The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

DEATH AND NO TEXAS: Funeral homes are pretty fascinating places, all in all, though you might not think so if you work in one. That’s a pity, really, a case of familiarity breeding contempt, if you will—the sheer economic wonder of the place just eludes you. Here is a commercial enterprise that does a thriving business every year despite the fact that almost all of its potential customers don’t want to have anything to do with it and would just as soon never have to use its services at all. You’d have to work in the public schools to find something equally unpopular, and public education only works because the government requires the kids to show up. Funeral homes just have to wait for the customers to drop in, to the financial discomfort of the life insurance industry, a business that prefers to have people insure themselves against the inevitable, which is profitable, rather than the inevitable actually occurring, which is not.

Unless, of course, you own a funeral home, where the inevitable brings in money hand over fist. When you own your own funeral home, for example, people will come to you and buy big ticket items that wouldn’t dream of buying otherwise and these same customers will take your word about these items and what they will do or not do, as the case may be. If every business in the country could get away with this, the number of lawsuits filed each year in the United States would drop faster than Sister Mary Frances’ jaw at a strip club. The sheer audacity of some of these claims and the fact that anyone can make them with a perfectly straight face is nothing short of positively breathtaking.

For example, if you go to your average American funeral home, someone on staff will be more than happy to sell you a coffin that is absolutely, positively, no two ways about it guaranteed not to leak for five hundred years. Think about that for a second. How do you check that claim? Can you go to your local public library and check the Consumer Reports for May 1506 and take a look at the product rating they gave this particular line of caskets before you go running home to tell your assembled loved ones that your Uncle Harry can now go for half a millennium without worrying about getting his feet wet? Will the manufacturer refund your money if some water manages to get into the thing in 2247? Are all the parts and all the workmanship under warranty for all of that time, or will the guarantee lapse after, say, three hundred years? Then, of course, why would Uncle Harry worry about getting a leaky coffin in the first place, since he has finally arrived at that happy point in his terrestrial existence when he doesn’t really have to worry about whether or not he’s going to catch a cold.

Following the purchase of the coffin, which is expensive enough, considering only one person gets to use the thing, there is the question of where do you put it once you’ve got Uncle Harry in it. This might seem an easy decision to make, but you would be incorrect in your assumption. Whether you like it or not, you can’t bury Uncle Harry out in the back yard next to your dog that got run over when you were six years old. No indeed, Uncle Harry has to go to the cemetery, and to go to the cemetery you must have a plot, and buying a cemetery plot is as full of twists and turns, shifts and bad faith as any other real estate deal.

First, location, location, location; no matter what anyone says about just dump me anywhere, the fact is everyone wants a tomb with a view, even if Uncle Harry won’t be able to see it, what with his watertight coffin in the way. People fight over getting a prime site in the cemetery are willing to shell out big bucks to get what they want, even if they have to sublet to a family of illegal aliens and a troupe of street mimes in order to pay the maintenance charges, and all this for a place too small to hang your hat, assuming Uncle Harry really needs a hat for the next five hundred years. Hats would seem purely optional at this point, I think; it’s really a question of personal preference.

In any case, you will, at the end of this long and drawn out process, be the proud owner of a plot of land too small to qualify as an apartment in Manhattan, and you will own said plot in perpetuity. This statement is a bit of a howler, I think, and is right up there with the coffin not leaking for five hundred years in audacity, because by the time perpetuity comes around to ask you for a loan or whether or not she can go to the senior prom with that way cool Hell’s Angel from Martian Colony #9 you will be in no condition to check out what perpetuity has to say about your owning the land. I imagine old Khufu thought he had a lock on all he surveyed at Giza, courtesy of his building the Great Pyramid, breaking the Pyramid Workers Union, and his casual dismissal of OSHA regulations. No sooner was he dead than every other Pharaoh decided he just had to have a pyramid in the same neighborhood and the damn things kept popping up around old Khufu like geometric mushrooms. Ramses II was another big shot who bought the line about owning his plot forever, and where is he now? It’s just as dead as he is, or maybe even deader, since Ramses has a good civil service job these days as an exhibit in the Cairo Museum. I think there’s a garage over the spot where they buried him the first time, but I could be wrong about that.

It’s not likely that Uncle Harry would get a gig as good as Ramses got, although when you think about it, this is a big comedown for Ramses, steady as the job is. One day you’re the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, and all of sudden it’s three thousand years later and you’re stuck in a glass box with all of your relatives nearby and snot nosed little kids who don’t want to be there in the museum in the first place are staring at you through the glass and going, EEEEWWWWWW, that’s gross! (Or the Arabic equivalent thereof). That probably won’t happen for Uncle Harry. Three thousand years on he’ll be in a museum somewhere, stuffed in a drawer somewhere along with a lot of fifth century American Indians and whatever the archaeologist could find of your grandmother as well. So much for all the money you spent for perpetuity; all you really got for the money was some space in the drawer next to the janitor’s lunch. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?


  • At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I love your article. I became interested in the funeral industry after having to have my father disinterred from a Florida cemetery just to find that inside the vault was filled with water. They had to leave the casket out in the grounds to let it drain before they could load him up to be taken to the crematory. I had nightmares for months.

    Somehow I ended up dating that funeral director that helped me years later and I am intimately knowledgable of the entire industry.

    Personally, I dont want to be buried (they have already paved roads over cenetaries in Savannah, Ga and New Orleans, I dont want to be autopsied (do you realize what they do to you? even weigh your lungs?), I dont want a viewing because I dont want to be embalmed (I dont want some person I dont know viewing my naked body and dressing me), and I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered. Its the cleanest best option after everything I have experienced.

    Sarah from Florida


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