The Undertaking

Thomas Lynch

Every year I bury one hundred and fifty of my townspeople. Another dozen or two I take to the crematory to be burned. I sell caskets, burial vaults, and urns for the ashes. I have a sideline in headstones and monuments. I do flowers on commission.

Apart from the tangibles, I sell the use of my building: eleven thousand square feet, furnished and fixtured with an abundance of pastel and chair rail and crown moldings. The whole lash-up is mortgaged and remortgaged well into the next century. My rolling stock includes a hearse, a limo, two Fleetwoods, and a mini-van with darkened windows our price-list calls a service vehicle and everyone in town calls the Dead Wagon.

I used to use the ‘unit pricing method’ – the old package deal. It meant you had only one number to look at. It was a large number. Now everything is itemised. It’s the law. So now there is a long list of items and numbers and italicised disclaimers, something like a menu or the Sears, Roebuck Wish Books, and sometimes the Federally-mandated options begin to look like cruise control or rear-window defrost. I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact we’re not talking Buicks here. At the bottom of the list there is still a large number.

In a good year the gross is close to half a million, 5 per cent of which we hope to call profit. I am the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market.

The market, such as it is, is figured on what is called the ‘crude death rate’ – the number of deaths every year out of every thousand persons.

Here is how it works.

Imagine a large room into which you coax one thousand people. You slam the doors in January, leaving them plenty of food and drink, colour TVs, magazines, condoms. Your sample should have an age distribution heavy on baby boomers and their children – 1.2 children per boomer. For every four normal people, there is one old-timer, who, if he or she wasn’t in this big room, would probably be in Florida or Arizona or a nursing home. You get the idea. The group will include 15 lawyers, one faith healer, three dozen real-estate agents, a video technician, several licensed counsellors, and a Tupperware distributor. The rest will be between jobs, middle managers, ne’er-do-wells, or retired.

Now the magic part – come late December, when you throw open the doors, only 991.3, give or take, will shuffle out upright. Two hundred and sixty will now be selling Tupperware. The other 8.7 have become the crude death rate.

Here’s another stat.

Of the 8.7 corpses, two-thirds will have been old-timers, 5 per cent will be children, and the rest (2.75) will be boomers – realtors and attorneys – one of whom was, no doubt, elected to public office during the year. What’s more, three will have died of cerebral-vascular or coronary difficulties, two of cancer, one each of vehicular mayhem, diabetes and domestic violence. The spare change will be by act of God or suicide – most likely the faith healer.

The figure most often and most conspicuously missing from the insurance charts and demographics is the one I call THE BIG ONE, which refers to the number of people out of every one hundred born who will die. Over the long haul, THE BIG ONE hovers right around ... well – dead nuts on 100. If this were on the charts, they would call it ‘Death expectancy’ and no one would buy futures of any kind. But it is a useful number and has its lessons. Maybe you will want to figure out what to do with your life. Maybe it will make you feel a certain kinship with the rest of us. Maybe it will make you hysterical. Whatever the implications of a 100 per cent death expectancy, calculate how big a town this is and why it produces for me steady, if sometimes unpredictable, labour.

They die around the clock here, without apparent preference for a day of the week, month of the year; there is no clear favourite in the way of season. Nor does the alignment of the stars, fullness of moon, or liturgical calendar have very much to do with it. The whereabouts are neither here nor there. They go off upright or horizontally, in Chevrolets and nursing homes, in bathtubs, on the interstates, in ERs, ORs, BMWs. And while it may be that we assign more equipment or more importance to deaths that create themselves in places marked by initials – ICU being somehow better than Greenbriar Convalescent Home – it is also true that the dead don’t care. In this way, the dead I bury and burn are like the dead before them, for whom time and space have become mortally unimportant. This loss of interest is, in fact, one of the first sure signs that something serious is about to happen. The next thing is they quit breathing. At this point, to be sure, a ‘gunshot wound to the chest’ or ‘shock and trauma’ will get more ink than a CVA or ASHD, but no condition of death is any less permanent than any other. All will do. The dead don’t care.

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