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tearing the rag off the bush again
The Funeral Attendant's Diary PDF E-mail

Standing with great authority at the head of the site, the man in black ceremoniously pushed the button, and the ornate wooden casket started on its final downward journey. Soon, only its lid could be seen. The large flower basket, mostly daisies, became ever more prominent and the stainless turning rods activated by the hidden motor which powered the lowering of the coffin, came clearly in view. Like an elevator reaching the ground floor, this contraption came to a cushioned stop. Conductor-like, the man in black raised his brows, whereupon two heavyset workmen, one white, one black, started taking the apparatus apart and neatly placing its gleaming parts into a black leather case with gray velvet compartments. Hugo disliked this mechanized ritual, he much preferred the old way: four sweating, grunting men lowering the coffin with ropes. Driven by a motor it all was like canned muzak instead of a live performance. The difference? In a live performance the singer can fall off the high note, on muzak there are no surprises. Sure, the mechanism can malfunction, but repairing it becomes a banal matter of engineering, whereas if something goes wrong with the four men and their ropes, it ultimately boils down to a matter of respect.

Once the contraption fully disassembled, the workmen pulled the Astroturf off the mound of wet earth flanking the grave and placed two large spades on it. The funeral director then called on the mourners to shovel the dirt on the coffin. One by one, the men filed to the mound and shoveled, some two, some three spadefuls. The women then joined them and by the time they were all through, maybe a quarter of the dirt had been shoveled. Then they filed back to their air-conditioned cars and left the rest of the job to the two heavyset workmen.

Hugo’s Chevy followed the other cars headed for the reception in a downtown high-rise. The rabbi had announced the precise address and the free parking arrangements. In the elevator Hugo met a very distinguished looking couple, he had noticed them already at the gravesite. The tall bald gentleman with gold-rimmed glasses wore a perfectly pressed black suit without the trace of a wrinkle. The lady in a black silk dress had an exquisite diamond brooch on her chest and wore a black pillbox hat. During the thirty-floor ride up they asked Hugo about his relationship to the man whose body had just been fed to the worms. “Oh, I was a great admirer of his” Hugo wistfully explained nodding his head. “Yes, he was truly unique” the lady picked up, looking first at her brooch to make sure it was not covered by a fold in her dress and then up at her husband, who joined the nodding and sighed his agreement with these praises. At this point the elevator reached its destination and its three occupants headed for the open front door. There, the distinguished lady embraced the weeping widow and they exchanged kisses on both cheeks. The distinguished gentleman kissed the widow on her left cheek and patted her on the back. “You must be strong” was the cliché that left his mouth and called forth a bout of crying from the inconsolable woman. At this moment Hugo embraced the widow, kissed her on both cheeks and was rewarded by a pain-filled smile, which he returned in kind as he proceeded to the buffet to fill his plate.

For the following half hour Hugo exchanged pleasantries with the other mourners, refilled his plate two more times, had two helpings of the assorted pastries and drank wine and soft drinks. Just as the widow was receiving a group of four old friends, Hugo made his way to the door, waved to the widow as if in a big hurry, and took his leave. The major meal of the day behind him, Hugo drove home. Once in his quarters, a furnished room at a transient hotel, he eased out of his clothes, folded them neatly and in his briefs lay down on the bed to read next day’s schedule of funerals.

