Mar 16 2008

The spinster aunt and the funeral parlor

Just a few of Funeral Nation’s bronzed conceits.

I promised you an acerbic dissertation on American funeral culture, but I can’t deliver. I just spent two interminable weeks immersed in the production of my late father’s last hurrah, and now that it’s finally over, the last thing I feel like doing is rehashing the whole gaudy spectacle. Suffice it to say, spinster aunts and Presbyterian funerals don’t mix. We aunts don’t have the temperament. We can’t strike the proper tone. It’s a deficiency caused by a seepage of melancholic bile into the obstreperal lobe, resulting in a tendency to react to tragedy by cracking wise.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the grief-stricken are a pretty tough crowd. My sense of comic timing is simply too sophisticated for the average bereaved family member to appreciate. Take, for example, the regrettable episode wherein my mom woke me up at 3 in the morning to tell me that my father, at home under round-the-clock hospice care as he gradually and heartbreakingly shriveled his way to dusty death, was no more.

“I suppose there’s no chance,” I answered, “that he’s faked his own death?”

Naturally I followed this up with “I wonder when his secret second family in Jersey will surface?”

Crickets chirped. OK, so it wasn’t A material, but like I said, it was 3 in the morning. Jesus.

But perhaps you won’t mind if I recount the Funeral Parlor Affair. This absurd interlude caused me to erupt in an inappropriate fit of coping-mechanism hilarity of a magnitude rarely seen outside the planet Obstreperon.*

For lo, and it did come to pass that the sibling and I were obliged to saunter along to the Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park to pick up the patriarch’s ashes. For some reason — maybe because we’re not a couple of swooning Victorians — we’d expected to stroll in, palm the urn, and buzz along home.

“Got our urn?”

“Here ya go!”

“Thanks. See ya next time!”

But no. The consummate weirdness with which modern American death-angst imbues the mortuary biz turned what should have been a 5-minute transaction into a Gothic theatrical production that dragged on for half an hour.

Mere words cannot describe the surreality precipitated by an errand like this; a week ago the old man and I had been shooting the shit about this and that, and now Tidy and I were wheeling up to the parlor in his car, which he would never drive again, to take possession of his incinerated corpse. Whoa. Heavy, right?

Well, be she spinster aunt or no, I dare anybody to keep a straight face who darkens the stoop of the Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park. You wouldn’t believe this joint. It was like the set designers from Twin Peaks and Napoleon Dynamite had fused with Elvis Presley’s interior decorator and been reborn as Liberace’s angst-ridden evil twin, who then suffered a psychotic break, and bought up the world’s supply of harvest gold flocked wallpaper, brass upholstery tacks, and fake oak paneling, and ate it all with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and then puked it up all over the living room from Sartre’s No Exit. And holy shit, the palpable hush in there! I mean, it’s not like you don’t expect some kind of palpable hush to accompany these sepulchral scenarios, but a palpable hush that is simultaneously unctuous, clammy and surpassingly phony? That bears down on you like one of those superfatted, soul-sucking cloud entities from Star Trek? And leaves an oily film on your skin? Dag! It was like walking into an alternate universe where the earth is made of compressed gloom and you breathe an atmosphere of gaseous avocado green crushed velvet.

But how? Was the lobby of Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Mausoleum, and Memorial Park one of those portals into the 13th dimension that you’re always reading about?

Needless to say, this remarkable tableau, combined with my having seen, on the way in, a headstone engraved with the inherently comical name “Pink,” naturally ignited in my hapless throat the purgatorial fires of a full-blown guffaw.

But nothing in my education or upbringing could have prepared me for our encounter with the Funeral Director. I almost spontaneously combusted when this specimen materialized out of the Stygian mist. The dude was the ne plus ultra, the transcendental essence, the Platonic ideal of funeral directors. He was still. He was shadowy. He was bloodless. He was creepy. He wore an ill-fitting suit made of larceny and doom.

It was then that I solved the puzzle of the aforementioned palpable hush’s mysterious origins: it was from this murky personage that the mortuary’s mighty torrents of pulsating lugubriosity emanated. The F.D. was a veritable powerhouse of tranquility.

