The Mourners, by William Rogers
Michael X. Hope, age 49 died of a heart attack on March 31 at the Avenue A Funeral Parlor. Ironically, he had just completed the necessary arrangements for his own eventual funeral. A doctor who knew the deceased happened to be present in the death room on unrelated business. The doctor completed the death certificate and the body was taken downstairs to be prepared for the funeral several days later. Thus Mr. Hope entered the premesis alive and left several days later dead.
Born in Alaska, Mr. Hope moved to Gainesville, Florida graduating from the University of Florida. Over the last several decades he lived in Manhattan where he married three times, the first ending in divorce and the second ending in his wife’s death. He was a life insurance broker until burdensome regulations of that industry induced him to become a stock market day trader. As a young man he took wetlands photographs of alligators (for which he won several awards). Of late he wrote plays, but was still awaiting a first success.
He is survived by his son Michael Jr., his first wife Valerie Marks, and his estranged third wife Jennifer (Boudine) Hope, none of whose current whereabouts are known. Mr. Hope was the son of James Hope and Vera (Davis) Hope, both from Alaska but now deceased. Visitors may view his remains Friday April 3 at the Avenue A Funeral Parlor. The cremated remains of Mr. Hope will be cast to the wind over Lower New York Bay from a private yacht (see Avenue A funeral director for yacht cruise-tickets and launch location).
In business for nearly sixty years The Avenue A Funeral Parlor offers a full line of services that, among other things, help the bereaved get death certificates and cremation permits. Many families in the East Village have made use of this facility. The storefront sits between a pet store on one side and a nail salon on the other. The funeral parlor’s name is printed on an awning that reaches to the curb over a twelve-foot wide sidewalk.
The first visitor has just entered to pay her last respects to Mr. Hope. She’s greeted by a subdued gray-suited, gray-haired employee of the funeral home, named Jonathan, and shown to a reception area to hang up her overcoat and sign the funeral register. Mr. Hope’s casket can be seen through a half open door in an adjacent room to the right. The casket sits on its bier in front of folded tan drapes that hang from ceiling to floor. Two ornate floor lamps with U-shaped translucent glass globes adorn either side of the casket, casting a pinkish hue. At the moment the copper casket with beige velvet interior is closed. Attached in front of the bier is a bench for those who wish to kneel. Caskets can cost more than $6000 for copper or as little as $100 for corrugated cardboard. Steel ones run the gamut in between, while those made of wood can be had for a $1000 or more.
The slim women of 35 doesn’t look through the door toward the casket, instead taking her time to sign the register. She then enters the chapel to the left, as if waiting for others to arrive before she views the body. The chapel with a sound-absorbing white ceiling has ten solid red oak pews that each can comfortably accommodate eight mourners or so. There is space at the front for speakers to address the assembled. The woman—who wears a dark-colored pantsuit, white blouse, and beret—sits down in the last pew and takes out an Apple i-Pad, perhaps to recheck the announced time for the funeral.
Twenty minutes later seven people stand around the casket, some averting their eyes and some glancing from time to time at the deceased’s now forever closed eyes. The woman who had arrived early stands next to a much older woman dressed in a black dress, black shoes, and demure black hat.
The younger woman asks, “Were you good friends with the deceased?”
The older woman gasps for air, hesitates, and answers, “He lived across the street from me. We didn’t talk but I would gossip nice days on the sidewalk with a woman I thought was his wife. Now I’m not sure who she was. It’s terrible. There have been two deaths on the block in the last six months. I think we’re all destined to go. I don’t want to be a burden on my daughter and her husband. In the old days we had burial insurance. The premiums collector would come by each month and we’d pay him a dollar on the policy. But the company went broke. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s just terrible!”
The older woman now walks over to the casket, uses the kneeler, and blesses herself as she momentarily looks at the body. She then stands up and walks back to the younger woman.
Having regained her composure the older woman asks, “What about you? Did you know him well?
The younger woman nods twice and then slowly strolls over to where the others stand talking in subdued tones. A man of about sixty is telling the group about the deceased’s third wife and son, whose whereabouts are still unknown.
He’s saying, “You’d think they would have had the class to show up today. Mr. Fortune the funeral director tried to locate the wife with the address Hope gave him just before it happened. She was a lot younger than Hope. I bet she married him just for his money.”
Another older man in the group asks, “What about the son?”
The first man squints his eyes and blurts out, “He’s no good! NG! I understand he’s a pothead. He got money from the old man for tuition this year and spent it on some college tramp.”
