Undertakers and Greed
Thomas Lynch

My father called in sick one day, went to the doctor who put him in the hospital, did a biopsy, sewed him back up and said adios. One month later he was dead of cancer.

My mother was devastated. She had no time to prepare for the death of her lifetime mate. My youngest brother was only seventeen and my middle brother was in Vietnam. It fell to me as the eldest to "make the arrangements."

The only thing I remember of the entire debacle is when my mother and I were at the mortuary picking out a casket. They took us into the casket sales room. They had bronze and silver and gold and teak and mahogany, all with satin and silver linings, each more expensive than the next. I was appalled, my mother was totally confused. I asked for something less expensive and they took us into a dark back room. What they said was, in effect, "If you don't really care for the deceased, we have this pine box here." I said, "We'll take it." End of discussion, end of my memories of my father's funeral.

Years later the brother who had been in Vietnam died of an overdose of heroin. Now mom had lost not only her mother and father and sisters and husband but one of her sons. She was close to eighty-years-old and unable to deal with the loss of her favorite son. The other brother curled up in a fetal position and refused to deal with his big brother's death. O.K., I can do it, I'm tough as nails.

The brother who was not the fetal one but the dead one had left a mess behind: a wife who used to be my best friend and an adopted son and a girlfriend I thought was a bit of a bitch and who later turned out to be a whole lot of bitch. He was found dead with a needle in his arm.

Since I was the only one who had met girlfriend, I called her to make arrangements to pick up some clothes in which to bury him, and to get his personal effects. She hung up on me. Her sister allowed us in the apartment to get the burial clothes, but all of his personal things --- including his car --- had disappeared.

On to the mortuary and the "arrangements." Mom, me, wife and her three sisters. No girlfriend, thank god.

The sleazy guy in the black suit and too much cologne zoned right in on mom, patted her hand, put his arm around her and called her by her first name. She didn't know what was going on. I told him to f--k off and deal with me. Estranged wife and her sisters were babbling.

Cremation and what to do with the "cremains" was the question of the day. Mr. Sleaze suggested a nice gold urn. I said my brother was not the gold urn type. "Fine," he said, "his cremains will be buried in the equivalent of a shoe box." "Good, they can give you an enema and bury you in a shoe box." I didn't say it but I thought it.

We all went to our separate homes. Mom was instructed to bring burial clothes back that night which she dutifully did. Someone there (a maid or a janitor?) told her Patrick needed underwear and socks so out my mother goes at ten o'clock of a Sunday evening frantically searching for a place to buy underwear and socks. The next day when I confronted our friendly funeral director with this, he said he didn't know who could have said such a thing. Did my mother make it up?

Now, the family (me, mom, estranged wife and three sisters) all meet a mom's house to plan the service. Sister #1 is a born again something and her boyfriend is a minister. Sister #2 communes with nature (talks with trees) and her boyfriend is a recovering alcoholic Vietnam vet. Sister #3 is an airhead and I don't remember if she has a boyfriend.

Minister wants to conduct "the service." Sister #2 wants to put off the funeral for a few days until we each compose good-bye thoughts to Patrick which we will share with everyone at the service. Sister #3, mom, estranged wife and I say nothing. Mom is in a daze. I take her into her bedroom and close the door. Does she want a "minister?" Would Pat? No. Does she want speeches? No. Does she want the casket open or closed? Closed. O.K., this is how it is going to be, gang. Now everyone go home and try to yet some rest. Estranged wife hugs me gratefully, they all leave and I put mom to bed.

Enough! The day of the funeral I blew it. Little brother had uncurled from his fetal position just enough to attend. We were in a line --- mom, little brother, me, my daughter and her husband, going into the "chapel" or whatever they called it. Little brother, being the tallest, saw it first. The casket was open. We didn't expect it. He bolted, almost knocking me down. I didn't bolt, just froze. I couldn't go in. I didn't want to see my brother dead. I wanted to remember him alive. But "they" had their open casket and their minister and their speeches and my eighty-year-old mom was the only one strong enough to go through with it. An old family friend came out of the "viewing room" and told me Patrick looked really good. "How can he look good?" I said: "He's dead." She told me to take a Valium.

I don't remember anything after that until we were home at mom's and I was feeling nauseous and had to get on a plane to fly home. My friend Carlos picked me up at the airport in San Diego and took me to dinner. "Do you want to talk about it?" "No." Are you hungry?" "No." Then we went out and ate about $75 worth of sushi and I talked about it for two hours. He told me to write it. I said, not yet, but someday.

Where was Thomas Lynch when we needed him? Funny, compassionate and looking like an Irish leprechaun, he makes the undertaking business seem almost human. I was particularly touched by his description of the mortician who spent the entire night reconstructing the head and face of a young girl who had been raped and whose head had been bashed in with a baseball bat. Her mother wanted to see her one last time. She did.

Someone has to do it. Better someone with humor and compassion and love. Good for you --- Thomas Lynch: good for you.

--- jane a. shannon

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