With a toadying wave of his hand, this Charon-in-a-cheap-suit ushered us through a series of fake-oak-paneled rooms until we arrived at a final door. He bade us enter and floated in after us. It seemed impossible, but the green velvet gravitas in this cryptish little chamber was at least 17 times what it had been before we’d embarked on our little trek through these dispassionate circles of hell. I was delirious with mirth, possibly because the funeral director’s insatiable serenity was sucking all the oxygen out of the air, but also because I was dumbfounded that this suffocating, synthetic one-stop grief-shop, with its cut-rate dramaturgy and hackneyed trappings, could be considered by any sane person to be an appropriate response to death. But the best was yet to come.

With an obsequious flourish, the funeral director gestured toward a lone, velvet-draped pedestal, illuminated dramatically with a single celestial spotlight, upon which stood a plain wooden box the size of a Riverside Shakespeare. Whereupon he partially dematerialized and silently repaired to the shadows.

At first we regarded this kitschy still life uncomprehendingly, but it wasn’t long before Tidy and I — mental giants that we are — grasped that the box contained our late father’s remains.** We then exchanged two wordless*** glances. The first expressed our mutual disbelief that the laws of physics could even permit the existence of so thoroughgoing and melodramatic a cliché as the scene now unfolding before us. The second addressed more practical matters: what the fuck were we expected to do now? Weep openly? Throw ourselves on the mercy of a vengeful god? Stuff the box into a backpack and beat a hasty retreat?

We received no guidance whatsoever from the funeral director, who clearly was resigned to hover noiselessly in the background until hell froze over.

Luckily, since by this time I was pretty much convulsing with inappropriate and therefore painfully stifled laughter, I perceived at the foot of the pedestal a canvas tote bag the dimensions of which coincided roughly with those of the box. Printed on it were the words “Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes,” but the way the bag was folded, what I read was “Dingy Memorial Fun.” Enough was enough. That “bwaaaahaaah!” you heard echoing through the streets last Tuesday? Me.

Yeah, I know. I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, at this awkward juncture Tidy took action. She dropped our father into the bag and kicked me in the foot. We scrammed. Out in the lobby, I pulled on the glass doors when I should have pushed. For a sickening moment it seemed as though the gravitational pull of the funeral director’s awesome serenity would prevent our escape, but after some comedic fumbling we managed to break on through to the other side.

I dropped Pop into the back seat of his convertible, Tidy put the pedal to the metal, and we roared off down Northwest Highway, sucking in huge, wonderful gulps of the sweet, sunny, polluted Dallas air. Weirdly enough, once we busted out of that bizarro limbo world, I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.

* A little bird tells me that I’m on the inside track for Fit of the Year Award at the 2008 Obstreperon Hammys

** “Of course,” my mother later remarked with disgust, “you never really know, do you?”

*** To this day I maintain that I didn’t say “Are you fucking kidding me?” out loud; Tidy disagrees.


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  1. PhysioProf

    It was like the set designers from Twin Peaks and Napoleon Dynamite had fused with Elvis Presley’s interior decorator and been reborn as Liberace’s angst-ridden evil twin, who then suffered a psychotic break, and bought up the world’s supply of harvest gold flocked wallpaper, brass upholstery tacks, and fake oak paneling, and ate it all with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and then puked it up all over the living room from Sartre’s No Exit.

    What a magnificent sentence!

    Twisty, I’m sorry about your pop’s demise.

  2. Pinko Punko

    Ah yes, the entryway into Elvis’ bathroom, shared amongst Funeral Homery and Corporate Boardroomish type situations. ALternatively, the picture you painted reminds me what I’ve always thought the inside of a Mormon Temple would look like. You have described it as Tidy and Twisty hijinks, which should be its own show (preferably HBO so we can have the inevitably multisyllabic yet salty language)- but I must still thank you for describing your feelings about this. I would feel uncomfortable about reading this stuff just to be entertained but I think you have described a deeply real response to what I want to describe as ridiculous, but think there is a better word eluding me.

