A couple of hours after my father died, I was sitting in the back office of a funeral home waiting for the director to arrive when I heard a car pull up and the sound of a heavy door opening and closing. Getting up from my seat, I went to the window and pulled back the curtain, watching as men wheeled a gurney out of a minivan and guided it through a service door. Then, after a moment, I heard an elevator lurch into action. 

“Mr. Dublanica,” the director said, entering the room. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” 

“Was that my father who just arrived?” I asked. 

“It was.” Sighing, I sat back in my chair, oddly comforted that I’d been there at the end of Dad’s journey. 

Since I’d preplanned the funeral a month earlier, signing the paperwork was mostly a formality. My father was to be cremated and the funeral director told me, by law, they couldn’t cremate a body until 24 hours after death. I’m sure that law was passed after somebody screwed up. Ouch. 

“But that’s not an issue here,” the director said. “Your father’s isn’t going to be waked until next Wednesday.”  

“That’s because you have er, other customers.” 

“Yes, we have services all weekend and early next week.” 

“That’s fine,” I said. “That’ll give us more time to prepare.” Then the funeral director told me that, also by law, someone had to identify the body. 

“I can do that right now,” I said. “He’s here.” 

“No need,” she said. “You’ll see him at the wake and that will serve as identification.” 

“Because if it’s the wrong guy in the box, we’ll know.” The director smiled wanly, so I decided to screw with her a bit. 

“I have a friend whose mom died a couple of years ago,” I said. “When they saw her in the casket, they said, ‘That doesn’t look like mom,’ but, you know, people often don’t look like themselves after they die.”   

“That can be the case,” the director said. 

“So, they didn’t say anything and went through with the funeral and the ceremony at the cemetery. Then, just before they lowered the casket into the ground, the funeral director confessed they has mixed up the bodies.” 

“What!” the director yelped. 

“Yep. Two families had two wakes and two funerals with the wrong body, and my friend had to do the services all over again. As you can imagine, the lawsuit was tremendous.”  

“Oh my God,” the director said, “That’s my worst nightmare.”

“So, I’m sure they’ll be no mix-ups here.” 

No, sir. There won’t be.” 

I chuckled to myself. My father had only been dead a couple of hours and here I was cracking wise. While that’s in keeping with my personality, I also knew that I was in some weird euphoric state of shock – so I decided not to ask if she’d be interested in a ground floor opportunity setting up a Tower of Silence for the local Zoroastrians. That might’ve gotten me sent to the emergency room. 

I had met with the same funeral director a couple of months earlier to help a financially strapped client bury his father. They were wonderful, waiving their fee and doing everything possible to give the departed an honorable farewell. Their kindness is why I chose them to handle my dad – that and they’re two blocks my office. As we talked, however, I noticed the director used careful euphemisms while discussing cremation with my client.  When it was my turn, however, I was having none of it. 

“I know what goes on,” I said as she lurched into her spiel. “You don’t have sugarcoat it for me.” I don’t know if the director was relieved that she could lower her professional guard a tad or concerned. Probably fifty-fifty. Later, upon reviewing the bill, I noted the cost of the “rental casket” that my father would be waked in. “You have to take caskets from Costco?” I said, looking at her over my glasses. “Correct?” 

“We do, actually.” 

I grinned. “My wife loves Costco. When it’s her turn she’ll want her box from there.” Again, the director smiled wanly – or was figuring out how to make her escape. Then, when everything was said and done, she walked me to the door. 

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll take good care of your father.” 

“Listen,” I said. “When people kneel at the casket during the wake, you know what’s prayer they all say?” 

“No,” the director said, looking surprised. 

“One, Mississippi two Mississippi…” That elicited a genuine laugh.

“I’ve never heard that one,” she said. 

“And you’re a funeral director?” Then I left, quite certain that she locked the door behind me rather quickly. 

By chance, I ran into the owner of the funeral home outside my favorite luncheonette a few hours later and my wife bombarded him with questions. “How much like Six Feet Under is your job?”  she asked, “Really?” 

