Family Trip to a Family Funeral: Seeing Off Patsy Dodds at the Sugar Grove Church

A metrolink ride from the St. Louis airport and a longish walk with my luggage took me back to my apartment around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, shifting from the Southwest to the Midwest. My homecoming was like an enjammed rhyme in a poem with news of a friend in the hospital for heart surgery and a death in the family. I slept some and drove over to my father’s place in Southwestern Illinois where we decided what best to do.

St. Francis of Assissi

My cousin Warren Dodd’s wife, Patsy Louise (Surratt) Dodds, had died Saturday night, August 25th, at home. She was a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart and a beautiful voice. She’d sung at my sister Julia’s memorial almost three years ago and at my mother’s graveside service about a year-and-a-quarter ago.

We decided to attend the funeral services, and not the visitation the night before at the Wood Funeral Home in Rushville, Illinois. The service was to be held at 10 a.m., Wednesday, August 29th at Sugar Grove United Methodist Church, south of Rushville, with the Revs. Beth Nelson and William Hesseldenz officiating. Patsy would be buried in Gillette Cemetery, south of Rushville, where other members of the Dodds family had preceeded her. The family requested that any memorial donations be made to the American Cancer Society or Sugar Grove United Methodist Church.

My niece drove my father’s big white Buick on the two-hour ride up the River Road, mostly hugging route 100, in tranquil scenery that calmed our souls on such a sober occasion. My father, who suffers from long car rides at 91, sat in front and told family stories punctuated by songs. His lungs and voice aren’t what they once were, but his wit is in full force.


Pop is a place memory tour guide along any road we take, with a story to match points all along the way: “This is where we rounded up the livestock along the road; this is where a farmer rescued me the night my oilplug came out,” and so forth. His world is a world of stories with points on a memory map anchoring each story: Spanky, Eldred, Bluffs.

From my backseat window, landscape flies by. A doghouse almost as big as the owner’s travel trailer for the happy beagle playing in the grass. Irrigatoring machinery arching over the fields of corn and soybeans like Predadactyls. Instead of time and temperature, the bank sign blinks the corn and bean price quotes.

“It’s been a long time since you were out driving these roads,” my niece remarks as Pop notes the changes time has wrought. Still, he’s the best navigator in the car when it comes to where to turn or go straight.

When we come to a bridge, Pop says, “I don’t know what it goes over; it’s something we need to go across.” And afterwards: “I don’t know what we went over, but we went over it,” said with his trademark wryness and seeming to sum up a heap of metaphoric crossings in our joint lives.

It’s a big funeral inside the fully-packed country church, plunked down in the middle of agricultural land. I recall fanning myself here as a girl with a fan provided by a funeral home as we sat listening to a sermon and then rising to sing a hymn. Today there’s airconditioning, recorded music, and barely a dry eye in the full house of the Lord. The town drunk made something beautiful for God inside this renovated Sugar Grove Church.

Our funeral cortege is a long one and our journey to the Gillette Cemetery takes us past a long stretch of gnarly construction. All the Illinois Valley Paving construction workers standing beside the road take their hats off as we pass.

We step over cowpies in the cemetery separated from a neighboring pasture by a low wire fence and there’s a cornfield next to that. I sit on a stump and watch a beatle crawl over over the deadfall of twigs as the last prayers are said.

The current custom of no longer lowering the casket into the ground at the close of the graveside service bothers my father. The lack of lowering the body to a final resting place feels incomplete to him. Pop says he took it up with a funeral director once who explained that they don’t even own the lowering equipment anymore. Perhaps it’s unionized with a separation of services and duties? Did this change come from a cultural change? Is it a shift in our way of death?

Beautiful floral arrangements cluster around the casket underneath the green tent providing shade on this hot day. The family sit in folding chairs covered with green plush to soften and comfort them at this last moment. Patsy’s son explains to Patsy’s grand-daughter about the casket sitting inside the gold-colored vault and how her grandmother’s name is on the end of the vault’s top. Then I witness a custom I’d never seen before: family members wet their thumbs and press them against the casket, so their beloved one can take this ephemeral imprint from their bodies to the grave and the next world. I think of handprints on caves and how basic an act this is—to leave the swirls of our unique identity as a final message, a final link and connection between worlds we cannot traverse.

Back at the Sugar Grove Church loving friends, neighbors, and church members have prepared a funeral feast for the returning mourners, mostly family now, but we still fill the church basement. Pop’s legs don’t hold him up as strong as they used to, so we sit and listen to more stories while the line dwindles.

Pop said in France during the war (he never knew exactly where—they took the troups there in trucks at night—the location must have been a military secret) a kitchen designed to feed 180 men, was pressed to fed 3,400 men. “You had to stand in line all day in order to get two meals,” Pop said. “Along about noon they’d come along and give you a box of K-rations. We ate out of our own messkits and washed our own dishes. That’s when I became allergic to lines.


Our cousin Peggy Meyer visited with us while we ate and we basked in her warmth and the opportunity to know her better. Then, our goodbyes and back on the road to home, glimpsing white cranes on the side of the river.

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  1. Patsy was a funeral-singer among her other gifts, wasn’t she? How good that your family could see her off with so many other mourners who loved her. And, how good that your family could make more family memories on this journey.

  2. So many different journeys in this one story. I don’t know about Patsy’s voice, but yours is wonderful in your writing.

  3. I’ve been exploring your website this morning and found this piece. How glad I am that you wrote it and I found it. In February my husband left this world, in August a friend, and in October another friend. I, too, am looking at the last years, so my contemplation often turns to death. I’m trying to write about it – an exercise in reaching clarity, I hope. Your words have moved me forward in the journey..

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