Look down into the churchyard. See all the stones. All lined up in neat rows like that. The dead are down there, but you can’t see them. Something about them isn’t to be seen. They have to be hidden. They have to be hidden to decompose in secret—after all, no one wants to see that. The story about that starts with the little organisms in the intestines feeding, feeding, feeding, multiplying—the pancreas virtually digests itself—but that’s not to be spoken of or seen. So you’ve got to arrange an appropriate funeral, fast, to be done before that all starts. Now, to get an appropriate funeral there are all kinds of things involved. You’ve got to tell them who died. Then you’ve got to tell them who you are, and where you are. So they can come out and get the dead person, and bring them to the funeral home. But now, in the hospital at three in the morning, he lies there coldly. His half closed eyes rolled back in his head, his forearms wet with death sweat. The last thing he said directly to you before the morphine kicked in was this; Well, Tommy, this is it. That’s so calm. That was what he said to you. And what did you say back? Something stupid, probably, is what you said. Anyway, now you’ve got to find a phone, to call the funeral home. And they might say how are you related to him? Why is it you who are calling? How do we know this isn’t some kind of silly hoax? Get off the phone, you bum! How dare you joke about a thing like this! But you tell them you are not joking, there is really a dead person in the hospital room you’re calling from and he looks bad. He’s all pale and all and there is a scratch on the side of his nose like he picked a zit there or something. Picking the last zit—imagine that.
Go on the phone.
Now, now that you’re ready.
Hello, funeral home man.
I’ve got a dead person here.
I wrote it all down I’ll tell you when you get here.
Where are you?
Saint Peter’s Hospital.
Okay what room?
It’s three in the morning. This better not be a hoax.
It’s no hoax.
Okay—we’re coming out. You better be there, if you know what is good for you.
The phone bangs down. So now you wait and hang around the room where the dead person lies. You’re all alone in the bare corridor in the hospital. And they come and they get the dead person and while they are busy with that you bring the flowers to the nurse’s station—but halfway there you notice they’re all wilted and they stink—so you throw them in a trash can instead before you head off into the night.
Once you’re at the funeral home the next morning, the funeral man throws all kinds of questions at you; whole body burial or entombment, cremation, what? What should be done with the ashes, if it’s cremation—burial or entombment at cemetery, scattering at cemetery, or deliver to survivors? These are things the dark suited solemn funeral man needs to know. He asks question after question and you are rankled.
Burial at sea? Scattering in outer space—
What? Scattering in outer space? Is this an option?
Apparently–it’s on the form right there—sure it’s an option.
What about donation to medical science?
What? To be cut up and gaped at by young ones who probably would make a joke about the whole thing—smoking cigarettes all the while. They would cut that thing off and wave it in the air and say He won’t be needing this anymore and throw it over atop all the other offal.
Young medical students do bizarre things to the bodies—stab up the heart—see, he can’t die—you lie there pickled probably. You’re smelling of formaldehyde. They only touch you with gloved hands. You’re unclean in this dead state. You are all parts and suchlike never to be sewn together again. Then they throw the pieces into the incinerator. At least we think they do. What they ought to have done is to give a call to the mass-burial funeral home—we’ve got a roomful of butchered cadavers here to get a decent burial—oh, it’s a black hole you go into when your body is left to science. The cleaning boy will come into the room at night when the students are gone and see all the cadavers, and gape at the half-butchered bodies. It’s like a slaughterhouse. But there isn’t any blood. It’s just dry brittle meat that stinks. It makes the cleaning boy’s eyes water, and he backs from the room. They are all completely naked. Butt naked is the word that’s used. Now what if you have to dissect someone’s butt? One of the taller ones with a kid’s mustache makes this joke, laughs—this is all so disgusting. I want to throw up.
Now the blacksuited gentleman with the chemical smell and the soft veiny voice brings you back to yourself, and he asks you.
Would you like a traditional service—this includes a visitation and a funeral service in which the deceased is present in an open or closed casket?
You’re hypnotized by the writhing of his lips. You say Well, umm, I—closed or open casket that’s a good question I don’t know how much he would have liked being gaped at—
He clasps his hands and leans closer to you.
Then you may be interested in a memorial service—one or more services without the presence of the deceased?
His cologne is strong.
Well—I—I think he should be there, after all, it’s all about him isn’t it—
What about a simple graveside service—includes one service held at the graveside prior to interment?
Will he be there?
Yes. In a closed casket. Or, you know, many people are opting for our traditional plus package, which includes a visitation and a funeral service in which the deceased is present in an open or closed casket, plus one or more memorial services without the presence of the deceased.
