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0 Comments | Apr 26, 2015

Thinking Ahead

coffin_blackThe sun had only just begun its journey into afternoon as two men stood talking in the sort of jovial tones not commonly heard in the vicinity of Burns and Sons. One of the two was Ken Burns Sr. himself, proprietor of the town’s only funeral home. He had just entered his sixth decade and cut an impressive figure—tall, heavy set, dressed in the sort of dark heavy suit traditional to his profession. His interlocutor, Buster Craig, was half his size and more than twice his age. It was a curious pairing, the town’s sole mortician conversing so easily with its oldest resident, the sort of thing a passerby might take note of and likely remark upon later to family members or coworkers.

“Saw old Buster chatting it up with Ken Burns this afternoon. I expect Buster was explaining why it’s taking him so long to avail himself of Burns’ services.”

Or words to that effect…


*          *          *          *          *


“So it’ll be burial for sure then?”

“Oh absolutely,” Buster replied. “I’m no fan of cremation. I mean I understand it’s kinda trendy right now and all—”

“And a damn sight cheaper to boot,” Burns interjected.

“What in God’s name do I care about the money for?” Buster replied. “I’ve got a two-bedroom house that was paid off before Carter left office. I’ve been drawing sixteen hundred a month from Social Security for over forty years, and I don’t spend but about half that on bills every month. I’m a hundred and four blessed years old and thanks to the miracle of compound interest I’ve got over half a million in the bank. What the hell else am I gonna do with it? Give it to my idiot son? For starters, he’s already near eighty himself. Hell, he’s likely to drop dead before I do at the rate he’s putting on weight. I got half a mind to donate it all to the Humane Society. That’d torque his jaw some.”

Burns stared off to the west for a moment, silently considering Buster’s summary of his financial situation. There were no clouds yet, but the day had the smell of one that would nonetheless end in rain.

“So no cremation … ”

“Scares the bejesus out of me, Ken. I know it’s irrational, but I can’t get past the whole idea of not being completely dead and waking up in the middle of it.”

“So you’d rather wake up in a box six feet underground?”

Buster and Ken had slowly moved their conversation from the funeral home’s front portico, through the funeral home proper, and into the capacious warehouse where Burns displayed samples of his wares for evaluation by his bereaved patrons. The pair stood before a polished mahogany casket, one of hundreds available to the clients of Burns and Sons Funeral Home on Chestnut Street. Though at one hundred and four years of age, Buster remained in better health than many folks half his age, it had occurred to him (and had been occurring to him off and on since around the time of the Reagan presidency) that it would be a prudent thing to have a chat with Ken Burns, purveyor of what would inevitably be Buster’s final purchase in this life. And Burns and Sons was the only game in town. Westport was a small town of slightly over six thousand people, and Burns buried them all (the ones he didn’t cremate), at the strikingly predictable rate of about seven per week. Inflation and economic downturns came and went, but people dying was about as dependable a line of business as a man could ask for.

Buster pondered Burns’ question for a moment, pressing his lips tightly together during the silent interim. There then appeared on his wrinkled face the ever-so-slight trace of a grin, not an expression funeral directors are exactly used to seeing in their clientele, current or future.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve given that some thought. Tell me how much extra it would cost to be buried with a flashlight and a cell phone, and to have an antenna sticking up out of the ground next to my headstone? That way if the worst should happen, you and your backhoe are only a phone call away.”

Buster was well known throughout town, primarily for his great longevity—which had, several months back, earned him the moniker of oldest man in the sovereign state of Texas—but also for his acerbic wit. That said, folks who didn’t know him well frequently had a tough time determining whether he was being serious or pulling their leg. Burns knew Buster well. He regarded his friend and potential client for some seconds before responding. “Long as you’re hedging your bets, Buster, I expect you’ll want a few sandwiches and a thermos of coffee down there too.” Burns smiled at Buster, who, after a suitable length of time, smiled back.

“I’m a heavy sleeper, Ken. And it’d be just like my son to try to send me off early, just so’s he can lay hands on the bank book.”

“You’re a piece of work, Buster,” Burns observed, shaking his head and returning his friend’s smile.

“You’re not the first to say so,” Buster replied, as the two men continued on down the long row, considering one coffin after another.

“Course you’ll be aware that there’s a good bit of preparation goes into getting a body ready for interment. I expect you’d wake up at some point during that process and have a question or two for Marvin down there in the mortuary.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Ken,” Buster replied. “Eight years back I slept straight through my next-door neighbor’s house burning to the ground, including the arrival of every fire truck and police car in town. You’d think a thing like that’d wake a man up. Instead I got up the next morning and walked outside to find a smoldering heap where Skip Pettingill’s house had stood the day before. I imagine your man Marvin is fairly skilled at his craft by now. He could probably get me straight into the coffin in a coat, tie, and pocket square before I woke up wondering what I was doing there.”

