(Reading time 7.5 minutes)
Just mentioning Uncle Jake’s name, everyone who knew him smiled. He was endearingly known as “Chake” and so called by his friends and family. He made you laugh at any situation, and especially when he told a joke with his inimitable upstate, Pennsylvania Dutch accent. I must also mention that his village is in an area of Carbon County Pennsylvania, known as the Switzerland of America. This plays an important part in this story. Jake’s village is in a valley along the river, by the railroad, at the bottom of mountains on all four sides. This is a coal town. The railroad tracks parallel the river, escaping from the mountain valley. Everything else is up hill.
Uncle Jake died on a Wednesday night, in February of 1940. The weather could not have been more miserable if ordered by Satan. It was not an easy time to dig a grave for Jake. First it rained, then froze, leaving a slick coating of ice on everything the night before the funeral. Everything was delayed until Sunday, because of the weather. Jake’s body had been taken to the Hillside Lutheran Church at the edge of town for the funeral service. Since all of villagers go to church on Sunday anyway, the minister agreed that it would be best to have the funeral immediately after the last Sunday service.
The cemetery was named Mountainside Rest, just a short distance uphill from the village, on the side of the mountain. Jake said he wanted to be laid to rest there so that he could look down from the mountain and see all of his lifelong valley friends living below in the village, which he loved so much.
After the church and funeral services were concluded, the procession left the church and proceeded to trudge slowly up-hill towards the gravesite. The roads in the cemetery were tiered back and forth zigzagging across the mountain side, like terrace farming. The gravesites were in each terrace between the tiers. That day, the roads were impassable with the ice and snow, making the terraces appear as gardens of white flowers with tombstones. Uncle Jake’s site was on the fifth tier up from the road below, at least 50 feet above the road elevation level. Along this road, across from the cemetery, were a few stores, one of which belonged to Jake’s life long, good friend, Doc Snyder. Doc couldn’t close the pharmacy to go to the funeral but he watched the procession from across the street, inside his warm and comfortable pharmacy building. It was directly in line with the gravesite up the hill.
Because of the ice and snow, the cars and the hearse had to be left below on the road, in a parking space at the bottom of the hill. The poll bearers (one of which was me) had to carry the coffin up the hill, winding through the tombstones with great caution. We were slipping and sliding up five tiers, on the now wet grass under the new fallen snow. It was not only difficult; it was a nightmarish obstacle course. We carefully navigated the terraces, between the ghoulish tombstones, approaching Jake’s gravesite and the newly dug grave. There was the usual dirt mound next to the hole, covered with a fresh green artificial grass carpet.
As we approached the site, and maneuvering around the mound of dirt, I was at the rear right side of the coffin. Then it happened! I slipped and went down on my knees, bringing the rear of the coffin down with me and pulling the total weight toward me to avoid falling into the gravesite. I yanked the poll bearer rails on the side of the coffin, out of the five other men’s hands. They had to release the rails to save themselves from a slide down the mountain with the coffin or a drop into the grave. (This is a good time to mention that Jake had a “thing” about being locked in his casket when he died. He made everyone understand, NO LOCKS! In case there was a way out of the hole, in the afterlife, he didn’t want to be locked in! No need for it he reminded everyone in the family, especially his wife of 60 years, my aunt Bessie.)
When I fell, each of the other 5 poll bearers went down with me. Each let go of the rails. The coffin took off like an Olympic toboggan sled, down the hill, gaining speed at each terrace, snow billowing up and heading straight for the stores at the bottom of the roadside. The sliding coffin was rocketing directly at old Doc Snyder’s Pharmacy and the plate glass store window. One of Jake’s great grandsons, holding onto his father’s hand by the gravesite, could be heard saying, “Hey Dad, what’s in the box?” The lid of the coffin kept flopping open. Jake’s unrestrained body in the unlocked casket, was bouncing around like a rag doll. Aunt Bessie, yelling, “Chake, stop. Stop Chake, stop. Help! Somebody do something”. The coffin picking up speed, slide on down to the next terrace, bouncing up and down, unimpeded by a cascading snow trail. Jake didn’t stop. Bessie fell to the snow covered ground in a faint, by the grave. The coffin, like a downhill mountain toboggan, was approaching the speed of a rocket missal. Doc Snyder saw the casket aimed directly at him. Paralyzed with fear, Doc ran behind the counter just as the coffin came crashing through the plate glass store window. It slamming to a dead stop, right in front of the counter where Old Doc Snyder stood, frozen and panicked. The unfastened lid popped up and opened. Jake’s body sat up like a “Jack in the Box” facing Doc head on. He was so startled, he couldn’t speak, except to say, “Can I help you?”
You may recall at the beginning of this story, I mentioned that Jake was a funny guy, always joking. Well, this was Jake’s last chance to “seize the moment”. Now, there were no witnesses, but Old Doc Snyder has told this story a thousand times and never changes the unbelievable ending. He tells this story to anyone who will listen. When Doc said to Jake, “Can I help you?” Jake said, “ Yeah Doc, do you think you have anything to stop my coffin?”
Almost everything is this story is true, but Doc’s Snyder’s version is a little hard to believe. Until the day he died, Doc he never wavered from his version of UNCLE JAKE’S FUNERAL.