Who’s going to come to the funeral home if there is no body there?
Many people do sir—if they opt for the traditional plus, or the memorial—
I’m getting confused—there are far too many choices and plans.
Then maybe you just want the direct plan.
The deceased is buried, cremated, or donated to medical science without any funeral service—
I never said I wanted no funeral service at all—that would leave a hole in all his loved ones’ hearts—
Well what do you want then?
Traditional service—closed casket.
He clears his throat before speaking again.
May I ask why the closed casket? he says.
He doesn’t want to be gaped at.
His eyebrows rise.
Oh—I really don’t think you can call it being gaped at—people are able to pay their last respects and see the deceased for the last time—
Closed casket. I have spoken.
All right—now. Let us go into the room over here and sit down and talk about the rest of the arrangements.
He leads you to a small room with a desk and chairs and heavy dark draperies smelling of flowers and he sits down behind the desk and takes some papers out of a drawer and lays them out and takes a pen out of a drawer with his snow white hand and holds it poised.
Now, he says—what about care for the deceased—of course, there will be an embalming—the state requires it.
He checks that off.
Now sir—do you want a DNA sample taken?
It’s because you may have to prove or disprove later if someone is an heir or not.
Would it cost more to have it taken?
Then definitely no, we won’t bother with it.
Okay—he checks that off as he speaks—Now what about an autopsy—you’re aware it’s mandatory in this state right?
No I didn’t know that. I don’t want him butchered.
It’s not butchery sir—it’s an autopsy.
Do I have a choice?
Then why are you asking me?
I have to make you aware of what’s going to happen, sir.
They ask you all these questions just to confuse you—to make you think that what you say actually will have some bearing on what’s done—but it doesn’t. You think about finding another funeral home that will be somehow different—you wish they’d just say We’ll take him out back and throw him in a hole—that’s it—take him out back and throw him in a hole without any of these fancy niceties. Believe it or not I was sitting with my Father after he knew he had cancer and we were talking and he said Pete, when I go just take me out in the back yard and throw me in a hole. And that will be that. And you make a mental note of it and he sits back in his recliner and puts his feet up in the slippers with the holes in them that he got five Christmases ago and you wonder if this man even knows what death is, that it’s the end of something wonderful called life and that it ought not be treated so lightly. In the end he was cremated and his ashes were thrown up in the air by his eldest son, and the wind came and blew the ashes back over the son and he was thoroughly disgusted. Yes he was meaning to get the stuff into the river but it blew back in his face and just a smidgen got into the river and he had to take a shower and wash his clothes so I would say he really got scattered, he really got scattered for real—like would you want to have your ashes scattered in Willow Grove cemetery where you used to sit with a book and read before ninth grade afternoon classes began and where you took the gravestone from and took it home where its buried up in Milton now, behind the house under the garden of one of those fancy houses they built behind your father’s?
How would you like the casket displayed, says the man in the dark suit with the soft thick greasy voice.
You say how many ways are there to display a casket?
He says You can specify closed or open.
You say Closed, of course—and he asks What would you like the deceased to wear in the casket?
What the hell he might as well be nude.
The funeral man says That is highly irregular.
You say Well it is what he would have wanted—and he says I’m not sure if that is legal—and you say what? What about a body that’s just an ash, all burned to a crisp—you’ve handled those haven’t you—fire victims—or mangled car wreck victims or plane crash victim whose remains are brought to you in a bucket and he says Yes we have and you ask Well do you dress those bodies up and he says no, that would be ludicrous and you say Well then I want him to be naked in the casket after all you know he slept naked in bed every night.
He did? says the funeral man.
You say Yes, he did and the funeral man says How do you know that?
You say I know that because he told me and the funeral man writes something on the papers he had in front of him and you say Just put him in the casket, with no clothes on, lock down the lid and throw the whole thing in a hole for all I care I never liked old Domino anyway old Domino and the funeral man says Was that his name and you say yes that was his nickname.
