“He was a good man.” That’s what people are saying today. Those are the words to use on a day like today.
There are some who say things like, “He’s in a better place.” Or, “He’s at rest.”
Variations on a theme. What they really mean is: “He was a good man.”
And from what I understand, Frank Cotten was.
This is Brewton, Alabama. This visitation is a big one. There are so many folks in the receiving line it looks like a Friday night game.
They tell me the white-haired man in the casket was football.
A long time ago, they started calling him “Coach.” It became his first name. He was a principal, a city councilman, a Baptist, he sold Fords. He was good.
His son gave a speech:
“When Dad was on city council, one Christmas Eve some guy in town called to chew him out about the city’s late trash pickup. And Dad just listened without saying a thing.”
Later that same Christmas Eve, Coach drove to the disgruntled citizen’s house and picked up the trash.
A good story. But then, good stories are abundant today. Even the white-haired preacher has a few knee-slappers.
I would share them, but that’s not my right. I didn’t know the man.
Even so, I know funerals. Like anyone else, I’ve been on both sides of this receiving line. At my father’s funeral, I shook hands with a million kindhearted people, and heard a million kindhearted stories.
And, I’ve waited in long lines to tell stories of my own.
Like when my friend died at age fifty-one. The healthiest man I knew. After his diagnosis, he was gone in a matter of months.
I stood in line for forty-five minutes just to hug his wife’s neck.
While I waited, I did what everyone does. I thought up meaningful words. I tried to find a way to say something heartfelt.
I wanted to say something like: “Call me if you ever need anything.” Or: “I’m praying for you,” but my words seemed empty, somehow.
When I finally reached my friend’s wife I turned into a puddle. So did she. She ruined my sportcoat with snot and saltwater.
All I managed to say was: “Be good.”
I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth.
Be good? What a dumb thing to say. The words had just slipped out. I nearly gagged on them. I couldn’t have screwed up worse if I’d said, “So, how ‘bout this weather?”
When I reached the foyer, I turned around. I fought my way through the receiving line.
“I loved your husband,” I told her.
She only nodded and said, “He was a good man.”
That’s what today is like. It’s so painstakingly beautiful that it’s too much. You should see this old church. Red carpet. Oak pews. Good people, wearing black, hugging one another. There are one thousand sniffing noses. Roses on lapels. Swollen eyes.
Stories float around the room like pollen.
They are tales people tell in the same kind of voice you’d use to recite a Bible story. Only these stories are about a next-door neighbor. A car salesman. A teacher. A friend. A parent.
Each one is worded different, but the sentences don’t truly matter. They’re the highest praises people know how to give. And they’re all saying the same thing.
Coach Cotten was a good man.