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Taking it to the grave

By Greg Gelpi

Death may be the end of many things, but that doesn't stop people from going into the ground with reminders of their life.

From fifths of Jack Daniels to a miniature piano, a local author is uncovering that an ancient burial tradition is alive and well today.

"One of the things I discovered was that people were immediately shocked and didn't want to talk about it or immediately found the humor in it," said Peggy Jewel Renfroe, a Locust Grove author writing a book about peculiar items people are buried with. "One fellow said he wanted to be buried in his truck. He had a new truck and didn't want anyone else to have it."

Sandy Payton, who was interviewed for the book, has been the director of music ministry at Glenhaven Baptist Church in McDonough for 20 years.

"I think it could get tacky for lack of a better word," Payton said. "It would either be something musical or my Bible (that I'd be buried with)."

She has taught piano for 40 years and performed as a concert pianist, adding that she would also take a miniature piano or compact discs with her.

"She wants elevator music on her way up," Renfroe said.

Families slip personal items into caskets quite often, said Ed Wise, the business manager of Pope Dickson and Son Funeral Home.

"We see everything," Wise said. "It's not unusual at all to bury odds and ends in the casket. People take their belongings with them."

After 24 years in the business, he recounted funerals in which a beach enthusiast was buried in her bikini and golfers were buried with their golf bags and clubs. Six-packs of beer and other alcohol are also not uncommon.

"It's what the family wants, and we're here to carry out the family's wishes," Wise said.

Man's best friend is also entombed in a casket at times, he said. People request the remains of loved pets to be cremated and placed in urns in the casket.

"Not frequently, but we've had a person's pet put down to be buried with them when they die," Steve White, a funeral director at Tara Garden Chapel, agreed. "It's a poor dog if someone passes away."

Caskets come with removable compartments emblazoned with bass, golf and other scenes, White said. Loved ones can place various memorabilia and mementos in the drawers.

The burial customs are nothing new and date back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, said Kevin Demmitt, associate professor of sociology at Clayton College & State University.

"We like to project some sort of image of who we are or who we want to be and to do this we use all sorts of props," Demmitt said. "To an extent, people can even carry that to the grave."

Alcohol, for instance, illustrates a lifestyle, he said. Beer indicates a blue-collar working class lifestyle, while martinis and sherry indicate an upper class lifestyle.

"Almost everything you look at you can ask what message are they trying to convey," Demmitt said.

Renfroe's book, a collection of things people will be packing in their casket, should be completed by mid-September, she said.