“I recall that fire, now that you mention it,” Burns said. “It’s a good thing Skip’s a lighter sleeper than you, else he might’ve ended up here the next day availing himself of my services instead of spending the day on the phone arguing with his insurance company.”

“Hell, if his insurance company’s no better than mine, I’d almost prefer to spend the day with Marvin rather than on the phone with them folks.”

Burns only grunted in assent.

“I don’t guess you get a lot of folks in here shopping for themselves,” Buster said. “Seems like most people are pretty good at convincing themselves they’re gonna live forever, right up until that moment when they realize how terribly mistaken they were.”

“No,” Burns replied. “You’re right about that. It’s mainly relatives in the throes of grief and despondency.”

“Hell of a business,” Buster continued. “I expect folks’ll pay just about anything when they’re in such a state.”

“I’d be lying if I denied it,” said Burns. “Still, I’ve never been one for taking advantage.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t expect you get a lot of returns either.”

“No, no,” Burns agreed, smiling again but wanly. “Once the client has made use of our wares, they do tend to hang onto them for the long haul.”

“Business issues aside, seems to me it must be a damned depressing way to spend your working life,” Buster said. “How on earth do you tolerate it day after day, all that wailing and lugubrious music and carrying on?”

“How on earth does a company man stand being told what to do every day of his life? That seems a good bit more depressing to me. At least here I’m my own boss. I’m making a contribution, helping folks to shuffle from this life to the next in style.”

“Well, at least whatever level of style their heirs are prepared to pony up for,” Buster said.

“Yes … yes,” Burns agreed. “There are certain immutable laws of capitalism that permeate all businesses and we’re no exception. You still get what you pay for.”

The men walked without urgency toward the rear of the warehouse. They reached the end, did a wide turn to the right, and began making their way up yet another row of displays, these seemingly even more ornate than the previous row’s. Buster occasionally brushed an appreciative hand across the finish of an especially beautiful coffin. Most all of them struck him as prodigiously expensive.

“Tell you what you ought to do if you want to shake up the industry a little,” Buster said. The men were standing in front of highly polished walnut casket with ornate brass handles and trim. It cost more than any car Buster had ever owned. “Instead of asking folks to pay thousands of dollars for something they’re gonna use for two days and then bury in a hole in the ground, you might oughta rent them the fancy casket for however long it takes to do the funeral, and then bury them in a dirt cheap one, if you’ll pardon the expression. That way you could reuse the same fancy caskets over and over. Owning your own casket doesn’t seem to make any more sense to me than buying a wedding dress. You pay thousands for that, then lock it away in a box in the attic for the rest of your life. No offense, Ken, but it seems to me a damn waste. I heard tell that when you cremate someone, you just tuck them into a big cardboard box. You don’t go burning up one of these here fancy caskets. What’s the difference?”

“It’s a fair point, Buster. A fair point indeed. Thing is … well geez, there’s no way to say this without sounding like a greedy bastard. If a fellow’s standing there prepared to hand you a check for five thousand dollars, it don’t hardly seem a fitting business practice to offer him an option that’ll only cost him five hundred.”

Buster considered Burns’ words in silence for a long moment, then pursed his lips tightly for a moment and continued making his way down the long row of caskets.

“Say, here’s a thought,” Buster said, stopping in mid-stride and turning back toward Burns trailing behind. “I wonder if it’s occurred to anyone to treat caskets like wedding dresses.”

Burns looked momentarily confused.

“Like how women get married, then put away their wedding dress in the hopes that maybe their daughter will get to use it years down the road. You could buy a nice fancy casket, wheel it out for the funeral proper, only then actually bury just a cheap pine box. You put the fancy casket away and then just keep recirculating it every time someone in the family kicks off—pardon the expression. I suppose you could keep it in the attic or someplace between funerals.”

Burns laughed a quick laugh, but then stopped when Buster failed to join him.

“I tell you Buster, sometimes I just don’t know how to take you. Don’t you imagine folks attending the graveyard ceremony would find it a trifle odd if the casket didn’t match the one they’d seen at the service?”

“So, what you’re saying is you think the relatives might think less of a fellow because he opted to save some money on his send-off expenses.”

“Not saying that at all, Buster. Only that if parsimony is your primary objective, I’m kinda back to why not just go with cremation. You get yourself a nice little urn and you’re all done with it. Survivors can bury the urn if they want, or just stick it up on the mantel if they want a perpetual remembrance. Hell, we’ve had folks didn’t even want the urn, relatives scattering the ashes and what not. One client left here in a Prince Albert tobacco can, as God is my witness. I believe his people were meaning to scatter him down near Corpus or thereabouts.”

