Daddy was only fifty years old, a country doctor who accepted compensation by whatever means his patients could find. He had gray hair, twinkling blue eyes, large but gentle hands, and a voice and demeanor that put you at ease. Being a doctor, especially in that small town, was his life. He delivered their babies, treated their colds, sutured their torn skin, and cried with and for them when they died. Day or night he performed his labor of love. Until one Saturday morning, about 5:00am, after coming in from a house call, he died.
Daddy hated funerals. He said they were morbid pageantries that served neither the dead nor the living. But Daddy didn’t belong to us alone, he belonged to the town and they needed the funeral.
Of all the tasks required at a time like that, none were more bizarre than shopping for the casket. A bittersweet side note was the fact that the funeral home director, Burl, was one of Daddy’s best friends.
Mom, my sister and I met Burl in the bowels of his funeral home to view and choose a suitable coffin for Daddy’s enforced respite. Walls were lined with caskets of every appropriate color, each with its top open so we could see the lining, both color and texture a matter of concern for the one who chooses. Since posting prices would have been gauche, it was necessary for Burl to quote them as he went from model to model promoting the features of each.
“This one will last for 100 years because it’s made of a special alloy, but it costs $400 more than this one which I can guarantee for only 50 years. But we put it in a vault anyway.”
Mom, standing on the periphery, whether from shock or an inability to participate, kept saying, “Whatever you girls want, it’s your decision.”
We moved around the room, scratching the cheapest and the most expensive off an invisible list. We became painfully aware that caskets cost a great deal and this horrid moment wouldn’t end until we made a choice, so color became the deciding feature.
Burl hurled this at us suddenly, “Don’t worry about cost, I’m giving you the casket. It’s the least I can do, for Doc.”
We hadn’t wasted our time omitting the top and bottom of the line. Choosing top of the line would have been taking advantage of Burl’s generosity, while choosing bottom of the line would have put a low value on their friendship. You really had to walk a narrow line in situations like this.
“We have three possible choices now,” Burl began to orchestrate the finale.
“This one is burgundy with pink lining which may seem too feminine.”
“Whatever you girls want,” wafted from the back of the room.
“This one is black with a white lining and may seem too stark, too generic,” Burl continued. “But this one is steel gray with a silvery white lining that would go well with Doc’s hair and eyes.”
“And his new gray silk suit he just had made but never wore,” Mom chimed in from the back of the room.
The row of caskets, with their hoods up, reminded me of a used car lot!
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I started to laugh. Not a nervous giggle but a sidesplitting belly laugh I inherited from Daddy. A laugh that started from deep within some unknown part of my body and caused a rhythmic quake as it escaped into the thick dead air in the dungeon where we stood.
It felt good to laugh, good and somehow appropriate. I could hear Daddy laughing with me. Burl was struck dumb. My sister was horrified and told me so. Mom was sure my grief was out of control. But I was fine. Better than I had been for days.
Well, we selected the gray (car, oops!) casket, put Daddy in the gray suit, and had that funeral—for the town. Daddy went out in the style befitting him, thanks to our shopping trip to the local funeral parlor. I still experience a cleansing from a deep, earthy laugh at what seems to me anyway to be appropriate times. I still hear Daddy laughing with me.
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