A long line of cars crept in procession behind the obsidian limousines along the narrow cemetery road. Each vehicle kept a respectful distance behind the vehicle in front until the lead cars came to a stop. Occupants waited for the riders in the black cars to emerge before getting out and slowly making their way to the tented grave site. Another burial service was about to begin.
Riding around in a limo all day presents the image of wealth and prosperity. You might think of people wearing expensive suits, with drivers in the black caps nodding politely while opening the heavy doors for you. Ferried about town in smooth, quiet comfort. The deep leather seats behind smoked glass. The sunroof. Everybody plays with the sunroof.
To me, these things aren’t reminders of the good life, but something totally different. A ride devoid of happiness, comfort or pleasure. A ride in a limo meant loss. This might be because the only time I’ve been in or around a limousine were those part of our family-owned funeral business, Rossi’s Funeral Home.
Since the age of twelve, my spare time was largely spent wearing a suit either too small or too large, helping out in the family business. The chores were things like handing out prayer cards to guests at services, holding the heavy church doors as people entered, or passing out tissues at the graveside. Kleenex was a required tool for everyone to carry, no matter what duties you were performing for the services. An outpouring of emotion can erupt at any time, you needed to be ready to produce the comfort of a tissue. You’d be amazed how many boxes of tissues a moderately busy funeral home can go through in a week. And smelling salts, because sometimes people just pass out. Don’t ask me why.
The sudden surfacing of emotions tended to come on at the strangest times. One time, I was collecting the “Funeral” placards off cars after a burial and had a strange incident. We hand placards out at the funeral home to those going to the burial, to let the traffic around you know you’re allowed to ignore traffic signals in order to stay with the processional.
An older man handed me his bright yellow placard with the word ‘Funeral’ on it in black text. He started to smile, but almost immediately his weathered face crumbled into a grimace and he began shaking, stifling a sob. I whipped out a tissue from my standard issue dark suit jacket which he took and applied to his eyes.
After a moment, he said, “I’m not sure where that came from. I didn’t even really know the deceased.”
I know where it comes from. Funerals remind people not only of the loved one who just died, but those who have gone before, and that one day we’ll die as well. Pretty heavy stuff.
Way too heavy for me. Which is one of the reasons why I told myself since an early age I’d never end up in the family business. Couldn’t end up in it. Wouldn’t.
Around the age of fifteen I made the mistake of voicing this decision aloud. Uncle Sal is the head funeral director, mortician, and overall big boss since inheriting it from my grandfather in the 1970’s. One day, as we were hosing off the hearse in the cleaning bay next to the funeral home, I casually mentioned to him, a man who had dedicated his life to the profession, that a life in the funeral business wasn’t for me. He’d been spraying water on the wheels to rinse off the soap, while I cleaned the windows with glass cleaner. He stopped and looked at me.
“Oh, you’ve made up your mind, huh?” A slight grim tugged at one side of his mouth. “Look, Toby, I’ll be straight with you. You don’t know much about the world or how it works. That’s fine, you’re young, you haven’t been many places. But know this, our family has buried the people of this area for generations. It’s not glamorous, but it’s as important as the local doctor.”
“Sure. Think about it.” he said.
“It’s always a bummer. People crying.” I continued, oblivious of my affront.
“You think doctors enjoying poking and prodding people all day? You haven’t seen it yet, but they have to deliver a lot of bad news, and people break down. Same for us. Except instead of offering medical solutions, we handle the details of the final stage we’re all going to face someday. It’s part of the job. An important job. Speaking for which, redo that window. You left streaks.”
“I didn’t mean to insult you, Uncle Sal.”
He was a large man, large frame with generous features and a booming voice to match. Despite a gruff manner, he was patient with me and his eyes were always kind. “That’s OK.” he said, resuming his spraying of the tires. “One day you’ll know what it all means.”
Several years later, I still had no grasp of what it all means, or how I was supposed to fit into it. This was my problem. Or one of them.
So, where to start? I’m 22, newly armed with a bachelors degree in General Studies from Amherst. Just a week ago I crossed the graduation stage, shook hands with the Dean wearing the traditional gown and hat, and posed for a picture. Although this sequence was repeated for several hundred students, he acted like he knew me, which I appreciated.
Dad said, “For how much we paid this place, he should have slipped you a pair of Patriots tickets with the diploma.”