“Shoot,” Buster replied, “I heard tell of a fellow over in Houston spent his retirement years restoring a B-17 bomber for the Confederate Air Force. His final instructions were that his ashes be put into a Budweiser can and dropped out the bomb bay of the plane over the gulf. Way I heard it, they had to put a rock in the can with his ashes to make sure he didn’t wash up on the beach in Biloxi.”

The two men reached the end of the second aisle of caskets and stepped back through the rear door of the main building, a rush of cool air greeting them as they entered. Buster took a seat in one of the plush chairs in Burns’ office.

“I’ll tell you what, Ken. It’s not the money. Like I told you, I’ve got enough in the bank to where I couldn’t spend it all before my departure if I tried. And for sure my son’ll be the first one in line to get it once I’ve gone to my reward. I think I’d just like to see to it that I do something a little unusual.”

“You could do like Hunter Thompson and have your ashes shot out of a cannon,” Burns said.

“Okay, maybe not that unusual,” Buster said. “Maybe instead of all that fancy walnut and mahogany, I oughta have me one of those old-style rough pine boxes like the ones you see in western movies. You know, those ones that’re skinny at both ends and a little wider in the middle to fit your shoulders. Shoot, I expect I could fire up the circular saw and cobble one of those together myself.”

“Well, that’d certainly pass for unusual,” Burns said, “though you wouldn’t be the first customer to go out in a vessel of his own fabrication.”

“Oh, do tell,” Buster said.

“You remember Chester Fredrickson, used to run the tool department at the Western Auto before they went under?”

“Tall, real skinny guy,” said Buster. “Kind of an Abe Lincoln-looking beard on him. Shoot, that must have been fifteen years ago.”

“That’s the one,” Burns said. “Man spent the final two years of his life building just about the prettiest hickory casket you ever saw. Lined it with leather of all things. I tell you, you’ll not find a piece like that in any mortician’s catalog. Cryin’ shame to have to bury the thing.”

“Damn, I’d kinda like to have seen that,” Buster said, “though I don’t expect his relatives would have much appreciated me showing up at the funeral just to admire Chester’s woodwork.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Buster. Nothing wrong with respecting a man’s skills, even if it is in a post-mortem sort of fashion. Respect is respect, after all.”

“I don’t reckon anybody’d be too terribly impressed by my old wild west pine box.”

“Tough to say,” Burns replied. “Different folks like different things. Still, I’ve never known you to be the sort who was looking to impress folks, least of all with your final earthly gesture.”

Buster pondered this observation for a few silent moments, which Burns chose to allow to run on for as long as his friend chose. Eventually Buster rose again from his seat and walked toward one of the big windows that ringed the room.

“Tell you one thing I damn sure don’t want,” he said. “I don’t want none of that maudlin rock of ages cleft for me music. It’s depressing enough being in a room full of wailing people dressed in dark suits. Seems to me we ought to liven it up a bit.”

“It’s a bold new millennium, Buster,” Ken said. “You can choose whatever music you like, far as I’m concerned. We can play your CDs or stream it off the internet. Whatever you like. Hell, if you wanna have a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator come in and play Great Balls of Fire live, I got a grand piano in the other room you’re welcome to use.”

“Why thank you, Ken. That’s mighty thoughtful of you, and I may just take you up on your generous offer.” He clapped Burns on the shoulder and continued staring out the window at the bright warm afternoon outside.

“Man in his second century’s got no right to say so, but it’s gonna be a genuine pity to leave this life, Ken.”

“Age don’t matter none, Buster. Most everyone feels that way, though of course some are more accepting of it than others, I suppose. Truth is, despite my profession, I haven’t had all that much exposure to the dying part of things, least not with my own folk. All the pining, confessing, and negotiating’s been done by the time they make their way to me. Odd as it sounds, I ain’t had a family member pass in twenty odd years.”

“Your uncle Ferris, as I recollect,” Buster said. “One lived over near Fort Worth.”

“That’s the one indeed,” Burns confirmed. “Shoot, Buster, I wish I had half the memory you do. Rate you’re going, you might just forget to pass on if you’re not careful.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t lose any sleep on that account,” Buster said. “It ain’t exactly like forgetting to take out the trash on Wednesday nights … though come to think of it, there’s a passing similarity there.”

“Now, Buster, don’t you go demeaning our distinguished profession here,” Burns said. “We ain’t exactly shipping folks off to the great beyond in big green Hefty bags.”

Buster turned from the window grinning again. “Now that’d certainly cut down on your overhead.”

“I expect so, but it’s not exactly the sort of dignified send-off most folks’ve become accustomed to.”

“No, no it’s not, is it?” Buster said. “It’s our last big spending spree. Our last party really. Seems a pity the guest of honor doesn’t even get to enjoy it though.”

