There was no one there when they first walked in. First thing in the morning, but it'd been hot already, thick hot, that heat that sticks a sweat at the scalp and forces comment between strangers. The Bucktrout funeral home had a surprisingly large foyer, sparsely decorated for new-found absence, and equally empty of current presence. A small pewter dish filled with fresh peppermint life savers, bright white and individually unwrapped, waited on an occasional table by the front door. They stood for a polite two-three moments, cooling themselves in the a/c, the mother declining the skirted sofa seat or the Chippendale chair, then one of the daughters walked into a back office, looking for some kind of receptionist. The office was also empty, though a mini desk fan was set on HI, a spray of pink plastic streamers attached to its plastic protective plate softly flapping and tangling in its small mute wake. The other daughter hallooed, and a pregnant lady in a red sleeveless dress appeared and said the manager would be out directly. She showed the women into an even bigger side-room, subdivided inside by two-thirds walls, its antechamber marked by posters of golf balls and sunrises, doves and butterflies, cued personal goodbyes made more personal by way of literal release and red-rimmed revival, a final tee-off, one last long drive. The two-third walls were pointedly hung with sample memorial books and service cards, crystal and silver ecumenical geegaws, seven sorts of miniaturized vaults, otherwise known as burial boxes, and, nosing around the corners, representative casket-stubs racked alongside square swatches of their pleated satin linings.
They sat at the kidney-shaped table, then had to stand, to shake hands with the man in the gray gabardine suit with a flag lapel button and nice yellow tie. His collar was still crisp from its cardboard, his shirt still fresh from its cellophane, though his hair was still beaded to his forehead, and he smelt of the hot tar outside. They all sat then, and explained more or less of the situation, or at least the mother's intent, to decide, ahead of time, on some of what she wanted. The funeral director showed them a blue binder with various package deals, ranging from the tailor-made elaborate to the very bare bones, for if there was not to be a viewing, there was no need to embalm, and to be perfectly honest, the more purchased from a cemetery, the deeper went that discount. The mother selected the basic graveside package, which covered transportation, one-way, the services of a funeral director and his staff, the filing of all necessary documents, and an obituary in the daily paper of one's choice. The casket was extra, of course, and it was best to hold off on marker and vault, for that discount.
The manager withdrew as the mother and her two daughters surveyed the coffin-tips. There were metal caskets in bronze, copper, and stainless-steel, shining black, white, blue, pink, and a bright gunmetal called platinum, for those who died In Service; the wooden nubs were mahogany, cherry, oak, maple, poplar and burled walnut, and all appeared part of the Ethan Allen Classic Collection. Around another corner, there were miniature urns categorized as Cast Bronze, Sheet Bronze, Wood, Marble, Keepsake, and the ancient Oriental art of the handcrafted Cloisonné Collection, including, but not limited to, Dusty Rose, Royal Blue, Magnolia Pink, Summer Elegance, Spring Elegance, Floral Blush, Blue Dynasty, Gold Dynasty, Opal, Onyx, and Minuet. A cardboard laminate urn container looked like a sturdy shoebox, a cardboard laminate coffin like a child's captain's bed.
Mother found one wooden one that was acceptable, but not ideal. Cherry, with brass antiqued handles, a quilted white lining. The director reappeared, and noting the dissatisfaction, disappeared again, to see if there were other options in other binders out back. A selection was discovered, and the Monticello, a darker mahogany, with muted bronze grips and a plainer ivory interior, was pronounced perfect. Next, the director inquired as to floral arrangements, and provided three sets of green binders with various choices, each choice categorized by dominant floral composition, each composition schematized by number and type of flower so costs could be conveniently trimmed by subtracting some subset thereof. The configurations included casket-sprays, Standing Flower Covered Crosses/Standing Flower Covered Hearts/Standing Flower Sprays, urn wreaths, standing wreaths, baskets of flowers, Arrangements and Flower Bouquets. There were assortments dominated by dark American roses, African daisies, orchids, violets, pine sprays and your more exotic lilies of the valley. There were standard arrangements, such as Treasured Memories, Vibrant Sympathy, In Our Thoughts, Fond Reflections, Weeping Lilies, Glory Be, Broken Heart/Bleeding Heart, Our Hearts Speak to You, Cherished Farewell, Solemn Words, Supreme Sympathy, Gently Into the Ever After, and seasonal variations of all varieties, and everything reeked of condensed sentiment.
They leafed through each binder twice. The mother liked mostly white, mostly orchids. One of the daughters thought the Blessings of the Earth arrangement quite nice, and the other wondered about the general absence of heather. The mother didn't know. She closed the binder at the Elegant Affection page and said to the funeral director: "I am dying but they don't know when. Six months without treatment. They're going to do some radiation, and if that goes well, some chemotherapy. There's no cure, but there may be some delay," said Mother, "I can't possibly select flowers now, not knowing what will be appropriately seasonal then."
The funeral director nodded absolutely and smiled. He heard her grief and their thick-wristed confusion, just as he'd heard the moans and sobs and cold-choked emotions of the ones yesterday and the ones come later this afternoon, the blubbering and the constipate, the ones who clutched twisted teats of tissue and the ones who smoothed their hair while looking in the shining caskets, the ones who wanted and the ones who wanted not, each one of whom would turn in turn to him for professional comfort, to delay decay, perhaps, at least it to conceal, to put death inside a bright and pretty box, in silver, perhaps, or blue steel.
For in this our loves reveal: we are set upon this earth but a little while, and as the father, beside the nest, cheers his fearful son, this will as well will be done, glad as it is due, for it does not become a man of woe to feel the sorrow too.