My diploma was another issue. A General Studies degree announces I’m generally ready for anything, but nothing specifically. Originally I picked that degree track because I had no idea where my interest lay. Three and a half years later nothing moved me to alter that path, so that’s what I finished with.
My cousin, Pete, is the same age as I am, but took a different path after high school. He skipped traditional college, instead choosing to become an undertaker. While working for his dad, he took the two years of course work for a Mortuary degree. Now a funeral director like his father, Pete is full-stride in the working world with several years under his belt in the industry. Unlike me, he’d always liked the work at the funeral home. The outpouring of emotions or the crazy hours or dealing with the dead bodies were things he’d grown up with. He accepted the business was just what it was.
As kids, we used to sneak into the embalming room when no one was paying attention to us and see the dead bodies. I’d be freaked out that the sheet would rise up, and a moan would emanate from underneath as the person came back to life, or worse, became a zombie looking to feast on young flesh.
Knowing my skittish nature, Pete would grab my arm and say, “It’s moving!” and I run from the room, his laughter chasing me. I knew it wasn’t possible, but then again, maybe I didn’t.
Now, Pete was leading the charge to expand the family empire by taking over some less-successful funeral homes in the area. He’s annoying to be around at the moment, because of an aggressive attempt to get me to join the business. Every encounter with him ends with a pitch to lure me into the life, with carrots like ‘steady income’ and ‘generous benefits’.
Like right now, standing in cemetery in Saugus, North of the city of Boston. Pete and I are hiding from the sun in the shade of a large oak tree near the limousines, waiting for the graveside services to complete. We have a little break until we have to drive the family members to a reception at a nearby restaurant. Pete is working his smartphone, checking email or playing angry birds. His face looks the same doing both.
“Good to have you here, Buttnut.” he said, not looking up. He has several nicknames for me, that one being one of the less-offensive. “It’s going to be a busy summer. You hear we’re buying out McGuiness?”
“I’m just subbing in. This isn’t permanent.”
“Oh c’mon. Who’re you kidding? You love this.”
“I need the money. There’s a difference.”
Lacking other employment, and facing the financial squeeze that comes from not having a job after amassing a sizable college debt, I was forced to take what I could get. That meant working for Uncle Sal and Pete when they needed help due to taking on a large service or when someone called in sick last minute. As much as I dislike the work, I’ve helped out on so many services in my life, the job was pretty much second nature for me.
Pete slid the phone into his pocket and shrugged off his suit jacket, holding it out for me to see. “You see this suit I’m wearing? Tax write off. It’s for my job, like a uniform! I have a closet full, I don’t even know how many. You come in with us and you’ll always look good.” He hung his jacket on a limb.
“You smell like embalming fluid.”
“You like that? It’s called ‘Restful’. Chicks love it.”
“The sun is killing me in this thing.” I said, taking off my jacket as well. We were out of sight of the mourners, so could get out of uniform temporarily. I’ve never been comfortable in a suit, yet another reason why the job drives me crazy. On top of that, my white dress shirt seems to have shrunk since I last wore it. The top button at my neck refused to close, so I had to use the knot of the tie to hide the open collar. It might be the 20 pounds I put on since the previous summer. Senior year was a pretty fun time.
Pete retrieved his phone and took another quick scan of it, no doubt checking to see if he’s had any Tinder matches in the last hour. “You know what your problem is?”
“Having to look at your face?” Our natural response to each other was to insult each other, like siblings. Neither of us had a brother, so we treated each other in that role.
He ignores me. “You’re looking all over for something, its right in front of you.”
“Death is right in front of me.” I said.
“And ironically other people’s death is life to us. We help with a difficult part in people’s lives. We pay our bills because of their deaths. It’s the circle of life.”
“You make it sound so Disney.”
“Well, it’s a living. Can be a good one. You work hard and you can retire in your fifties. But a corvette, move to Florida. ”
“That’s your goal?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Your Dad’s still working.”
He snorted. “He’ll never retire. This business is his entire life.”
“You’ll end up just like him one day.”
“You think? I could think of worse.” He said.
“Sure.” I said. “Could be the one in the hearse.”
Pete acts aghast and points to the white tent where the service was still going on. “Have some respect! A man has died. He’ll never see another sunrise, or laugh with his family, or hear the new Lady Gaga song.”
“The man was 95, he got a full chance at laughing and sunrises. And I doubt he was a fan of hers.”
