Isaac Hayes’ Strange Funerals

Isaac Hayes, Oscar-winner, R&B legend and musical icon, got two sendoffs in two days here in his Tennessee hometown, and each was as strange as it was surreal.

Monday afternoon had been billed as a tribute to Hayes, and many in the Memphis music community thought it would be the day of the Stax Records star’s actual funeral. But in fact, a “secret” service was held on Sunday in order to accommodate a boatload of celebrities who flew into town under cloak of night.

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The Scientologists and the Memphians were certainly not an easy mesh, as the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted for several days leading up to the funerals. The Hope Presbyterian Church, a big, hulking concrete church, was chosen for its size. But the church leaders did not want a Scientologist minister leading a service there. So the memorial service, planned mostly by the Scientologists, was hosted by R&B star William Bell as a compromise.

During the service, we learned from the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson how Hayes became a Scientologist in 1992 in Los Angeles. Many others invoked the name of the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, during the three-hour memorial, and the church filmed its members at the podium.

But no one bothered to sing an Isaac Hayes song or talk much about his music. Most of the offerings were about the speakers, with little light shined on the man they were honoring. The exception was a Ghanian woman named Princess Asie Oscansey, who described in lengthy detail the charitable contribution Hayes had made to her village to support an 8,000-square-foot school that uses Scientology teaching methods.

Not only were there no Hayes songs, there was little discussion of his movie career, barely a whisper about his famous “Theme from Shaft,” and not even a suggestion of his long, funny career as Chef on “South Park.”

The Scientology speakers and performers — there were seven in all — made little reference to Hayes’ 11 grown children, just to his wife of three years and their 2-year-old son. This prompted Hayes’ eldest daughter, Veronica, who didn’t get to speak until nearly two and a half hours had passed, to declare, “Just to clear it up, there are 11 children.” Ouch!

There also were tributes from Isaac’s music celebrity friends, like Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Sam Moore and Aretha Franklin.

The frisson, if you will, between the Memphians and the Scientologists was a first, but had an interesting aspect to it. Each is more or less a closed society, and neither was much interested in learning anything about the other — though there were occasional compliments tossed in either direction.

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