The words “funeral attendant” best describe Hugo’s occupation. A trim fellow in his early fifties, Hugo has attended one or more funerals every day since shortly after the death of his parents some twenty years earlier. At that time he had been a member of the opera chorus; to this day his is a sonorous tenor voice. When his parents met their tragic end in a car accident caused by his father’s reckless driving, all their assets were seized by the family of the killed occupant of the car they had hit. In Hugo’s life a kind of paralysis set in, and he found himself returning every day to the cemetery, at first to visit his parents’ graves and gradually to just be in the restful cemetery atmosphere and participate in the events unfolding there. Not surprisingly, events that unfold in a cemetery are funerals, so Hugo found himself joining these interment ceremonies, as an accidental observer, a spectator at first. Soon however he started striking up conversations with the bereaved mourners and on a few occasions he was invited to the reception following the funeral. The food was invariably quite good and plentiful. It was thus that the idea was first born in Hugo’s mind: one can subsist on funeral food. With his stomach full, man can walk the earth without difficulty. Of course he needs a place to put his head at night and a car to drive him places if he is not to be at the mercy of public transportation and of the perils that entails. The thirtyish Hugo took inventory of his assets and realized that between his savings and a small inheritance from his maternal grandmother, his rented room and his car maintenance expenses would be plentifully met. With food provided by the bereaved he could lead a retiring existence and would never have to put in another day’s work, he had the Melvillian “I would prefer not to” option open to him. Hugo availed himself of it.

But it takes more than means for man to subsist on. A goal is not of essence, nor is a gauge of success necessary. What is needed though is something to occupy the idle brain, lest it be driven to despair. For Hugo an occupation was carved out of the rituals of death, the funeral rites. Not that Hugo had the slightest interest in the undertaking business. No, for him death itself was magnificent and majestic enough on its own terms to deserve his undivided attention. It is not given to man to get even the vaguest picture of the territory on the other side of the divide, but there is plenty to go by on our side.

Though strictly speaking Hugo was going to funerals for the food, he had a keen enough intellect to see and appreciate certain universals of the death business. True, to earn his lunch, he had to read up on the deceased to the extent of being able to engage in a brief conversation about him or her. The other mourners expect this and even Hugo could feel that by learning a few facts about the person being buried, he had earned the food he then went on to consume. But he saw this as a professional matter, not unlike his singing days, when it was expected of him to be able to count out a bar, or to find the correct pitches without difficulty. In this respect Hugo did what we may call his homework. Take the last funeral, the buried man had been a pianist of some distinction and Hugo knew what Karajan, Solti and Abbado had said about him, it was all there in the pre-funeral handout he had picked up the day before at the cemetery. But this was definitely not what fascinated him.


Hugo was after subtler clues. The moment the coffin starts its descent, the widow will press the hand holding hers. It can be the hand of a daughter, a son, a friend, a neighbor. If this pressure is mild, or outright absent, the widow is relieved to see her mate departing, the marriage most likely was an unhappy one. Men are more self-possessed, but they too change demeanor at this moment and again the magnitude of this change encodes the quality of all those years together.

When the Astroturf cover is removed from the mound of dirt, a collective shiver shakes all those assembled, many ladies grab for their handkerchiefs and men perform the kind of grimaces that push the tears back before they wet the cheeks. Hugo calls this the Astroturf moment, and it had no parallel in the old days when the bare dirt lay in plain view all through the funeral. Hiding the inevitable behind synthetics does not alleviate the pain, it but calls it forth suddenly when the euphemism is exposed.

The elegant couple, there always is one, be the buried one a man or a woman, rich or poor, well educated or blue collar, talented or a fool. One couple always shows up dressed to kill. It can be true elegance as was almost the case for the couple in the elevator, or it can be something utterly inappropriate, gaudy: men wearing golden chains and bracelets, while on their chubby fingers they sport large diamond rings which eclipse their carefully polished nails. It can be richly bosomed hags wearing revealing décolletages, reeking of a pungent mixture of cheap perfume and body odor. One way or another, such a couple will always show up and make its presence felt, from the last row of the mourners or standing by the widow they barely know, the rich relative, the much more successful friend, the jealous competitor, the wealthy admirer, the poor neighbor keeping up appearances.

