Picking Up Grandma At The Train

by Bill Tope

Grandma died in Chicago.  Dad had
her body shipped via train back to
Edwardsville, three hundred south
of the City of Big Shoulders.  We
waited for the coffin to arrive at the
train station on Franklin Street, on
the very edge of town.  Of course it
was raining, which matched our
collective mood completely.

I’m not sure what we expected to
find at the depot.  The coffin–ordered
over the phone by the local funeral
director–was a ghastly, lurid specimen
of funereal craftsmanship, a bronze
monstrosity.  Mom remarked on the
beauty of the death box. I blinked in
disbelief but of course I said nothing.

A worker from the funeral home was
slumped against the hearse, nonchalantly
taking nips from a suspicious looking
amber bottle.  Soon the door of a boxcar
rolled open with a heartrending
screech.

As the casket was off-loaded by the
porters and the man from the funeral
home, it teetered precipitously on the
lip of the train car and  then suddenly
disaster struck. One of the men
handling the coffin said “Shit!” and
with a loud crash the darn casket
tumbled to the ground!  I half expected
to see Grandma spill out onto the
tracks, but it didn’t happen, thank
God!

It would have been horrific for my
parents, although I, who had met the
old lady only twice in my nine years of
life, might have been somewhat
amused.  I was perhaps a rather
sadistic little boy.

After at last being laden with its
burden, the hearse sagged wearily
under the weight of Grandma and her
ugly orange casket. The vehicles used
back then were really glorified station
wagons, similar to the ambulances in
use at that time.  It was a Studebaker,
my Dad remarked.

The driver, pausing only long enough
to take a swig from his bottle, made a
beeline for the hearse. On his way he
tossed the empty bottle through the
open door of a boxcar, where it
clattered loudly.

Dad looked pained–this was his
mother–and he thought we should
commemorate the occasion in some
way–say a prayer, perhaps.  As we
gathered near the open door of
the hearse, now loaded with
Grandma, he began to pray aloud.

But just following “Dear Lord,” the
driver slammed the door on Grandma, 
scampered into the driver’s seat and
cranked the engine. At the very
moment Dad reached “Amen,”
the hearse peeled out with a spray
of gravel and with an effluvium of
oily exhaust fumes. Dad, discomfitted
not at all, smiled and said, “Well, that
wasn’t so bad, was it?”  I remember
Mom rolled her eyes.

The train station is gone now; the
railroad no longer stops in
Edwardsville, though Amtrak, when
it first began service in Illinois, did
for several years.  But Grandma
passed long before that, way back
in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of
the story.  The hearse driver, by this
time, was fully in his cups.  On the
way to the funeral home he ignored
a light and gate posted at another
railroad crossing.

Thinking–mistakenly–that he could
beat the train, he drove the hearse
past the signal, around the lowered
gate, and over the tracks, where he
was struck by the speeding
locomotive.

The only good that ever came of this
episode is that the railroad company,
in order to avoid bad publicity or a law
suit, was on the hook for the funeral
expenses–though, unfortunately, the
service was conducted with a new
but now empty casket.

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