  3. Jeanne

    Twisty, reading that gave me the best laugh I’ve had in weeks. There must be a streak of the spinster aunt in me, as well. Your description is flawless, and I should know: I once interviewed for a job in a funeral parlor. I’ve inhaled that crushed green velvet air. Dingy memorial fun, indeed.

  4. Mary

    Hi Twisty, (I knew you before Twisty)
    I laughed out loud at this entry to your blog! Very well said!! I felt this way when Granny died back in’76. I went to the funeral home to view the body (a very strange custom) with dad. The corny organ music and somber funeral directors were hilarious to me. Very surreal! Seeing Her body sobered me up and made me want to do a Fred Flintstone feet move to get the heck out of there. I realized by my fathers sobs I was there more for him than for me.
    I’m saddened that your dad is gone. I have very very fond memories of him. Please give my best to your mom and “Tidy”.
    I have no idea what you are talking about most of the time, but you have quite an impressive blog. Much love, M

  5. J.S.

    Ah, Twisty, this was a great entry. But I’m still sorry for you that your dad’s gone. And now I can’t drive by a Palm Harbor Homes without sending a little thought your way. Sending a little thought and then thinking, “Damn, that doublewide looks pretty posh!”

  6. Molly

    Twisty, I’m sorry to hear about your Pop. Your wise-cracking grief response reminded me of a scene that took place at my grandparents’ house about five years ago, a few days before my grandmother finally died of the ovarian cancer that had ravaged her body for the previous two years:

    We were gathered in the kitchen with the extraordinarily kind and compassionate hospice worker, who was explaining to us that my grandmother could go at any time. She was struggling to find nice things to say about my grandmother, who was not a very nice person in the first place but had grown even less so over the course of her illness. The hospice worker praised my grandmother’s foresight and preparedness in arranging for everything that was to happen after her death, and as we all stood around in a daze trying to comprehend the matriarch’s imminent demise, my grandfather replied, “Yeah, about all that’s left is to dig a hole in the backyard.”

    The poor hospice worker was shocked speechless, my father guffawed and had to turn and quickly leave the room, and the rest of us just stood there hiding our smiles and tried to figure out what the appropriate response should be. Sadly (or perhaps happily), it is the scene I remember most from that awful time.

    I’m sorry for your loss and I hope your wisecracks help get you through with your obstreperal lobe (and all the rest of your brain, too) intact.

  7. BadKitty

    My brother is as twisted as I am so I’m not sure which of us will be kicking the other one’s foot but we’re going to be completely inappropriate and scandalous, I’m sure. The atmosphere is so oppressively formal, phony and “somber” that it just begs to be mocked.

    Both of our parents are still alive so I haven’t yet had to deal with the funeral / memorial / internment thing in such a deeply personal way, but every time I’ve walked into a funeral chapel, I’ve been immediately overwhelmed with a deep need to be snarky and an almost intolerable craving for hard iiquor. I’m not much of a drinker, either, but the craving for a dirty martini is almost painful. It’s probably for the best that they don’t serve alcohol in funeral homes since vodka increases my snarkiness factor x 10 and I’d probably end up being tossed out of my own mother’s funeral.

    The next time I go out, I’ll order a dirty martini and raise the glass to your father. From the links you posted, he sounds like a good guy.

  8. Inverarity

    Oh my gods. I am so sorry for your loss, but that was hilarious. Please write a book.

  9. Savannah

    Best. Blog post. Ever. I am going to have to run right over and show it the love on mine.

    Again, I’m really sorry for your loss.

  10. W

    @Pinko Punko: the inside of Mormon temples are actually pretty cool (I was fortunate enough to visit one before it was dedicated or sealed or blessed or whatever those crazy people do), if a little sad that they’ve spent that much money to glorify a big, invisible crazy dude.

    Comedy gold.

  11. Hattie

    My mother in laws ashes are sitting in our bedroom. We can’t decide what to do with them. Her stuff lives on. I vow that I will die with practically no possessions to my name, the way my mother did. It took us a couple of days to clear out my mother’s house. It’s taking weeks with MIL.

  12. Lindsay

    At the last funeral I attended, the minister giving the service could not seem to hide, behind any attempt at tact or evasion, the fact that he feared the deceased was going to hell. Sure, the deceased had been a drinker and not much of a church-goer, but a noncommittal ceremony of vague platitudes would have sufficed.

