I sincerely appreciate all the thoughts and prayers so many of you have expressed in the days since my grandfather’s death. A few of you asked if I wouldn’t mind posting a copy of the eulogy here. There are a few “preacherly” parts I’ve edited, but this is the bulk of my eulogy for my grandfather. I’ll be delivering it this afternoon at around 4:30.
We gather here to remember the simple life of a good man. We are supported today by a faith stronger than death; we are sustained by the hope of a life that extends eternally beyond this place. We gather here to grieve; we gather here to celebrate; we gather here to remember.
William Burford Bybee was born on Oct. 3, 1913 in Jackson County, Tennessee. Over the course of his 93 years of life, the world changed quite a bit. He witnessed two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, 9.11 and men walking on the moon. My grandfather lived a long life, a good life. And we remember the life of this humble man today.
My grandfather learned the value of hard work early in his life. After his father passed away when he was young, Burford and his brother Silas quit school and went to live with various relatives, farming and working odd jobs to help make ends meet. He spent some time in his early years logging and that’s where he developed a love for working with wood. He later worked as a hired hand on different farm properties. He happened to be working in a tobacco field one day when a pretty young lady caught his eye. These things have a way of happening this way; these two took a liking to one another and decided to get married. According to the story, they were working in the fields together one day and they decided to take off to the courthouse in downtown Hartsville to get married. Well, they got all the way down there only to find out the courthouse was closed. So they went back to the tobacco fields and decided to give it a shot the next day. On May 25, 1937, Burford married Miss Hilda Cornwell Hancock and for the next 56 years, they shared the joys of married life together.
Hilda was Burford’s pillar. She was truly the love of his life. Burford and Hilda had 2 children, 2 sons. James Alton was born June 24, 1941; Roger Dale came along on Aug 9, 1944. This was a strong family, a good family. As is the case with most families, the years brought some difficulties. Burford had to bury a son in 1987 when my father, Alton, died at the age of 46. A few years later, grief came calling again when Hilda became ill. My grandfather stood faithfully by her side until her death in 1994. The years after her death were hard ones. Burford grieved her until the day he died. But this family knew plenty of joy as well. At the time of his passing, my grandfather’s legacy consisted of 3 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren. In just a few days, the number of great-grandchildren will grow to 7. Granddaddy was certainly the patriarch of our family.
It would be safe to say my grandfather was a simple man. He came from a simpler time when people sought the simple pleasures of life. A front porch and a rocking chair. A lazy afternoon at the fishin’ hole. A warm bowl of beans and a slice of cornbread. Good neighbors. Hard work. Friends. Family. Church. God. These were the elements of my grandfather’s existence. The beauty of his life can be found in its simplicity.
My grandfather also lived with tremendous sincerity of spirit. I can honestly say I never heard my grandfather say an unkind word about anyone. Many of you have told me he was the most Christ-like person you’ve ever known. He was truly a model of authentic, genuine Christianity. The one thing I’ll always remember about my grandfather is the way he prayed. You could tell that prayer was a path he tread many times. I’ve said this before, but the best sermons I’ve ever heard were the prayers he led before our family meals. As a child, I remember thinking Granddaddy’s prayers weren’t like “church” prayers that went on and on with their big fancy words. His prayers were authentic and heartfelt and humble and simple, a microcosm of his life. Even today, I think of my grandfather’s sincerity every time I pray.
It is a comforting thought, indeed, to know that the goodbye we say today isn’t the final word. If we are people of faith, we know that we too will one day pass from this life to the next and we’ll be reunited on that far distant shore with our family and loved ones who have gone before us. And we know that we, too, will be in the presence of these loved ones and the Lord himself for all eternity.
I believe that my grandfather is in the presence of the Lord this day. His faith has become sight; he is in the presence of the One he worshipped and served, the One he prayed to and emulated. I believe my grandfather is also in the presence of his dear loved ones who preceded him in death. I believe he is finally reunited with the son he buried much too soon. And I believe he is reunited with his bride as well. My grandfather passed away on his 70th wedding anniversary. Roger told him that morning what day it was. And then he whispered in his ear, “Daddy, why don’t you go on home and be with your bride? She’ll be there, waiting on you.” Soon after that, Granddaddy took his last breath and passed on into eternity.
If Granddaddy were here today, I know what he would say. He’d tell us to “Be smart.” Those were the last words my grandfather would usually say to us as we were saying goodbye to him. His goodbyes were always sprinkled with “I love yous” and “Come see us again”, but “Be smart” was probably his favorite expression. What he meant by this was live as you were raised. Be the man we’ve taught you to be. I can’t count the number of times he told me to be a good boy. Listen to your Daddy and your Momma. Do right. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Remember who you are. Remember the Lord your God. It was a simple expression, that’s true. But don’t mistake simple for simplistic. For living by faith is never simplistic. I’ve learned over the years that it takes great courage to live like Granddaddy lived. “Being smart” is a lot tougher than it sounds. But as best I can tell, that makes Granddaddy just about the smartest man I ever knew. Because I’ve never known anyone who was more like Jesus. Be smart. These were always his parting words. It’s fitting, then, that these were the last words he spoke to Roger a few days before he passed away. Let them be his last words for us today as well. Be smart.
So today, we commit William Burford Bybee into the hands of his God. We lay to rest a kind and gentle man. A devoted husband. A loving father. A grandfather and a great-grandfather. The patriarch of our family. His legacy to us is a great one indeed. I am proud to be one of his grandchildren. I am proud to bear the name of this great man. I will teach his great-grandsons to be the kind of man he was. And although my heart hurts that he is no longer with us, I join the rest of our family in the hopeful expectation that we’ll all be reunited on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by.
And we will remember him always.