The part of the service Hugo liked either to skip or to show up late for, was the eulogy in the “mausoleum”, which preceded each interment. Occasionally one of the speakers would let his guard down and pour his heart out and this could be quite moving, but as a rule there would be but a few stiff relatives and friends, and then the fake summation of a life by a rabbi who had never met the dead man and built his eulogy from the data contained in the handout studied by Hugo the day before. To infuse these data with a touch of wisdom he would sprinkle them with biblical and talmudic quotations in Hebrew, which he would then quickly translate into Old English as if God the Merciful, a native Hebrew speaker, had learned the King’s English from Geoffrey Chaucer upon his arrival in heaven, and then busy surveying the Asians and Africans in His care, never bothered to update His knowledge to the age of Microsoft Word.

Hugo remembered only too well every word spoken at his parents’ joint funeral. There were but two speakers, his uncle Teddy and the rabbi. What can you say when a reckless driver kills himself, his wife and the driver of another car? Even the Bible and the Talmud have no contingencies for such an event. Uncle Teddy recalled their growing up in Vilna and inappropriately, given the circumstances, emphasized his late brother’s hot temper. He realized what he had done and tried to extricate himself by ascribing this trait to his brother’s passion for the truth. This was all for the worse, for all assembled knew that Hugo’s father had kept a mistress and had gone to excessive lengths to keep his wife in the dark about that fact. But then, there were but very few people assembled, Hugo, uncle Teddy in his wheelchair, uncle Teddy’s nurse and two neighbors. Before the event already the rabbi must have been aware of this light turnout, so he didn’t even do his customary perfunctory homework, he literally winged it. By the time he was done, if Hugo’s father didn’t qualify for sainthood, it was only on account of the fact that the Jewish faith has no use for saints. He dismissed Hugo’s mother with one sentence about her piano playing. The rabbi’s entire speech was utter nonsense. But it was this speech that was going down, at least for the five people in attendance, as the final word on two lives that ended simultaneously in a cataclysmic event. Be that as it may, there should be one place, Hugo thought, where a more accurate account would be kept. For a fee, the newspapers would publish a two-row death notice couched in death notice jargon, without a word about the meaning of the lives lost, or about the impact of this loss. The only factual information newspaper readers could obtain would be contained in the sensationalistic rendering of the deadly collision a few days earlier. Years later when other much more dramatic crashes will have overshadowed the accident caused by Hugo’s father, even these reports will recede into a statistical figure on vehicular traffic risks, and for all practical purposes the matter of the three lost lives would be closed for ever.

What exactly would be lost by dropping these extinct lives in the rubbish heap of human existence, as an insignificant part of the background noise of bygone times? Hugo’s father had been a shopkeeper, he sold shoes. Nothing fancy, no Ferragamo no Bruno Magli, no, just plain Florsheim and Church and, it should be added, a touch of class in the early Sixties when for a three months trial period he carried I. Miller, but didn’t manage to sell one pair and was dropped by that, then flourishing, now extinct, manufacturer. Among shoe-store keepers Hugo’s father was not a star, he didn’t qualify even as, what in his son’s profession would be called a lesser soloist, a comprimario. It was a living, nothing more. Would anyone remember the short, stocky, nervous man huddling over a footrest measuring feet with his worn gauge? Would they recall his impatient lip-chewing and cuticle-tearing while they agonized between the hush-puppies and the loafers? And yet, wearing one of those very pairs on his feet propped up on a desk, one of his customers may have come up with the program for email or the idea of marketing espresso in the New World. Who is to say that the perfect fit arrived at through the salesman’s careful foot measurements was not responsible for the extreme comfort so essential in keeping the creative mind concentrated on its invention, rather than distracted by the irritation of a callus?