“Well, it’s funny you say that, Buster. I’ve heard tell of a few folks—likely back east I expect—who make arrangements to have their funeral while they’re still drawing breath. That way they get to sit there and hear their friends and relatives say all those nice things about them. Plus, from what I hear, it cuts way down on all the wailing and carrying on.”

“Almost sounds more like a roast than a funeral,” Buster said.

“Yessir, I imagine it could turn in that direction if folks was comfortable with it.”

“Course it ain’t as though the soon-to-be-deceased is laying there in his casket, I don’t expect.”

“Now that’d just be plum weird,” Burns said. “No, I expect it’s more like a big party. Course, we’ve never done that sort of thing here at Burns and Sons. Not saying I’m averse to trying new things. Just never had no call for it is all.”

“Could be a whole new line of business for you.”

“It’d mess with folks getting bereavement fares for their airline flights.”

“What with the airlines wanting copies of the death certificate and all?”

“Exactly,” Burns agreed. “Wouldn’t do to be printing death certificates while the client was still drawing breath. I’m fairly sure there’s laws against that sort of thing.”

“Yes indeed. Bureaucracies do tend to be stuck in their ways, don’t they?”

“Government officials insisting on you being actually deceased before they issue you a death certificate? Yeah, they are a bit officious about that sort of thing.”

“Come to think on it, it’d be an interesting thing,” Buster said, “to hold your own death certificate in your hand. I don’t suppose there’s many folks’ve had that particular experience.”

“Actually, believe it or not, it’s not entirely unprecedented. I’ve got a nephew over in Midland who’s into skydiving of all things. Says that on those surpassingly rare occasions when someone’s parachute doesn’t open and they survive the fall, they issue the fella an honest-to-God death certificate for him to hang on his wall.”

“Course that’s not any sort of official document,” Buster replied. “More of a novelty thing, right? All you need is for your wife to get hold of a thing like that and she’d likely as not start drawing your social security while you’re still recuperating in the hospital.”

“It’s a fair point,” Burns said. “And probably as good a reason as any for you not to take up skydiving.”

“Well, I’ve got no wife to worry over, but I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Buster said. “Be just my luck anyway—spend my entire life smoking no-filter cigarettes and eating bacon and every deep-fried food ever conceived by man, make it to a hundred and four, and then fall to my death in a skydiving accident.”

“Something almost poetic about it,” Burns said. You know, Buster, you oughta write your autobiography, now that I think on it. I imagine folks’d be quite keen to learn your secret. You know, benefit from all your accumulated wisdom.”

“Wisdom? Good lord, man, what on earth are you talking about? I don’t know where that old saw came from that the old and decrepit are supposed to be purveyors of wisdom. Most of the old timers I know can barely tie their own shoes in the morning. Hell, my idiot son is pushing eighty. Ask him what’s the meaning of life and he’ll likely as not tell you some nonsense about making money or having integrity, or other such garbage.”

“Well what do you think it is, Buster? Man well into his second century ought to have a thought or two on a big question like that.”

Buster stood silently pondering by the window for a moment.

“Ken, my experience is that life is a challenge from beginning to end. It’s work getting through it, plain and simple. Far as I can tell, best thing folks can say about a man once he’s gone—or, better yet, while he’s still around—is that he was decent to the people around him and he was always handy with a good joke or two when the occasion called for it.”

“And what about making money?” Burns asked.

“I once heard someone say that contrary to popular opinion, dying penniless wasn’t near the tragedy folks make it out to be. It’s just good budgeting. I never put no stock in leaving money to family members. You ought to spend what you earn, not what someone give you. We come into this world broke, and if you can manage to spend your last dollar on the day you die, then you’ve closed the circle, now haven’t you.”

“Well, now, I think there’s something to that,” Burns agreed smiling.

“And if I happen to spend that last dollar at Burns and Sons Funeral Emporium, can’t say as I could do much better than that.”

“But what about that half million in the bank?” Burns said.

“It’d buy me one hell of a casket, now wouldn’t it?”

“That it would, Buster. That it would. But that cowboy pine box you’re thinking about ain’t gonna make much of a dent in your bank account.”

“Tell you what, Ken. It’s been my experience that spending money ain’t nearly the challenge that making it is. I think if I make up my mind to die penniless, I might just throw a going away party like this town has never seen.”

Buster slowly made his way to the front door.

“You let me know the day you decide to throw that party,” Burns said, “and we will do it up in style.”

“And keep that piano of yours dusted off,” Buster replied. “I may be needing it.”

The friends shook hands, complete with heartfelt pats to the shoulder. Burns stood beneath the front portico, watching the afternoon rain clouds creep slowly toward town as Buster made his way across the parking lot with the stride of a man half his age, his wispy hair adrift in the rising breeze, leaving Burns to wonder if that party would truly ever happen.


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