My mother died on a Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon I drove over to the funeral home my aunt Marge recommended — friends of the family, Phelan & Sons. The guy I talked to was a Son: sunken-eyed, eerily slow-moving, vaguely Dickensian. He neither expressed sympathy nor shook my hand, just herded me briskly to the coffin room. He followed me as I wandered among the coffins, and was polite when I made up my mind quickly and took the chintzy route: the $800 coffin. It was made of cheesy metal and was plug-ugly, but I was sure Mom would agree that it was less ugly than the polished cherry ones for $4000. “Depends how you define ugly,” I could hear her saying.
We went down the hall to a room that was fancy like a hotel lobby, with music piped in: venerable Broadway hits like “Bali H’ai” and “If I Loved You”, played v-e-r-y slowly on an organ. He left me there, backing out with some excuse I couldn’t hear. I wondered if the purpose was to give me time to repent and go for a better coffin. Travel magazines were spread out in a fan shape on a table so you could think about how to spend your inheritance while you waited. A loose-leaf notebook was full of sample forms filled out with the name Justin X. Ample. A rack of pamphlets included one about grieving for your pet, one about quaint funeral customs around the world, one about how you could have your loved one’s ashes made into a certified, high-quality cremation diamond.
I was reading an article about Tuscany when Phelan returned, carrying a leatherette booklet with forms inside that we were going to fill out together. We sat opposite each other at a fake-wood desk, “Tonight” from West Side Story replaced “Memory” from Cats, and he asked me questions in a mournful voice about Mom and the service and how I wanted to pay. He wrote up my order with a ballpoint pen; perhaps typing it into a computer would have seemed insensitive in the face of death. His pallor was striking, as if the deadness of his clientele were contagious. Now and then a snowflake of dandruff spilled onto his suit jacket from his receding but thick brown hair. Phelan wrote very slowly, hunched over and pressing down hard, concentrating; when I signed, I saw that his handwriting was atrocious and he had misspelled Mom’s middle name. He went away with my credit card, and I read a little more about Tuscan truffles before he came back with a receipt. Then he held out his hand, though not very far, and absently, as if he were already thinking about the next bereaved relative. I didn’t shake it.
The wake was the next day. Mom looked pretty, a bit like Agnes Moorehead in Bewitched. If she hadn’t been wearing her favorite blue dress I might not have known her.
We put her in the ground Friday morning. Two weeks later I got a questionnaire in the mail from the Funeral Directors Association asking me to rate Phelan & Sons. Maybe that’s when I missed Mom most, thinking about what fun it would have been to fill it out with her looking over my shoulder.
Mary Inez Dunn is a fiction writer living in Amherst. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. Until 2010 she lived in Berkeley, and before that in Greenwich Village. Wherever she is, she usually works in a bookstore.