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.

Nor does who much matter, either. To say, ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, and by the way, he’s dead!’ is, for the living, a kind of comfort.

It is why we drag rivers and comb plane wrecks.

It is why MIA is more painful than DOA.

It is why we have open caskets and classified obits.

Knowing is better than not knowing, and knowing it is you is terrifically better than knowing it is me. Once I’m the dead guy, whether you’re OK or he’s OK won’t much interest me. You can all go bag your asses, because the dead don’t care.

Of course, the living, bound by their adverbs and their actuarials, still do. Now, there’s the difference and why I’m in business. The living are careful and oftentimes caring. The dead are careless, or maybe it’s care-less. Either way, they don’t care. These are unremarkable and verifiable truths.

My former mother-in-law, herself an unremarkable and verifiable truth, was always fond of holding forth with Cagneyesque bravado – to wit: ‘When I’m dead, just put me in a box and throw me in a hole.’ But whenever I would remind her that we did substantially that with everyone, the woman would grow sullen and a little cranky.

Later, over meatloaf and green beans, she would invariably give out with: ‘When I’m dead, just cremate me and scatter the ashes.’

My former mother-in-law was trying to make carelessness sound like fearlessness. The kids would stop eating and look at each other. The kids’ mother would whine: ‘Oh, Mom, don’t talk like that.’ I’d take out my lighter and begin to play with it.

In the same way, the priest that married me to this woman’s daughter – a man who loved golf and gold ciboria and vestments made of Irish linen; a man who drove a great black sedan with a wine-red interior and who always had his eye on the cardinal’s job – this same fellow, leaving the cemetery one day, felt called upon to instruct me thus: ‘No bronze coffin for me. No sir! No orchids or roses or limousines. The plain pine box is the one I want, a quiet Low Mass, and the pauper’s grave. No pomp and circumstance.’

He wanted, he explained, to be an example of simplicity, of prudence, of piety and austerity – all priestly and, apparently, Christian virtues. When I told him that he needn’t wait, that he could begin his ministry of good example even today, that he could quit the country club and do his hacking at the public links and trade his brougham for a used Chevette; that free of his Florsheims and cashmeres and prime ribs, free of his bingo nights and building funds, he could become, for Christ’s sake, the very incarnation of Francis himself, or Anthony of Padua; when I said, in fact, that I would be willing to assist him in this, that I would gladly distribute his CDs and credit cards among the needy of the parish, and that I would, when the sad duty called, bury him for nothing in the manner he would have by then become accustomed to; when I told the priest who had married me these things, he said nothing at all, but turned his wild eye on me in the way that the cleric must have looked on Sweeney years ago, before he cursed him, irreversibly, into a bird.

What I was trying to tell the fellow was, of course, that being a dead saint is no more worthwhile than being a dead philodendron or a dead angelfish. Living is the rub, and always has been. Living saints still feel the flames and stigmata, the ache of chastity and the pangs of conscience. Once dead, they let their relics do the legwork, because, as I was trying to tell this priest, the dead don’t care.

Only the living care.

And I am sorry to be repeating myself, but this is the central fact of my business – that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it: you don’t. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings.

And there is the truth, abundantly self-evident, that seems, now that I think of it, the one most elusive to my old in-laws, to the parish priest, and to perfect strangers who are forever accosting me in barber-shops and in cocktail bars and at parent-teacher conferences, hell-bent or duty-bound on telling me what it is they want done with them when they are dead.

Give it a rest is the thing I say.

Once you are dead, put your feet up, call it a day, and let the old man or the missus or the thankless kids decide whether you are to be buried or burned or blown out of a cannon or left to dry out in a ditch. It’s not your day to watch it, because the dead don’t care.

Another reason people are always rehearsing their obsequies with me has to do with the fear of death, which is something anyone in his right mind has. It is healthy. It keeps us from playing in the traffic. I say pass it on to the kids.

There is a belief – widespread among the women I have dated, local Rotarians, and friends of my children – that I, being the undertaker here, have some irregular fascination with, special interest in, inside information about, even attachment to, the dead. They assume, these people, some perhaps with good reason, that I want their bodies.

It is an interesting concept.

But here’s the truth.

Being dead is one – the worst, the last – but only one in a series of calamities that afflicts our own and several other species. The list may include, but is not limited to, gingivitis, bowel obstruction, contested divorce, tax audit, spiritual vexation, money trouble, political mischief, and on and on and on. There is no shortage of misery. And I am no more attracted to the dead than the dentist is to your bad gums, the doctor to your rotten innards, or the accountant to your sloppy expense records. I have no more stomach for misery than the banker or the lawyer, the pastor or the politico – because misery is careless and is everywhere. Misery is the bad cheque, the ex-wife, the mob in the street, and the IRS – who, like the dead, feel nothing and, like the dead, don’t care.

Which is not to say that the dead do not matter.

They do.

Last Monday morning, Milo Hornsby died. Mrs Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had ‘expired’ and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from sleep, I am thinking, Put a quarter in Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, and Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.

Milo is dead.

X’s on his eyes, lights out, curtains.

Helpless, harmless.