The owner laughed. “We enjoyed the show,” he said. “But a lot of it was ridiculous. Trust me, no one’s eating lunch next to a dead body.”  As my wife peppered the owner with more questions, I listened as he described the worst case he’d ever handled which, of course, involved a child. It was so bad he had to call in another undertaker to prepare the body. 

“So,” I said. “There’s such a thing as an undertaker’s undertaker,” 

“Not so much now,” the owner said. “It’s all so corporate. But back then we all supported each other.” 

“Sounds like you have to be a special person to do this job,” my wife said. 

“You have to be about service,” the owner said. “When we get someone who dies under the age of eighteen, we do everything at cost. I mean, how can you profit on some parent’s tragedy?” Upon hearing that, I teared up a little, knowing that I had indeed trusted my father to the right hands. But I also knew there were cutthroat bastards out there who wouldn’t hesitate to plunder a bereaved person’s bank account. 

In the end, however, there were no mix-ups, the funeral home performed over and beyond to perfection, and I’ll never be able to thank them enough or stop singing their praises. Burying the dead is a corporal mercy in the Catholic faith and, when you’re reeling from a loved one’s passing, their ministrations are a great comfort.  The cost was also very reasonable. Finding a final resting place for my father’s ashes, however, made me conclude that cemeteries are the real racket. 

“Why are some niches more expensive than others?” my mother asked as we reviewed the cemetery columbarium’s “menu.” 

“You want eye level,” I said, “It costs more. High up in the rafters is cheaper.” 

As we reviewed the prices, I chuckled at the capitalistic insanity of it all.  If you wanted to be buried or “inurned” in this Catholic cemetery after lunch – or on a weekend or holiday- you must pay a healthy “overtime fee.” Not that I blame them, however. The Church has a lot of bills to pay. My father, however – God rest his soul – was routinely driven into apoplectic fits over how the Church’s cemeteries cared for its dead. One time, outraged over the trash routinely found strewn over his parent’s grave, he collected it all and dumped it outside the responsible bishop’s office. Yeah, we Dublanicas snap sometimes. 

A while later, after pondering all this funereal stuff, I found myself thinking about The Loved Onea satirical 60’s film about the death industry. Filmed in black and white and adapted from a novelette by Evelyn Waugh, it’s about a young Englishmen who goes to live in LA with his uncle, a knighted movie producer played by John Gielgud who, soon after his nephew’s arrival, hangs himself after getting sacked from the studio he’s worked at for thirty years. Left with making the final arrangements, the young man find himself drawn into a fantastical world of unscrupulous batshit morticians and falling in love with one of the funeral home’s cosmeticians. Trust me, just watching Liberace upselling caskets is worth the price of admission. 

Johnathan Winters also plays multiple roles in the movie, including the owner of the whole absurd death conglomerate – Whispering Glades. A pious and unctuous minister in public, he’s a psychopathically ruthless businessman in private. When told he could make millions converting his cemetery into a retirement community, he grouses over how to accomplish this feat and growls the best line in the movie – which I say whenever I pass a graveyard:

There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs of my property.”

As the film’s poster proclaims, “This movie has something to offend everybody!” so I’ll admit it’s not for everyone – and I wouldn’t watch it soon after a loved one has passed – but it’s side splittingly funny. I’ll watch it, of course, because humor is how I handle tough times – but I’m also aware that grief cannot be denied. So far, I have cried in the shower, the car, workplace restrooms, and it all seemingly comes out of the blue. Upon awakening this morning, I forgot for a moment that my father had died and, when I remembered he was now ashes waiting to be interred, I lost it. I’m sure there will be many days like these ahead. Grief is love that has nowhere to go. 

Of course, the good people at my dad’s funeral home were the complete opposite of the craven maniacs at Whispering Glades and, as I struggled to find a way to thank them for all their kindness, I was hit with a stroke of genius. So, I hopped on Amazon, made a purchase and, when it arrived the next day, put it in my car. When I go to pay the bill later this week, I’ll give them a DVD of The Loved One. I’m sure they will enjoy it. 

That or never open the door when I come calling again. 

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