On the Collection of a Debt

Vernon knew the type. As a funeral director, he was used to people in the south saying something like, “Mama may not have had two nickels to rub together, but we gotta send her out in style,” and then ordering the most expensive funeral the O’Neal Funeral Home could put on. And Vernon usually didn’t care, as long as the family, friends, a church–anybody–paid for it. Not that he was callous or greedy, mind you.

And that was the problem Vernon faced. Out of the kindness of his heart (some would later call him a sucker), Vernon had received a widow’s request for the finest casket the funeral home had. Well, he told the family, the finest box he had on display was the Handley Britannia model manufactured by the Elgin Casket Compnay. It was a mammoth thing, Vernon warned them, weighing over 400 pounds empty. Sounds fine, the family said. They asked that it be delivered to another location, and they promised payment…eventually.

Now, here it was, several months later, and Vernon still had no payment.

He made phone calls to the last number he had been given, but the widow had moved in the weeks following her husband’s death and left no forwarding address or phone number. He thought about hiring an attorney to pursue litigation to recover the expenses of the casket, but his innate kindness in the face of the bereaving family made him feel uneasy to pursue that option.

So, Vernon waited. Waiting, he had found, usually solved most issues one way or another. Either he would eventually get his money (unlikely) or he would begin to not care if he received it or not. However, that was no way to run a business, and the funeral home was not a charity.

Now, I have a thing about funeral homes. I’m not a fan, usually. Next to new car dealerships, funeral homes, at least in my experience, do everything they can to upsell families at their most vulnerable moments. There are exceptions, of course. Vernon O’Neal was one of those exceptions. He didn’t try to talk families into doing anything they wanted to do. For Vernon, what he did was less business and more ministry. Perhaps that why he wasn’t too worried about the expensive casket that he was likely to never see payment for.

On the other hand… well, the box retailed for $3,995…in 1963. Finally, after several letters and calls to this number and that one, Vernon O’Neal finally received payment. Almost a year later. And it did not come from the widow.

No, the eventual payment for the casket for President John F. Kennedy came from the United States government.

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