    It wasn’t necessary to say that no one can pray someone else into heaven, to call attention to the life of sin, to repeat that no one could judge the man but God, or to say that on his death bed, when he had said that he was ready to go, that maybe, hopefully, he meant he had gotten right with God, though we clearly don’t really think so.

    What a nice gift to the family.

  13. AW

    I have never been able to keep a straight face at funerals. Thank you for so eloquently pointing out why.

  14. S. D'Attournee-Lawson

    Gods! Had I only the adequate verbiage to compliment your prose!

  15. amazonmidwife

    My oldest sister secreted a fart machine in my dad’s coffin just before the ‘viewing’. She then gave the control to his youngest brother, aka ‘the joker’, who proceded to freak out my sister’s ex-husband, my favorite black-sheep-of-the-family cousin and disgust a few of my mother’s stuffy relatives. It was esp. hard to keep a straight face during the visitation by the VFW, but we consoled ourselves that they were probably all deaf and didn’t notice. This is now the story told at ALL the funerals from that side of the family since, and we still cannot contain ourselves, esp. when viewings are held in the same room of the funeral home that the family usually uses–our little rebellion against the powers of the funereal. I always felt that my dad would have approved, and I’ll bet that yours does, too.

  16. Ron Sullivan

    I am sending the URL of this to my sisters and brother, forthwith.


    Oh, Twisty, I am so sorry.

    My Mom died 4 years ago and I still don’t think it’s “real”.It just doesn’t seem real to be shooting the shit one week (as you write) and the next, never again.

    I also concur that you should write a book!

  18. Aurora B

    Twisty, it’s a shame you’re not Irish, you’d be entirely appropriate with your wisecracking dark humor.

    That said, please accept my condolences on the loss of your dad. I’m lucky in that both my parents are well, but my SO lost his father two years ago.

    Speaking of inappropriate reactions…We were were all at the outdoor part of the funeral, the speeches had been made, and the honor guard had begun to play Taps, when the fire siren went off. My son burst into tears on one side of me and my SO burst into gales of laughter on the other side. I hugged my son to me, and leaned over to try to hug SO, so he whispers that he’s not crying, he’s laughing. I tell him, “I know! Knock it off!” (for what it’s worth, those behind him must have thought it was crying, or so I heard from the cousins.)

  19. Ms Kate

    Oh Twisty, this is so wonderfully cathartic for me. My mother died just days before your father. I appreciate so much that mom didn’t want anything to do with all of this for all your spinster auntly reasons.

    Gads, at least the place where Dad and I picked up my mother’s ashes (a house, actually) had a delightful little dachsund who seemed to understand when it was okay to ask for a lift into your lap. “Doc” sat in mine while I signed the papers and he was such a wonderful comfort.

    Dingy memorial fun takes the cake, though. You find comfort where you find it I guess.

    Warm wishes of comfort to you and your family.

  20. Ms Kate

    p.s. I’m sending this link to my Aunt and Dad. I’m sure they will enjoy what they missed out on too.

  21. Dizzy

    Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound at all like Six Feet Under. What the hell?

  22. tuckova

    If I had the capacity to memorize this whole post and quote it at random I would, as it would be the only way to do justice to “seepage of melancholic bile” without implying “Charon-in-a-cheap-suit” was any less wondrous.

    Laughing at funerals is like crying at weddings, which you might also do. Different people have different reasons, and in nearly no case is it meant to be disrespectful to the person honored, but rather to the institution and societal expectations of the ceremony. It’s also extremely cathartic, no matter which crazed emotion you take. I’m glad you took laughter, and I appreciate you passing it on. “Insatiable serenity” = magical laughter inductor.

  23. Gertrude Strine

    an ill-fitting suit made of larceny and doom

    The very fabric of the dying trade.

