saw the body.”
Already a big fan of Presley’s, Downs said he met the king of rock and roll in Memphis Memorial Hospital in 1968 when Downs’ son, Terry, and Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, were born basically hours apart.
He said the two talked in the waiting room. “He was just walking around,” Downs said. “We were just like two fathers waiting to hear something, nothing really spectacular.”
The two didn’t stay in touch, but Downs remained a loyal fan, collecting his albums and movies and going by Presley’s mansion, looking inside the gates, every chance he could.
Downs said he happened to be in Memphis when Presley died in August 1977. He said he went directly to the mansion and was one of the first people there. It wasn’t long before he was joined by thousands, but Downs is shown in pictures published in several magazines, including Rolling Stone and TV Guide, standing at the very front of the gates. He was interviewed by Rolling Stone for its article.
“I was in Memphis for a Shriners parade when I heard,” Downs said. “I went and parked across the street, right there next to his mansion. I held on to the gate.”
“People were screaming and hollering,” he said. “I had one old lady who kept sticking her umbrella in me. I was ready to break it in half. There was a 6-year-old boy by the gate and he was about to get crushed so I picked him up and handed him over the gate.”
After a wait of eight hours, Downs was among the 1,000 people allowed inside to view Presley’s body. He saw the king lying in a casket, dressed in a light blue suit.
Downs said he always tried to avoid seeing Elvis tribute artists, but said he enjoyed last Saturday’s Elvis show by Elvis impersonator Kraig Parker and his Royal Tribute Band at Mineral Wells High School. Downs gave the program’s opening invocation on behalf of VFW Post 2399, where he serves in the position of service officer.
He said he received “goosebumps” during Parker’s performance of “An American Trilogy,” a medley of three songs made famous by Presley.
Downs joined the Navy in 1955, “at tail end of Korea.” He said his first duty station after his initial training was in Great Lakes, Ill.
“The Navy had a tendency to be cruel,” he said. “They sent me in January from Miami to Illinois. I didn’t even know how to spell snow.”
He was then stationed in Beeville, Texas. “It was kind of warm, and everything smelled like cow poop,” he said. “I told my mom I think God hates me.”
He continued flight training and became a flight instructor, eventually stationed on the East Coast in Maryland.
He saw sea duty in the Navy for three years, going to Rota, Spain, in 1967 as part of squadron VQ-2 flying reconnaissance missions over Vietnam.
“We just took pictures, spotted gun sites,” he said. Flying at altitudes of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, the enemy rarely knew they were above them, and if they were shot at they didn’t know or weren’t worried about it. He flew as part of a 10-man crew in Lockheed patrol planes, which he described as a “big black airplane, like a U2, big lumber-some airplanes.”
He flew one or two of those missions a month for those three years before he returned to Florida and performed recruiting duties until his 1975 retirement.
Divorced from his first wife, Downs and his current wife, Fran – “Frantastic” – will celebrate their 20th anniversary this year.
He was still in the funeral home business when they met.
“I made her pass the test,” Downs said. “I made her help me with the bodies and do some of the hair on some of them. It bothered her at first.”
Even before his retirement from the funeral business, they began traveling the country in a Winnebago. Downs has a brother in Weatherford, and said he and Fran enjoyed their ventures into Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County.
“We fell in love with Mineral Wells,” he said.
They bought a home along the Brazos River in the Soda Springs community and were renovating it when he said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came and put a halt to that because it was determined they were in a flood zone.
They purchased a home in Mineral Wells. He said he doesn’t miss Florida.
“In Florida, there’s no Floridians left,” he said. “They are all New Yorkers, and they don’t even like each other.”
He seems still amazed at the way Texans carry themselves, their politeness, friendliness and acceptance of others.
There’s just one thing that bothers him – men wearing their hats indoors like at restaurants. That’s a onetime gentleman’s etiquette that has gone by the wayside.
“I’m a Texan now, but I can’t eat with my hat on,” he said.
Index editor David May can be reached at (940) 325-4465, ext. 3419, or email@example.com.