“Hey, I heard from the family that guy was the inventor of taking a number.”
“Taking a number. You know, like in a deli?”
Pete pointed at the crowd of people by the gravesite. “That guy came up with it. He was working for a butcher when he was a kid, and figured that handing out pieces of paper with numbers on them caused less fights.”
“He invented that.”
“Yup.” Pete shrugged. “Apparently some guy from Philly stole the concept and started using it, then it spread all over.”
“Last year you tried to tell me we were burying a woman who had invented the concept of ‘take out’.
“That’s what her niece told me. I believe it.”
“I think you’re bored and you’re making it up.”
“Fair point. But that aside, all those people over there are dealing with a loss. And we make it easier on them.”
“I know the job.”
“Maybe you don’t.” Pete said. “Because if you did, maybe you wouldn’t want some office gig.”
The air was so thick with moisture you could feel the weight of it as you drew it in. “At least they have AC in an office. This is brutal.”
Pete shook his head. “Oh, is that it? It’s hot outside? Big deal. You want to be stuck in an air-conditioned coffin for 30 years? We got fresh air out here, man!” Pete takes in a large breath, swelling up his white shirt and tie to the point I thought buttons were going to fly off. The work schedule gave time to hit the gym during the day, and he kept himself in decent shape. Not quite Jersey Shore shape, but close.
“I like being outside.” He continued. “And cemeteries don’t creep me out, I like it here. It’s quiet. Serene. Kind of like a golf course.”
I looked around at the tombstones standing in rows, their shapes and sizes wide and varied. “Good luck hitting a drive down that fairway.”
He laughed. “Can you imagine? Tough to get golf carts through here too. But really, maybe not on a day like today, but you ever just hung out in a cemetery?”
“Sure. I eat lunch here sometimes. Especially on a fall day. It’s like a park, except no annoying people. Very relaxing. Spread out a blanket. Maybe have a nap.”
“Hanging with former clients?”
“Satisfied clients. They never complain. You should think about it. Give it a chance.”
“Back to the sales pitch?”
“We never left it. You don’t want to be stuck living with your folks forever. If nothing else, working with us will give you a way out, you can get your own place. Then you can actually have a date over.”
Hitting me in my weak spot. Failing to secure job right out of the gate after college left me with few housing options. Announcing to a girl you’d like to have her up to your place, but convincing her to sneak past my folks watching Dancing With The Stars in the living room was not a selling point.
“I’ve got an interview this afternoon. It doesn’t require writing obituaries or showing caskets.” This was a lie, I had no interview. At this point I was trying to end the
“Whatevs. Door is always open, you want to in. I’m going to take over the new place in Weymouth. Remember Mikey? He’s ready to hang it up and move to the Carolina. Dad says you can come in and take my spot at the Medford office. Help run things.”
Mom had hinted that Uncle Sal was going to make an offer to me about joining the business officially. No more just coming in when the work called for extra people, but coming on full time and getting the health insurance, business cards, the whole works. The commitment.
The new growth had been a blessing and a curse for uncle Sal. The combined funeral homes could share resources, people, inventory, vehicles. At the same time, the biggest impediment to growth was finding people they could trust to run the businesses. Uncle Sal no doubt saw me as one day running one of the new acquisitions.
“Tell your Dad thanks, but I’m going to try some other things.” Again, I had nothing else lined up, and had no ideas about what to try. Pete was just not going to let this subject drop. I loved the guy, but he just never dropped a subject.
“You know I’ll help out when you guys need it.”
Pete nodded. “I told him you weren’t ready yet. He asked why, and I said you wanted to go out in the world and see what else is out there.”
“Which is such a bad idea.”
“OK, now I need you to just move on. I’m done talking about this.” The 90 degree heat and 100 percent humidity, combined with his incessant conversation was putting me at my breaking point.
Pete looked at his watch, then over at the assembled crowd by the gravesite.
He gathered his suit jacket and slipped it back on.
“They’re about ready to go drinking. Let’s get the AC going in the cars. You need to cool down.”
I didn’t say anything, just followed him back to the big black vehicles. I picked up an acorn I saw on the grass and threw it half speed at the back of his head. It whistled wide, and he reached behind his back, flipping me the bird but never turning around.
Years ago, the action might have caused a brief wrestling match. Now, we were both too mature for that. Or it was just too damn hot.