19 December 2013

Buying my father's coffin

I was confused. I thought were were going to the funeral home for some oven-side ceremony before my father's cremation. So I wore a suit, and I was filled with a certain amount of dread. But I was wrong. It was to be more of a sales session to determine the cost of the disposition of his corpse.

It was a sunny autumn day. In Colorado, you often have clear, hard sunshine when you'd prefer gloomy, low clouds.

The funeral home was a not unattractive beige stucco building. A stained glass window of a swirling tree was the centerpiece of a lobby. To the right, some memorial service or celebration of life was underway. You could tell, because some men wore suits and the little girls were dressed. It felt like a church function, but not an actual service. Overall, the home took its cues from suburban church architecture. Stained glass and couches. Thick comfy carpets and domed ceilings. 

Not Mr. Moon. But pretty close.

An attractive young woman greeted my wife, my new stepmother and me. She managed to project cheeriness with a readiness to offer sympathy. She asked our business and relayed our information. 

The place smelled of woodsmoke. Which made me think of fires, ovens and ashes.

Then, the nice young woman ushered in a tall, moon-faced fellow whom she introduced as, of course, Mr. Moon. We went to a side room farther in the depths of the building. We took our seats at a large table. A computer monitor was on my left, another stained glass tree faced me, and a subdued landscape featuring a country road hung on my right.

Mr. Moon spoke in a hollow, breathy bass voice. He apologized in advance because he'd have to excuse himself during our meetings to leave. He'd had something at lunch that was causing him distress. A whiff of diarrhea entered the experience.

Styles to match every taste.

Mr. Moon managed to blend the worst elements of a Presbyterian deacon and used car salesman in his manner.  It made me wonder how he managed to do business of any kind at all. Maybe the grief of his prospects made them ignore his combination of sepulchral solemnity and pseudo-sympathetic sleaze.

To my relief, it turned out we'd be making arrangements and payments and not participating in a cremation ceremony at all. My shrewd stepmother held him to the firefighter's discount which made him wince.He laid out the options for services and cremations like a car salesman would, working hard for the upsell. We declined them all because we'd already planned other services of our own.

He excused himself. We tried not to think about Mr. Moon, his intestinal distress and its probable results, and failed. When he came back, I signed the paper work allowing them to transport his body to a central crematorium and specifying the treatment of his ashes.

Then Mr. Moon led us to a side room where the caskets and urns were on display. Urns come in a lot of styles, with crosses, stars of David, American eagles and other gewgaws plastered on them. Mournful imagery, of the kind favored in 19th century graveyards and the album covers of Goth bands, is not available. No weeping nymphs or mothers here. The cost of them was breathtaking. The functional and embarrassingly plain urns started around $200. This is for a box you could buy at Home Depot for $10, maybe $15.

But of course you feel like a penny-pinching peasant when you think thoughts like this in these circumstances. It's . . . Dad, after all. But, he's dead. And they're ashes.

We bought a low-end urn. My stepmother is not sentimental. I'm not either, at least, not when it comes to the storage of ashes.

Yes. that's the Last Supper on a casket handle. photo via the Denver Post.
Then Mr. Moon drew our attention to the caskets. You have to have a casket, even if the body is to be cremated. A law, apparently. he showed us a nice mahogany number for $7,000. Then, and the symptoms must have hit him really goddam hard because otherwise he never would have left at this critical point in the spiel, he excused himself again.

We looked good in the pink light of the room. We considered the esthetics of coffins. They all seemed overdone to me, fat boxes inspired by some mid-70s Detroit esthetic of pomp and crap. The extortionary pricing took away any shame any of us might have had in looking cheap. 

But even knowing the sales machinery in operation, I paused. Would it mean anything? A fancy coffin? Would that make up for the times I'd politely begged off from seeing him? Would it smooth over the hatred I'd felt for him in the past? Could a coffin salve the past?

DId the Egyptians have a point? What if I sent him to an afterworld lacking some critical thing -- what would it be? Would cremation mean his soul would wander the earth, homeless? What if I was wrong about my beliefs? They didn't seem particularly well founded, or based on anything much at all.

I remembered my aunt in her coffin last January. The dead are so utterly dead. The soul, or whatever you want to name it, the personality, the animating snap of neurons, whatever it is that makes a person a person on this earth, in this frame, was gone. 

Did it matter? I wanted it to matter. But I didn't see the means or the tools in the showroom, in that funeral home, to make it different.

Mr. Moon came back.

My stepmother asked for the least expensive option.

It was on a bottom shelf, barely visible under the gleaming silver and shiny blonde wood models.

A cardboard box. Really. Just picture the box a refrigerator comes in, turn it gray and add some paper sheets and a white pillow on the inside. It cost $75. We ordered it.

I signed the paperwork and a check for $4,500.

With the odor of woodsmoke still in our nostrils, we decided not to have a bite to eat. 

Instead, we walked across the parking lot in the sunshine to our cars.


  1. Even though we are "estranged" and will remain so, condolences from the heart. I once saw that man, and liked him.
    Having lost someone close at the same time I feel what you went through.

  2. Thank you for your condolences. I appreciate the sentiment very deeply, and that you took time to express them. Best wishes to you.