    It satisfies me to have these kinds of reminders of just how fake the funerary biz is. Was it ever any different?
    My own corpsing signal is the sight of the dolled-up trolleys that have almost replaced peoples’ shoulders as coffin-bearers. I think it’s the strident chrome or gold-plated acme scissor-lifts that send me off. That, and the still small voice in my head that insists that if the person’s on a trolley then where’s the medicos and the heart-starting machine?
    And if they go along with a local franchise that’s co-opted white uniforms for their all-women staff – well I just can’t manage any kind of decorous silence.

  24. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    We all have our memories of Dingy Memorial Fun. When my dad passed, family tradition mandated that he be sent off from the neighborhood funeral parlor (as they were called, back in the day).

    It was a three-day grief-fest, which culminated in my sister Nancie and I laughing with wild, inappropriate abandon at a) the taxidermified (and more than slightly motheaten) remains of squirrels in the below-stairs area where we’d sneaked off for a cigarette; and b) the icon of the Black Madonna (a weird Polish religious fetish) surrounded by gothic Polish script which apparently read, “In the Pod of Jabba the Hut, There Were Two: Amy and Bill”. And Nancie calling Uncle George a turd, for which he never forgave her.

    All this meandering by way of saying, grief-stricken folks behave in mightily mysterious ways. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to bereavement. You & yours are in my thoughts.

  25. Dr. Steph

    Thanks for this. My MIL died on Friday (after a long crappy time with cancer) and we’re just starting funeral arrangements now. And my dad’s ashes are still at the funeral home since mom doesn’t really know what to do with them (it’s been almost a year).

    Having to deal with North American Funeral Culture so directly, I needed a good laugh.

    I plan to put your description on a little card to read to myself to avoid saying what I really think about niches, urns, hearing “Morning Has Broken” one time too many.

  26. Kaethe

    My condolences to you and your family.

    When my father died, lo, these fifteen years ago, we experienced several days of muffled hilarity. Apparently there is much farce in the midst of death.

  27. Come the Revolution

    When my uncle died three years ago, decrepit and comma-shaped little war veterans came with their rifles (firing blanks literally and metaphorically) and their jam box (no coronet) for the military salute.

    Press play, and BLAM (the first of three). Big commotion behind me.

    Uncle’s step-kids, who are familiar with the long arm of the law but not-so-much with funeral ritual, had collectively hit the ground. I keep an empty shell to remind me of the unbelievable humor of that very moment.

  28. Linda Atkins

    I’m sure this is the only time in my whole life I’ll be able to say “Thank you for the hilarious account of picking up your father’s ashes,” so consider it said. I’m still terribly sorry about your father being gone, and this really made me laugh.

  29. CafeSiren

    I would never have survived the vanilla-protestant casual family memorial (outdoors) for my grandmother a year and a half ago, had my then three year-old nephew not chosen to take off all his clothes. Twice.

    I think most funerals and/or memorials could be vastly improved by an unexpectedly naked three year-old.

  30. Ann Bartow

    I vividly remember tripping over something, possibly my own two feet, whilst carrying a box of ashes that were once a family member, happily catching myself in time, relievedly catching my breath, and then hearing my mother intone, “Careful! If you spill those we will have to bury the vacuum cleaner!” Which is by way of noting, yeah, I get that whole inappropriate humor in the face of death thing.

    Hang in there, as those unctuous kitten posters helpfully advise.

  31. schatze

    I cannot deal with funeral homes. When I put my hand to the door the only thing I can think of is “BOLT!” Luckily, I didn’t have to pick up my dad’s ashes. If you and Tidy scattered your father’s ashes, I want to hear that story, too.

  32. Caukee

    Reading your reflexive quips to your mother on hearing of your Dad’s retirement from corporeal existence gave me a wonderful sense that I am not alone in my outlook on life. My Mom’s most frequent words to me, during my growing up years, were “Nobody likes a smartass !” I believe you have proved her wrong.

    This tale of prescribed/proscribed responses to life events reminds me of my trip through the Cancer Factory. At every step, I was met with disapproval for my way of dealing with my own personal feelings about my own personal cancer, lest I disturb the manufactured feelings of those profiting from same. It was okay to give myself a buzz-cut, but not to dye it purple. I was to be cheerful, of course, but not to make jokes about my infirmity and possible death. Nor to get angry, of course. Such unseemly real emotions were neither ladylike nor “sainted cancer victim”-like. But “What’s the point of having cancer if you can’t get a good laugh out of it ?” I always said. It all made them very uncomfortable; I wish I had had time to find medical folks who could appreciate my (apparently)twisted sensibilities.

