The Funeral Home

May 23, 2014

It's early Friday morning and I'm sitting in the parking lot of a funeral home, eating a sweet roll from Dunkin Donuts.  Well dressed employees are arriving all around me  They stare quizzically.  I smile back.  I'm not here for them - I'm here for their wiring.

Last  night, I get a text from my boss.  Meet me tomorrow at the funeral home.  We need to replace some speakers in their chapel. 

It's a messy business, this job, involving drywall saws and power tools and lots of loose ceiling insulation which falls enthusiastically through every fresh cut hole above my head.  I wear a mask, which leaves a sort of insulation tan line around my mouth and chin.  Like a newly married Amish man, only in negative.

At ten o-clock a slightly anxious woman walks into the room.  We have a family coming in at one, she says.  We'll need this room.  Don't worry, I tell her.  I check my watch.  We have three hours.

You'd better go get a ladder, my boss says.  I think there's one in the basement.  I nod and pull my mask down to hang around my neck. 

The back steps are immaculate.  Beautifully painted and completely clean.  I feel almost apologetic for walking on them.  Downstairs is a warren of hallways.  Cupboard after cupboard.  And small store rooms.  One room is packed with stands you can put flower arrangements on.  Another has flags, and soda.  And more flower stands.  There are so many flower stands!  The biggest space is the parking garage.  Two sparkling funeral coaches.  And a matching SUV.  Then further back, a tractor, an industrial snow blower, several lawn mowers, weed whackers.  Everything is beautifully cared for.  A sign on the wall says simply "car wax."  There is something reverent in this attention to detail.  The determination that everything in this business will be dressed at all times in its Sunday best.

Still hunting for a ladder, I turn down one more darkened hallway, and am confronted by a large steel door, with a biohazard sign on it.  I turn back, acknowledging quietly what I know is most likely behind that metal barrier.

On I plunge, through a room of stacked chairs, a hallway of neatly arranged caskets, and a conclave of chattering casket wheels.  Eventually, I make it to another staircase, and emerge in the middle of the funeral home.  An elderly man in a mouse brown suit eyes my face mask and jeans with interest.  Sorry to bother you, I say.  I just need to find your ladder.  He smiles as if this is the kind of conversation he has every week, and shows me to yet another store room, this time on the main level.  I imagine that funeral directors must be good at talking to anyone about anything - how else to put the grieving, the uncomfortable, the antagonistic, to rest?

Returning with the ladder, I climb up, and we redouble our efforts.  Suddenly the work is flowing smoothly - the gift of my elderly friend.  I beaver away cutting neat speaker openings in the textured ceiling.  In short order, all the speakers are installed.  I look down and see that the room is a mess.  Insulation has fallen everywhere, leaving the dark beige carpet covered in a thin layer of snow.  I stand on my ladder and call softly for help.  I know that if I leave my plastic dropcloth square to fetch any more tools, I will cause an avalanche of Biblical proportions.  My boss comes over with a box for me to shake myself into.

Now to see if it all works.  I stare intently at my wiring connections.  Which wire is positive?  I pull out a flashlight and make the proper connections.  An ethereal piano springs to life, playing "Amazing Grace" in five variations, each one more anodyne than the last.  My boss grits his teeth.  When I die, I want them to play Steppenwolf.  Don't worry, I tell him.  When you're dead, you won't care.  Yeah, he says, but I'm worried about my friends.

It's half an hour before we need to get out of the room.  I go to find a vacuum cleaner, and spend the next twenty minutes removing every speck of dust from the floor, putting chairs and tables back where we found them.   Making sure there is no trace of our presence as we leave.

The vacuum cleaner chokes on a screw I had dropped.  I stop short at the painful snap and wail.  Then start again. 

At one o'clock, the room is clear.  The lights are low and the piano has given way to a muted string quartet.  A grieving family is arriving.  We close the door quietly and walk out into the rain.