Milo’s dead.

Which is why I do not haul to my senses, coffee and quick shave, Homburg and great coat, warm up the Dead Wagon, and make for the freeway in the early o’clock for Milo’s sake. But for her, for she who has become, in the same moment and the same twinkling, like water to ice, the Widow Hornsby. I go for her – because she still can cry and care and pray and pay my bill.

The hospital that Milo died in is state-of-the-art. There are signs on every door declaring a part or process or bodily function. I like to think that, taken together, the words would add up to something like the Human Condition, but they never do. What’s left of Milo, the remains, are in the basement, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM. Milo would like that if he were still liking anything. Milo’s room is called PATHOLOGY.

The medical-technical parlance of death emphasises disorder.

We are forever dying of failures, of anomalies, of insufficiencies, of dysfunctions, arrests, accidents. These are either chronic or acute. The language of death certificates – Milo’s says ‘Cardiopulmonary Failure’ – is like the language of weakness. Likewise, Mrs Hornsby, in her grief, will be said to be breaking down or falling apart or going to pieces, as if there were something structurally awry with her. It is as if death and grief were not part of the Order of Things, as if Milo’s failure and his widow’s weeping were, or ought to be, sources of embarrassment. ‘Doing well’ for Mrs Hornsby would mean that she is bearing up, braving the storm, or being strong for the children. We have willing pharmacists to help her with this. Of course, for Milo, doing well would mean he was back upstairs, holding his own, keeping the meters and monitors bleeping.

But Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe, and – because of his small head, wide shoulders, ponderous belly and skinny legs, and the trailing white binding cord from his ankles and toe tags – he looks, for all the world, like a larger than life-size sperm.

I sign for him and get him out of there. At some level, I am still thinking Milo gives a shit, which by now we all know he doesn’t – because the dead don’t care.

Back at my place of business, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under fluorescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself – eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this ‘setting the features’. These are the features – eyes and mouth – that, in death, will never look the way they would in life, when they are always opening, closing, focusing, signalling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Milo’s hands – one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.

They will not be doing anything anymore, either.

I wash his hands before positioning them.

When my wife moved out some years ago, I kept the children and the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I had found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or in his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.

After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and to pay my bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ‘Never mind that,’ Milo said, ‘one hand washes the other.’

I place Milo’s right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it does not matter, that one hand washes the other either way.

The embalming takes me about two hours.

It is daylight by the time I am done.

Every Monday morning Ernest Fuller comes to my office. He was damaged in some profound way in Korea. The details of his damage are unknown to the locals. Ernest Fuller has no limp or anything missing – so everyone thinks it was something he saw in Korea that left him a little simple, occasionally perplexed, the type to draw rein abruptly in his day-long walks, to consider the meaning of litter, pausing over bottle caps and gum wrappers. Ernest Fuller has a nervous smile and a dead-fish handshake. He wears a baseball cap and thick eyeglasses. Every Sunday night Ernest goes to the supermarket and buys up the tabloids at the checkout stands with headlines that usually involve Siamese twins or movie stars or UFOs. Ernest is a speed reader and a maths whiz – but because of his damage, he has never held a job and never applied for one. Every Monday morning, Ernest brings me clippings of stories under headlines like: 601 LB MAN FALLS THRU COFFIN – A GRAVE SITUATION or EMBALMER FOR THE STARS SAYS ELVIS IS FOR EVER. The Monday morning Milo died, Ernest’s clipping had to do with an urn full of ashes that made grunting and groaning noises, that whistled sometimes, and that was expected to begin talking. Certain scientists in England could make no sense of it. They had run several tests. The ashes’ widow, however, left with nine children and no estate, is convinced that her dearly beloved and greatly reduced husband is trying to give her winning numbers for the lottery. ‘Jacky would never leave us without good prospects,’ she says. ‘He loved his family more than anything.’ There is a picture of the two of them – the widow and the urn, the living and the dead, flesh and bronze, the Victrola and the Victrola’s dog. She has her ear cocked, waiting.

We are always waiting. Waiting for some good word or for the winning numbers. Waiting for a sign or wonder, some signal from our dear dead that the dead still care. We are gladdened when they do outstanding things, when they arise from their graves or appear to us in dreams or fall from their caskets. It pleases us no end; as if the dead still cared, had agendas, were yet alive.

But the sad and well-known fact of the matter is that most of us will stay in our caskets and be dead a long time, and that our urns and graves will never make a sound. Our reason and requiems, our headstones and High Masses, will neither get us in nor keep us out of heaven. The meaning of our lives, and the memories of them, will belong only to the living, just as our funerals do.

We heat graves here for winter burials, as a kind of foreplay before digging in, to loosen the frost’s hold on the ground before the sexton and his backhoe do the opening. We buried Milo in the ground last Wednesday. The mercy is that what we buried there, in an oak casket, just under the frost line, had ceased to be Milo. It was something else. Milo had become the idea of himself, a permanent fixture of the third person and past tense, his widow’s loss of appetite and trouble sleeping, the absence in places where we look for him, our habits of him breaking, our phantom limb, our one hand washing the other.