Jacob was a 16 year old kid who was killed in a hit and run accident a week before Thanksgiving. His parents decided to have him cremated. They tearfully made arrangements, picked out a beautiful flowers that matched his high school’s colors, and chose a date for the memorial.
“He loved this thing.” Pam, his mother said as she handed me his letterman jacket. “He was so proud when he got it, and he almost never took it off. He wore it on a team camping trip once. It took me 3 washes just to get the funk out.”
She started to cry as his father explained that they wanted him to be cremated wearing it. I nodded and silently took the jacket, completed the arrangement conference, and said goodbye.
The rest of the day was a blur. Returning to my desk, I sat everything the family had given me and went into my next appointment. I stood in for a co-worker on a funeral, I ordered death certificates, I took new death calls and dispatched the care team.
At the end of the day, I dragged myself home and fell into bed almost immediately.
The day after Jacob was cremated, I was called into my boss’ office. My manager was normally laid back and smiling, but when I walked in, his face was grim.
“What’s this?” He asked. I looked where he was pointing and my blood ran cold.
Jacob’s letterman jacket.
The jacket I promised to cremate with him. I had gotten lost in the day and had completely forgotten.
After a slew of expletives and what was essentially a full on panic attack, I calmed down. He finally spoke.
“Are you good?”
“O.K. then. Time to make the call.”
My mouth dropped open. “What call?”
“You screwed up. This family trusted you, and you screwed up. You have to own your mistake. You owe it to them.”
He was right.
I called Pam and told her I had something to tell her. I told her I had made a mistake and began to immediately apologize.
She started sobbing, and it felt like being simultaneouly stabbed with dozens of knives.
I was expecting her to scream, curse, or hang up in my face. Instead between sobs, she quietly said “Thank you, Jesus.”
I was so confused.
“Jacob’s younger brother asked for his jacket, and when I told him I’d sent it with Jacob, he could barely look at me. I’ll come by to get it now. Thank you so much. This year, I am grateful for you.”
I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding as a wave of relief washed over me. I didn’t destroy this family. I was safe.
Every Thanksgiving, I think of Jacob’s family. I think of them sitting around the table, saying what they’re thankful for, and wonder if his little brother still wears that jacket.
We all make mistakes sometimes. We’re human. The difference is that when a funeral director makes a mistake, we run the risk of emotionally scarring someone and leaving permanent damage. We tumble, and sometimes we fall flat on our faces.
Even so, we give thanks.