There is a strained silence between you and you say Oh yes and I want twelve copies of the death certificate and the funeral man says Oh but that would be highly irregular and you say Well that’s what we want and he asks you Who is we and you say We is the family. There’s wills and whatnot legalities to take care of and there has to be enough death certificates to go around. Now, he says—what about an obituary—and you say I’ll write the obituary I can write that he was born poor and grew up poor and worked in a factory for forty years and then retired and then not long after that he got the cancer and he died. And he says Don’t you think you can spice it up a little more than that and you say What’s to spice up? His life was that simple and it’s just a short and a sweet obituary and he asks you What papers do you want it in and you say All of them. And he says what do you mean all of them there are a lot of papers in this area and you say Well yes I know but I want the obituary in every paper in the area and he says once more, This is highly irregular, so you relent and you say Okay just put it in the Podunk daily lit mag and he says I never heard of that and you say, Well that’s good then don’t put it anywhere and we’ll leave it at that and he asks Okay where will the visitation be and you say In his home and he says I’m sorry, but we don’t do funerals in people’s homes any more that was an old custom that has died out and you say Well we’re going to do this one that way and he says again—AGAIN he says This is highly irregular—it’s all he says this broken record—he says We have viewing parlors here in the funeral home wouldn’t you like to have a nice funeral parlor room and you say No I want it at his house it’ll be cheaper that way and he says All right—but I’ll have to get a special permit and that’ll cost you some money and you say well why do I need a special permit and he says Because this is all highly irregular and you say Listen—there will be no permit—we’ll have the viewing right out in the front yard of the house in the open air and the funeral man says No that’s no good what if you get one of those awful Jersey thundershowers and also its against the law to have a dead body just laying out in the open like that and you say Well the casket will be closed this is what we’re going to do and damn it if it rains it rains I’m not going to worry about that it won’t bother him he’ll be in his casket and after all isn’t he the important one here and he nods and says Yes, but—and you say But nothing—and then he shifts the subject and asks you All right when do you want the visitation and you say same day, just prior to the funeral service for four hours, then the morning, afternoon and evening of the prior day for four hours and he stops you with a raised hand and says That makes no sense you can’t do both those things and you take out your wallet and point to it and you say, Just make it happen and he shuts up and he asks you How will we get the deceased from his front yard to the cemetery and you say well I might just like to drive him there in his old Ford, sit him up butt naked in the front seat, with a drape over him of course, and drive him like that and the funeral man says that’s no good you got to use a funeral coach or a hearse and you say No! It’s got to be his old Ford or else its nothing and he says But that would be against the law and you say Show me the god damned law chapter and verse—we’ll drive him to the cemetery and then Grover and I will take him by the arms and legs and lay him in the casket and you can latch it shut—that can be your job, funeral man—and then we’ll throw it in a hole and he says How will the family members get between the house and the cemetery and you say They’ll drive their own god damned rattletrap cars and he asks Is an escort needed and you say Hell no unless the cops will do it for free—and then he asks you the biggest question, how many immediate family and how many guests will there be at the service and you say Five hundred immediate family and fifty thousand guests—and he looks like he’s going to blow a gasket and you say Well he was extremely well known and well liked here in New Jersey and he says back Oh I bet he was—but we can’t accommodate that many people and you say what? What? What do you mean you can’t accommodate that many people?
Because the yard is only so large, sir. It’s not Madison Square Garden. And the traffic—fifty thousand guests—
You can’t believe you’ve got him mesmerized somehow how stupid can he be? And you slap him on the back and say Aw damn well oh shucks I was just kidding it’ll just be me and my brother and about six friends who aren’t really friends but who have agreed to come to fill a few seats so it doesn’t look like nobody gives a damn.
He looks shocked—so you slap him on the back again.
Now, now you say—there’ll be about ten immediate family and about sixty guests who all loved him and think he was a great guy and who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on this day.
Still you can get seventy people into the front yard—
Well you haven’t seen his front yard. It’s a damned big front yard. You ever seen Cliff Haycock’s front yard up on the hill—
No I haven’t.
It’s like that one. Big.
Okay I believe you—we need to get folding chairs down to the front yard—
No, these bastards can stand. He never cared about any of them anyway—you see, he was a sociopath who didn’t care about anybody but himself so they can God damn stand, you say. There don’t need to be any folding chairs—just a podium for whoever is going to do the service, you say, and then he says That brings me to my next question, and you say What’s that—and he says What clergy is going to preside at the ceremony?
Clergy, you say—who said anything about there being any clergy?
Well that’s usually who runs the service—
You bite your lip before speaking.
Okay, you say—somebody from Saint Stanislaus’—and you tell him about when you were a boy living with Aunt Nora in South River and St. Stanislaus’ was the weird church Nora went to but nobody else went there you thought it might’ve been Orthodox or something like that—and he says okay, St. Stanislaus’ it is—and he asks now who the pallbearers will be and you say to him Lord you’re full of questions, I guess it will be Walter and Lucas from out in the farm and we can get some from the funeral home can you supply pallbearers and he says Yes, but who are these people Walter and Lucas and you say it’s Walter and Lucas Boone who he used to hunt with—he had a big Berretta double barreled ten gauge and they used to go hunting for ducks and geese and one time when they were in the canoe out in the bay and the geese went over and Walter and Lucas and the deceased fired their guns and the whole canoe went over from the recoil—and the guns went in the drink and the Geese flew away safely and you think how glad you are that the geese got away safely and the funeral man says Why do you call him the deceased—doesn’t he have a name and you say no, no—only live people have names, dead people are just meat that’s why this funeral doesn’t have to be so special where you go over bending backwards to do things like you would for a live person because all you’re doing is putting a piece of meat in the ground.