In a sense Hugo’s predicament was hardly very different. He had been in the chorus for nearly a decade when he buried his parents and where were his Ferragamos? True, they gave him to sing the tin-can soldier Ruiz in Il Trovatore, or the second officer in The Barber of Seville. But did the inventor of email, if after an intense workday he was dragged to the opera by his girlfriend, wake up to hear Hugo sing his few bars, after having slept through the duet that preceded them? The best he could hope for were slightly more interesting comprimario parts, maybe the informer in Andrea Chenier, or the police agent in Tosca. Still, all the public would remember would be the fat lady who sang and the fat man who loved her so ardently. Then why go on? By the time he stood listening to the rabbi’s idiotic eulogies of his parents, Hugo knew full well that he was no Pavarotti, worse, he was not at all headed towards a solo career. All singing in the chorus did, was to earn him a livelihood. Except for his daily food he already had that livelihood and funerals could easily make up the difference. You have to wear a dark suit for the occasion and your shirt better be clean, starched and ironed, but at least you don’t have to paint your body black and don a torn fake fur to create the illusion that on stage the Egyptian guards are whipping an Ethiopian warrior and not an aging Jew.

Eating and resting and studying the funeral handouts take up quite some time, but there are some needs in the life of a man that will boil to the surface one way or another. Fortunately, as Hugo soon discovered, one of his fellow transient hotel dwellers was dispensing the appropriate services for a fee. Given Hugo’s willingness to come at odd hours when traffic was low, he qualified for a discount. Hugo’s needs were thus met in full.

Still, for most people relying entirely on one’s own devices can lead to boredom. In the beginning Hugo still attended opera performances every now and then, as a former company member he had free access, but soon he developed a need for a total break with his former existence. A few friends, his accompanist and some fellow singers came by in the early days of his new life, but a transient hotel is not a place to receive visitors. Some of the people he met at funerals invited him for dinner, but there was no way he could reciprocate. Friendship is a two-way street and Hugo was moving on a one-way lane. The end result: Hugo became ever more solitary, more self-relying.

At one point he considered starting a diary and bought himself a spiral notebook. He kept it up for a few months. Every day he would start by tearing out the previous day’s entry, so that the notebook never contained more than one entry. In the beginning he recorded his funeral impressions, but with time a kind of hallucinatory force took over. It first directed him to the coffin-lowering machinery. Its stainless components reassembled themselves into a Schlemmer doll and performed a verbal danse macabre on the page. In the next entry the lady of that day’s elegant couple was floating in her black dress heralding impending doom, only to be replaced one day later by a coarsely painted harpy chasing Hugo back to a bright region teeming with life. This last image so terrified poor Hugo, that he tore it out of the notebook shortly after it was written and burned it over the toilet seat. He abruptly stopped his diary, leaving the notebook empty and much thinner.

So bad was his scare, that for years thereafter no new entry was made. Then once, looking for his reading glasses, he happened on the notebook and recommenced his diaristic activities. He could now tolerate old entries, so that the written part started to accumulate. Verbal rivers were now flowing along the main alleys of the cemetery and pouring their fluid into fresh graves. In defiance of the laws of nature this fluid would flow slowly, noiselessly uphill and flood the hole in which extinct human life was being dumped.

One day Hugo wrote a kind of last will and testament. He didn’t have any significant earthly belongings to bequeath to any heirs, nor did he have any heirs to bequeath his few belongings to. His testament dealt not in goods, but in thoughts, thoughts that badly tormented him. The only conceivable heir to these thoughts was Hugo himself, for who could be expected to even find the diary after his death, let alone read through it, last through all those rivers meandering under heavy oaks and then discover this literally last will. For his own enlightenment then, Hugo attempted to make sense of his profession of funeral attendant living a tranquil, if boring existence. He wrote the words, but they added up to nothing, absolutely nothing. That was his legacy, that was his end. No one was going to market espresso in the New World, echoing the tin can soldier Ruiz’ few bars as sung by Hugo before he started habitually attending funerals for profit, for the benefit of a meal. Nothing, that was all that would be left of him when it came time for his river to flood under the oak trees, nothing meaningful that is. Hugo’s message was that this was fine by him, he did not envision anything cataclysmic in his future, just more routine, lox canapés with the occasional tart caper and some ginger ale to wash them down, and then, after the last turn in the road, a gradual slowing down into nothingness.





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