    The P can’t have you deciding on your own how to feel, for real feelings are less easily packaged and categorized for corporate manipulation and profit. No, we must have cues – anvilicious ones, apparently, thus the less-than-subtle set decoration – accompanied by “directors” modelling the appropriate corporately sponsored emotional array. Laughter is a normal, healthy response to such a theatrical production.

    Completely off-topic, sorry: I had registered on the IBTP board, as KMGGA, but haven’t been there in some time, and now cannot log in. I tried both retrieving my old password and reregistering – no go. I changed email addys some months ago, which may be relevant. I also am dealing with chronic mono brain, so that may add to the confusion. I’m very unclear as to what the problem is or how to resolve this. Is there a way to have a person email me – if so, I give you permission to pass my address along. Sorry to intrude here with this business.

  33. Shannon

    Probably the most perfect post about the most horrible thing imaginable. My condolences to you. I’ve got a good funeral story. When my grandfather died two years ago, the minister took it upon himself to (in the middle of a perfectly vanilla, bland sermon) start railing about PROTECTING THE UNBORN, BLAH BLAH BLAH. I started gripping my boyfriend’s hand so hard that he made a point to say “No. Don’t! Just don’t!” under his breath. I nearly spit, I was so irritated.

    It was as good as the time my aunt nearly broke my wrist in Houston during my cousin’s “we left the ‘obey’ part in the marriage vows” wedding.

  34. yankeetransferred

    Oh, so sorry about your Pop, Twisty. My own Pop died many years ago and I still miss his biting wit.

    Your account of the visit to the funeral parlor had me HOWLING. Only you.

  35. magickitty

    “Green-velvet gravitas” will stay with me forever. And I’m tickled that you’re a fellow Presbyterian, as devout as I.

  36. Hawise

    I have to say that my FIL’s adherence to church and fraternal order paid off big time in arranging his send off. We called his Masonic brother the Funeral director who arranged everything including another Masonic brother to handle the estate and payments. We simply had to decide cremation or internment (cremation) and they were off and running. Once we called the Church to inform them of his passing secret plans were started. I received ONE call which I muffed when the head of the Women’s auxilary asked how I wanted the reception and bonehead that I am I replied that we could cater it or something. The phone line literally froze at which the icy cold got me thinking and I stated that I would leave it in their hands as I trusted them. All that was left for us was signing documents and being seen at the appropriate times.
    I still miss him.

  37. Bird

    My own experience with biting my tongue came last year, when it looked like my mother was not going to make it through the night, and her pastor came by to talk about the funeral service. I had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue when the fundie asshat implied that I couldn’t possibly know what my mother might want because I’m not the right sort of Christian. I’d rather be avoiding laughter than avoiding punching a minister any day.

    This ramble is all to say that I’m sad to hear about your dad but glad that you seem to be taking it in fine Twisty style.

  38. Halfmad

    We had moments like this the entire week of my dad’s funeral. Most of it is just utterly bizarre.

  39. Halfmad

    Okay, I can’t believe I didn’t share this story: My dad’s funeral was the typical “priest has no idea who he’s talking about” affair. He mentioned how wonderful it was that my parents had XX children, only he got the number wrong, adding one. My mom leans over to me and says under her breath, “Do you suppose he was doing a Jesse Jackson on me?” I about died.

  40. atomicgal

    What a wonderful passage! Thanks for the good laugh.

    I’m also prone to gallows humor. My mom passed away in January, in a hospital. Moments after she died, my father asked me to remove her wedding ring, which proved to be near impossible since she’s worn it all her life.

    I tried lotion, soap, more lotion, more soap – all to no avail. I looked up to my father, and aunt and uncle hovering behind him, and announced that “we’ll have to cut it off” – and quickly added, “the ring; not the finger.” Everyone gasped.

  41. Rugosa

    Sorry about your father’s passing. My own family has similar reactions to funerals, speculating, for example, about the class in Tacky Interior Decoration that all funeral directors must pass.

