—Excerpt of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
I’d rather it be February. Not that it will matter much to me. Not that I’m a stickler for details, but since you’re asking, February. The month I first became a father, the month my father died. Yes. Better even than November.
I want it cold. I want the gray to inhabit the air like wood does trees, as an essence, not a coincidence. And the hope for springtime, gardens and romance,1)dulled to a 2)stump by the winter in Michigan.
Yes, February. With the cold behind you and the cold before you, with the darkness stubborn at the edges of the day. And a wind to make the cold more bitter. So that ever after it might be said that, “it was a sad old day, we did it, after all.”
And a good 3)frosthold on the ground so that, for nights before it is dug, the 4)sexton will have had to 5)go up and put a fire down, under the hood that fits the space, to soften the topsoil for the 6)backhoe’s toothy 7)bucket.
8)Wake me. Let those you want to come and look. They have their reasons. You’ll have yours. And if someone says, “Doesn’t he look natural!” take no offense. They’ve got it right. This was always in my nature. It’s in yours.
And have the 9)clergy take their part in it. Let them 10)take their best shot. If they’re ever going to make sense to you, now’s the time. They’re looking, same as the rest of us. The questions are more instructive than the answers. Be wary of anyone who knows what to say.
As for music, suit yourselves. I’ll be out of earshot, stone deaf. A lot can be said for pipers and 11)tin whistlers. But consider the difference between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the 12)roller rink.
Poems might be said. I have had friends who were poets. Mind you they tend to go on a bit. Especially around horizontal bodies. Sex and death are their principle studies. It is here where the services of an experienced undertaker are most appreciated. Accustomed to being 13)personae non grata, they’ll act the worthy editor and tell the 14)bards when it’s time to put a 15)sock in it.
On the subject of money: you get what you pay for. Deal with someone whose instincts you trust. If someone tells you you haven’t spent enough, tell them to 16)go piss up a rope. Tell the same thing to anyone who says you’ve spent too much, tell them to piss up a rope too. It’s your money. Do what you want with it. But let me make one thing perfectly clear. You know the type who’s always saying, “When I’m dead, save your money, spend it on something really useful and do me cheaply”? I’m not one of them. Never was. I’ve always thought that funerals were useful. So do what suits you. It’s yours to do. You’re entitled to wholesale on most of it.
As for guilt—it’s much overrated. Here are the facts in the case at hand: I’ve known the love of the ones who have loved me. And I’ve known they’ve known I love them too. Every-thing else in the end seems irrelevant. But if guilt is the thing, forgive yourself, forgive me. And, if a little upgrade in the 17)pomp and circumstance makes you feel better, consider it money wisely spent. Compared to 18)shrinks and 19)pharmaceuticals, bartenders or 20)homeopaths, geographical or 21)ecclesiastical cures, even the priciest funeral is a bargain.
I want a mess made in the snow so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant. Forego the tent. Stand openly to the weather. Get the larger equipment out of sight. It’s a distraction. But have the sexton all dirt and indifference, remain at hand. He and the 22)hearse driver can talk of poker or trade jokes in whispers and straight-faced, while the clergy tend their final commendations. Those who lean on shovels and fill holes, like those who lean on custom and old prayers, are, each of them, experts in the one field.
And you should see it until the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy 23)leavetaking in a room, a cemetery 24)chapel, the foot of an altar. None of that. Don’t dodge it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder and be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it’s done.
After the words are finished, lower it. Leave the ropes. Toss the gray gloves in on top. Push the dirt in and be done. Watch each other’s ankles. Stamp your feet in the cold, let your heads sink between your shoulders, keep looking down. That’s where what is happening is happening. And when you’re done, look up and leave. But not until you’re done.
So if you opt for burning, stand and watch. If you cannot watch it, maybe you should reconsider. Stand in earshot of the sizzle and the pop. Try to get a 25)whiff of the goings on. Warm your hands to the fire. This might be a good time for a song. Bury the ashes, the cinders, and bones. The bits of the box that did not burn.
They used to have this year of mourning. Folks wore armbands, black clothes, played no music in the house. Black wreaths were hung at the front doors. The damaged were identified. For a full year you were allowed your grief—the dreams and sleeplessness, the sadness, and the rage. The weeping and giggling in all the wrong places. The catch in your breath at the sound of the name. After a year you would be back to normal. “Time heals” is what was said to explain this. If not, of course, you were pronounced some version of crazy and in need of professional help.
Whatever’s there to feel, feel it—the riddance, the relief, the fright and freedom, the fear of forgetting, the dull ache of your own mortality. Go home in pairs. Warm to the flesh that warms you still. Get with someone you can trust with tears and anger, wonderment and utter silence. Get that part done—the sooner, the better. The only way around these things is through them.
I know I shouldn’t be going on like this.
I’ve had this problem all my life. Directing funerals.
It’s yours to do—my funeral—not mine. The death is yours to live with once I’m dead.
So, here is a coupon good for Disregard. And here is another marked My Approval. Ignore with my blessings whatever I have said beyond Love One Another.
All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, 26)daft as it still sounds, maybe I am.
To say, if they ask you, it was a sad day after all. It was a cold, gray day.
Of course any other month you’re on your own. Have no fear—you’ll know what to do. Go now, I think you are ready.