The undertakers are over on the other island. They are there for what is called their Midwinter Conference: the name they give to the week in February every year when funeral directors from Michigan find some warm place in the Lesser Antilles to discuss the pressing issues of their trade. The names for the workshops and seminars are borderline: ‘The Future of Funeral Service’, ‘What Folks Want in a Casket’, ‘Coping with the Cremation Crowd’ – things like that. The resorts must have room service, hot tubs, good beaches and shopping on sight or nearby. No doubt it is the same for orthodontists and trial lawyers.
And I’m here on the neighbouring island – a smaller place with a harbour too shallow for cruise ships and no airport. I’m a ferry boat ride from the undertakers from my home state. But I’ve timed my relief from the Michigan winter with theirs in case I want to register for a meeting and write off my travel. It is legal and sensible and would reduce the ultimate cost of funerals in my town where I am the funeral director and have been for 25 years now.
But I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for spending any portion of the fortnight discussing business. It’s not that they aren’t a great bunch, chatty and amiable as stockbrokers or insurance types; and out of their hometowns, incognito, hell-bent on a good time, they can be downright fun, if a little bingy. It’s just that it seems I’ve been in a Midwinter Conference of my own for a long time now. Enough is enough, I need to walk on the beach now and contemplate my next move.
My father was a funeral director and three of my five brothers are funeral directors; two of my three sisters work pre-need and book-keeping in one of the four funeral homes around the metro area that bear our name, our father’s name. It is an odd arithmetic – a kind of family farm, working the back forty of the emotional register, our livelihood depending on the deaths of others in the way that medicos depend on sickness, lawyers on crime, the clergy on the fear of God. I can remember my mother and father going off on these Midwinter Conferences and coming back all sunburned and full of ideas and gossip about what my father insisted we call our ‘colleagues’ rather than the ‘competitor’. He said it made us sound like doctors and lawyers, you know, professionals – people you could call in the middle of the night if there was trouble, people whose being had begun to meld with their doing, who were what they did.
Our thing – who we are, what we do – has always been about death and dying and grief and bereavement: the vulnerable underbelly of the hardier nouns: life, liberty, the pursuit of ... well, you know. We traffic in leavetakings, goodbyes, final respects. ‘The last ones to let you down,’ my father would joke with the friends he most trusted. ‘Dignified Service’ is what he put on the giveaway matchbooks and plastic combs and rain bonnets. And he loved to quote Gladstone, a great Victorian Liberal who sounded like a New Age Republican when he wrote that he could measure with mathematical precision a people’s respect for the laws of the land by the way they cared for their dead.
Of course, Gladstone inhabited a century and an England in which funerals were public and sex was private and, though the British were robbing the graves of infidels all over the world for the British Museum, they did so, by all accounts, in a mannerly fashion. I think my father first heard about Gladstone at one of these Midwinter Conferences and lately I’ve been thinking how right they were – Gladstone, my father.