When I left work today, I ran into my boss in the hallway. “Leaving early?” he said. 

“I have to go grave shopping today,” I said, putting on what I thought was an appropriately solemn look. “Find a place for my father’s ashes. Volunteers are covering the pantry.” 

“Well, good luck, That’s never fun.” 

Half an hour later, I pulled in front of a gigantic mausoleum at a Catholic cemetery and headed for the office. Inside, workmen were busy with power tools somewhere in the cavernous building and, as the sounds echoed of the marble walls, I turned down the volume on my hearing aids. So much for “Heavenly Rest.”

“Mr. Dublanica,” the salesmen said, greeting me. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” 

“Thank you.” 

“I apologize for the noise,” he said. “We’re building a new wing in the columbarium.”  

“That’s okay,” I said, “I doubt the guests will notice.” In response, the salesman’s mouth pulled into a tight, “I guess it takes all kinds,” smile. 

After my brother and mother arrived, the salesman gave us a tour and went over options and prices. Some of the niches were as cheap as $1200 while others were over thirty grand. There were niches fronted with marble while others had transparent glass which allowed you to see the urns, some of which were quite ornate. But, as with all real estate, the costs depended on location, location, location, The higher up or nearer to the ground you went, the lower the price. Eye level? You pay. 

As we walked around, I noted that many of the spots were pre-purchased with the name and birth dates listed sans expiration date. One was a double for a couple named Vito and Angela with birth years in the 1980’s and no death date. Now that’s thinking ahead. But what happens if one of them dies and the other remarries? Something tells me Vito won’t be up for an eternal threesome. Or maybe he would be. 

Lost in my humorous reverie, I half listened as the salesman rattled off an endless array of internment options. Marble, flat glass or curved? Upstairs or down? High up in the rafters or foot level? “Would you like a picture cameo?” he asked. “It’s not a photo. It’s a hand fired enamel portrait. Guaranteed to last for generations.” 

“How much are the glass niches?” my mother asked, leading to quotes that were all over the place. Many of the choicest niches, however – even those without markings – were already spoken for.  Slightly irritated, I remembered how my yuppie restaurant customers freaked when told that empty best table in the house was already reserved. So sorry

“I wonder if you get a discount if you’re by the fire extinguisher,” my brother muttered. 

‘Maybe we should get a plot outside and bury him,” my mother said. “And get a headstone.” Having already reviewed the prices and knowing an “al fresco” option would cost even more, I tried to gently dissuade my mom from that course of action. “Mom,” I said. “It’s air conditioned and heated in here. It’s open every day except Christmas, wheelchair accessible and there’s a bathroom.” Bathrooms are big when you’re elderly. 

When my mother and brother sauntered off to look around, I turned to the salesman and said, “If I got one of these niches for my wife as a birthday present, how do you think she’d take it?” 

“Would both your names be on it?” 

“Just hers.” 

“I can see that raising a few eyebrows.” 

Looking around as I waited, I noticed an urn with an enameled portrait of a young woman looking at me from behind the glass. She was born after I graduated college and died not long after I got married. Ouch. In a side chapel, I also spied an older man sitting on a bench with a Styrofoam cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, a bunch of books and doodling on a sketch pad. I also noticed there were a lot of Italian names on the walls and idly thought of asking the salesman if Jimmy “Two Face “ Gigante was lying around somewhere waiting for the Rapture. That might’ve been too much. 

When my mother and brother returned, I saw she looked overwhelmed. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. 

“You don’t have to make a decision today, Mom,” I said. “There’s enough set aside to get whatever you want. Sleep on it. Turn it over in your head for a while.” 

“But you want to get this done.” 

I wanted to inter dad’s ashes sooner than later because I wanted to avoid the inertia that leads people to leave their loved ones moldering in a basement until the final trumpet sounds. Judging from the earthquakes and eclipses happening lately, that could be tomorrow. “It’s your decision, mom,” I said. “Take your time.” Dad’s not going anywhere. 

After making our goodbyes and getting the salesman’s card, he escorted us to the door. While we waited for my brother to bring around the car in a sudden downpour, I noticed the man with the Dunkin Donuts cup had taken a break, leaving his belongings on the bench. Probably had to use the convenient bathrooms. Coffee will do that to you. 

Curious, I asked to be excused for a moment and walked over to where the doodling java drinker had been sitting.  And there, through the glass, a portrait of another young person enameled on an urn stared back at me, the inscription stating he died six years ago. He was Dunkin Donut man’s son. “Jesus Christ,” I whispered. 

Suddenly, nothing seemed funny anymore. 

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