Two of the women in this group of seven now wander off together toward the side of the room.
The younger of the two moans, “It’s amazing how some people can be so nasty. It’s possible that the relatives don’t yet know what’s happened. He only passed away three days ago.”
The funeral director now enters the viewing area and softly says, “I just got an email from Mr. Hope’s current wife. Apparently she’s ecology minded and wants him buried under a newly planted tree that will slowly consume his bodily fluids and so on. I’ve just consulted an expert. It seems you can’t just bury someone under a tree. You have to let the dirt settle after the internment. The new tree is then planted over the burial spot several months later. In the meantime a stick can mark the location of the buried body in its corrugated cardboard casket.”
Another mourner, a Mr. Finnegan, asks, “But didn’t Mr. Hope ask to be cremated?”
“Yes Michael Hope did,” the funeral director concedes, “I’ll have to consult an internments lawyer.”
A second mourner Leonard Berlin looks at Finnegan and says, “Actually I’ve heard even crazier things. Some funerals let the deceased be posed for viewing rather than just laid out. One guy had a steering wheel placed in his coffin so he could “drive” his favorite car. Another guy was buried sitting on his motorcycle. The family paid for two burial sites side by side. And someone who had been murdered was tethered against a wall for viewing because he wanted to go out on his feet rather than lying down.”
The funeral director thoughtfully adds, “Well as a matter of fact Michael provided funds so I could put several hundred dollars of lottery tickets in his coffin and distribute free lottery tickets to the assembled here. But please don’t scratch the tickets to see if you’ve won anything until the viewing is over. He was a day trader in the stock market and thought of what he did as gambling. I asked if he’d rather have stock certificates put in his coffin; but he said no.”
Just then an elderly mourner begins to sob uncontrollably.
When she realizes everyone is looking she explains, “I’m Italian. We sometimes cry at funerals. Please forgive me!”
The funeral director quickly says, “This is a sad time Mrs. Valente. Your sentiment is understandable. Just last week I had a group who cried together for an extended time. Then they got into a dispute over which one of them the deceased loved more. I had to stand among them to stop a fight. Just then a late arrival strolled up to the casket and yelled ‘Yes!’ in Russian, apparently out of raw hatred for the deceased mob member. I asked the man to leave lest one of the now seething mourners would knock him down and maybe rock the casket off its bier and cause the body to tumble onto the floor.”
Mrs. Valente smiles and says, “Thank you Mr. Fortune. I won’t start any fights while I’m here.
Mr. Furtune holds out his hand and says, “I know you won’t.”
Mr. Berlin then inquires, “Isn’t it time for the tribute?”
Of course he’s right. Someone should give a speech or eulogy. Maybe someone else should read a poem, cite a scripture, or even sing a song. Some funerals arrange for a band to perform several of the person’s favorite songs. On rare occasions a photographer may be hired to take pictures of the casket, the deceased and the mourners. On even rarer occasions the body may be taken out of the casket and posed in various ways with the mourners. Perhaps the deceased can be propped up at a “poker” table with several of the mourners holding playing cards and betting their chips.
Later will come the procession, where mourners follow the hearse in their cars or in limousines to the burial site. In some cultures the procession takes place on foot. On one occasion in a distant land the deceased being carried in a coffin on the shoulders of six mourners was spilled onto the roadway when they lost control of their emotions.
Then comes the internment when the casket or urn arrives at its final resting place or when the ashes are scattered. Here again, songs, poems, or speeches might be performed. A reception can take place afterwards at a restaurant or at family member’s home. Mourners can say nice things about the deceased to grieve and remember.
At some point the official grieving ends and people get back to their lives. Some never get over the death. Others get over it easily. Still others now have a handy topic for future social conversations. The people in the funeral business have made some money, as might an inheritance lawyer or two. A few relatives of the deceased may now be a little wealthier. In more exotic cultures the body may be exhumed in a couple of months for a family get-together with an outdoors meal and then re-buried.
An hour after Michael Hope’s funeral, Mr. Fortune is talking with the delivery guy who brings new caskets purchased by families who’ve just lost someone.
The delivery guy is saying, “I came by before and decided to go have a snack at the restaurant on the corner. I didn’t want to disturb things while you had mourners.”
Mr. Fortune explains, “Thanks, but they were all paid mourners who didn’t know the deceased. It was an optional funeral expense arranged for by the guy himself. He suspected no one he knew would bother attending. No one did.”