  42. B. Dagger Lee

    Atheists’ Ritual:

    Me, my dad and uncles took my grandfather’s cardboard box of ashes to Granpa’s dock on Lake Austin. My dad took a fistful of the ashes and put it in an envelope and handed it to me, then dumped the ashes into the lake. Then my uncle tipped the box of ashes of Ted, my Grandpa’s dog into the lake (this box had been waiting around for a number of years).

    Grandpa on death: “I think that when you die, you’re just dead, dead as a dead dog.”

  43. Eliza

    Twisty, this wonderful stab at American funeral “culture” brought back fond memories of the funerals of my parents, in which all 14 of us kids cut through the fake atmosphere with a certain levity. My brother riffled through the selection of memorial holy cards at my mother’s funeral, 11 months after my father’s at the same parlor, saying, “got it, need it, need it, got it, got it” as he decided which to take home.

    We, however, were not subjected to the actual director’s unction, and I shudder with sympathy at the ordeal of the Faster offspring. Tote bag: best touch ever. Unbelievable.

  44. Headbang8

    Twisty, your post, while hilarious, makes me sad.

    Not just because it deals with losing your father, for which I offer you sincere sympathy.

    But too, because it illustrates the great curses of our age: indifference disguised with fakery. And, apparently, people buying the schtick.

    When I was in college, I held a part time job with a firm of funeral directors. I answered the phone, and helped in the office. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.

    It was a family firm, but of considerable size. We were the so-called Catholic Biggie in our medium-sized city. I think about the several families who lived in, and depended on, the business. There could not be a greater contrast.

    There was no formal induction program or lengthy training, beyond the basics. (e.g. Always ask vital question number one: has the doctor been?)

    But they lived values which I picked up quickly. The best demeanour for a funeral director should be one of quiet efficiency. Make sure that everyting is taken care of so that friends and loved ones could grieve in their own, private, personal way. Place no expectations on the family–no extra ceremonial obligation beyond that which they choose.

    They would have been appalled at the idea of unveiling ashes in some fake ceremony. The men who worked there would deliver them to your home, personally–in fact, most of the arrangements were made in the deceased’s family home. It was kinder, more familiar, more comforting, less strange.

    Just after I joined, they renovated the building. No green velvet nor gaudy trimmings; a skillful architect was asked to create a modern building of gentle light, which shielded occupants against the noise of the busy city street outside. It was a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

    But it was the men themselves–they were all men, in those days–who taught me the most. They were quiet, unassuming fellows, but with a natural sincerity and an interest in the people they helped. They had a natural warmth that seemed to calm the most anxious or troubled of the bereaved. Something which the Charon-in-a-cheap-suit may never learn.

    The idea of adding extra drama to the occasion, such as the unveiling of the ashes in a contrived ash-unveiling room, would have been anathema. What families want at this time is less drama, not more.

    Modern funeral directors encourage drama, though, because these flourishes give a customer the impression of extra value-for-money. But more important, funereal pomp and circumstance has taken the place of natural, unaffected warmth. Your Charon didn’t have to look you in the eye, sense how he could be of help, or perhaps provide a moment of personal comfort. No, he stood back. The ceremony distracted you from the fact that his suit was not just cheap, but empty.

    My employers eventually became the victim of their own internalised belief in the patriarchy. As the lucrative market for expensive Italian Catholic funerals evaporated, a new competitor emerged–an all female firm. (I suspect Gertrude Strine alluded to them in her post–these events did take place in Australia). My bosses looked long and hard at employing female funeral directors, but in their sexist way, convinced themselves that only a middle-aged man could display the calm, warm authority necessary. Of course, they overlooked the fact that the majority of surviving spouses were widows and not widowers, who often preferred to deal with a woman. The next generation wasn’t wholly interested in the business, the firm faltered a little, and eventually it was sold to a conglomerate.

    Sorry to clog up your coment box with such a long post, Twisty, but your story did really make me reflect on those times, now decades ago. Thank you for writing it.

  45. kiki

    Okay, I try not to be a total sycophant but you’re a friggin genius.

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