He grows very very pale. He shuffles his papers.
After a minute he asks What kind of music do you want at this funeral and you say you don’t care, he didn’t know anything about music anyway just play something nice and morbid like you’re supposed to do when somebody dies. And he says Well you’re going to need performers because you are insisting that this funeral take place in the front yard of his home and if you were having it in the funeral home I’ve got a system for playing the proper music but out in the front yard of his house you don’t have any such system so you need performers and you say No, no, we don’t need performers we’ll just bring the radio out on the porch and tune in some easy listening station and that will be good enough maybe not morbid enough though—what do you think—and he switches gears again and says Okay then that is settled—how about readings and you say No there don’t need to be any readings and the funeral man says But this is customary at a service and you say All right we’ve got an aunt who’s a real ham I’ll ask her to do some kind of reading and he says Good, good—you’re providing the reading then and you say what do you mean that if I didn’t get our aunt to do it you could provide someone to do the readings and he says Yes but for a price and you say no my aunt will do it—and then he asks you the killer question—flowers. What kind of flowers do you want, who is the florist, blah blah blah, and you say Well it’s probably enough to do some kind of wreath and a couple of pots of flowers to put around the casket and maybe some flowers for the top of the casket like I seen pictures of in books and he says who is going to provide all this and you blurt out Hannah’s florist down on Main street even though you’ve not made any arrangements with Hannah’s to do any kind of flowers you figure for the right price she will—and he asks then about the nuts and bolts of the thing—What kind of casket do you want—do you have a particular manufacturer in mind and you say No, that was something I was hoping you would know all about and then he takes you into a room full of caskets all open and they’re all kinds—wood for example and while you’re looking at a wood casket he says this is a very nice model—you can get it in birch cherry mahogany maple oak pine poplar walnut or any other kind of wood you want and you seem to remember someone in the family being buried in a cherry wood coffin and just as you open your mouth he shuts you up by guiding you to the next casket—a metal one that you can get in precious metal, bronze, copper, sealed or not—or you can get steel sixteen eighteen or twenty gauge, or stainless steel, sealed or not—and your head is spinning your mind is swimming then he guides you to a cloth covered casket and you think this might be what I want the price might be right and then he talks lid styles—half couch or full couch and he says what about the material inside there’s crepe, linen velour, velvet, there’s shirred, tailored, or tufted and then he asks point blank Are there any special features you want in the casket and you say well you pretty much covered anything I might have to choose about caskets so why don’t you choose go ahead mister funeral man, you choose the casket and he says Sure and you say Just keep the price down and he says We will, we will—we will choose the casket for you—we know your mind is full of confusion and grief right now and the last thing you want is to have to make all these kinds of decisions and you tell him how grateful you are and then he asks you the next question as he ushers you out of the casket room he says Now, for the grave marker—do you want one flush to the ground, or upright?
You put a finger to your lips and nod thoughtfully.
What? says the funeral man as the seconds tick by.
You hesitate, then say Well to tell you the truth he always used to say he wanted a big pedestal with angels all around it blowing long horns and a great globe on top with an angel on it reading out of a big book and finally topped by a big statue of God the Father and a tall obelisk a hundred and twenty feet high with a blinking red light on top so planes won’t hit it—do you think he meant that? Do you think he really meant that? and the funeral man says I don’t know—he might have meant it—but something like that has to be special made I don’t think we’ve got anything like that in stock you know I really don’t think so—so you say all right, simple earth burial with a concrete vault—and a simple flush to the ground marker. And he says are you sure sir? We could’ve had that special made for you, and you think sure, for big bucks like all the rest of this is costing, so you hang firm. You smile, and he smiles and you both rise and shake hands.
I will see you tomorrow then sir. Come by about four. We’ll be ready to bring him to the—front yard. You’re sure that’s what you want?
All right—and again—My condolences.
Thank you—Yes, I will see you tomorrow.
And he ushers you through rooms choking with flowers and again, his cologne seems really much too heavy, and finally you are out on the porch in the fresh air uncertain of what you have just bought, and unknowing of what the funeral will be like. But you trust the funeral man—you know he will make sure it will be most appropriate. The porch steps creak beneath you as you breathe deeply of the clean air and slowly head for the car.
Photo by nabger