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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“The Man Who Cried ‘Death’!”

The funeral itself took place on an appropriately melancholy winter morning, marked by large, light snowflakes drifting to the ground. The number of attendees was about what I’d expected, but I was surprised how many people I didn’t recognize. Of course, black was the dominant color, and I wondered if anyone had bought an outfit just for the occasion, or if everyone keeps a set of “funeral clothes” in the closet, as I do—did, I mean.

            A Methodist minister was performing the service; his presence was one of those details that tend to get omitted from how you envision a situation. Ties to organized religion can stretch across many years without breaking. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re still tied, until a wedding or a funeral or something like that comes up, and reminds you.

            This particular cemetery—Oakwood Memorial—was, as the name might imply, a locale heavily populated with trees. Oaks were the dominant genus, but many other varieties were represented as well. The mood of the place changed with the vegetation: during winter, the grounds became a vast, haphazard arboretum whose innumerable barren limbs evoked an equally stark state of mind in visitors. Spring carried with it a theme of renewal, with buds of pink, purple, and white contrasted against the omnipresent green of new foliage. In the summer, the trees provided shade for those who came to pay their respects, and those same trees offered empathy in autumn, as they mourned the loss of leaves, fallen to their individual fates cloaked in banners of red and gold.

            One popular burial package at Oakwood Memorial offered the opportunity to have a tree (usually an oak) planted in memory of the deceased, as a kind of living tombstone. This option had particularly appealed to me, not out of any great environmental commitment, nor for the old but elegant symbolism of new life replacing old. It simply seemed a nice idea to offer a change of scenery for mourners, so that instead of always staring at a cold grey slab of engraved rock, they could reflect on the dead in the presence of something beautiful and alive.

            The older trees, with their wide trunks, made excellent screens to hide behind. To conceal my intentions in case I was seen, I only glanced at the funeral proceedings from the corner of my eye, while I hovered over one of the nearby graves, as if in mourning. The grave marker before me was old and worn; date of death for this poor unfortunate was 1913. The marker was also flat, protruding maybe an inch above the weather-stunted grass like a small, square manhole cover. No wider than a briefcase, the face of the gray stone looked like the cover of an electrical access panel for one of the township’s traffic lights, except that it bore the name of a man who had once lived, instead of the words “Municipality of Cloverdale.” The gravesite had probably gone unvisited for years.

            The ceremony was brief, perhaps due to the inclement weather. As mourners began to turn away to their waiting automobiles and their waiting brunch, it struck me that it was now over, at least as far as I was concerned. The realization was somewhat anti-climactic, but then, with such a buildup, how could it not be? I wasn’t expecting anyone to throw himself on the casket, or anything so dramatic, but… I don’t know. A funeral’s the type of thing that can’t possibly match expectations in every way, I suppose.

            I waited until everyone had left, even the cemetery staff. The gravediggers were quick to dispatch their duties, perhaps out of eagerness to escape the weather, perhaps out of eagerness to escape yet another reminder of their own mortality. Thanks to the wonders of heavy machinery (respectfully covered with tarpaulins and hidden from view until the last mourner was gone) they restored the ground to where you wouldn’t believe there was now one more body sealed beneath it.

            Of course, in this case, there wasn’t.

            A cemetery is quite a beautiful place in the snow and the silence. Usually it’s vast enough so that unless you’re right near an entrance, the outside world is effectively blocked out. The noise, the sights, all of the sensory bombardment that awaits outside the cemetery gates is absent here. I might have lingered in the idyll of the graveyard forever, but after a couple of hours, my fingers and toes were starting to feel a little numb.

            I walked over to the newly installed gravestone. It fairly shone; the polished granite gleamed with reflections from snowflakes as they accumulated on its frozen face.

The engraving on the stone was almost unreadable—snow had filled each chiseled crevice, giving the impression of a blank slate—literally, a tabula rasa. I brushed the snow from the letters, for although I already knew whose name was there, I was curious about the style in which the letters were rendered, and what words might have been added, by way of epitaph. Within moments, the full face of the stone was revealed to read, simply:

 

MARTIN BOUDREAU

1951 ‑ 2001

 

There was no epitaph. In hindsight, maybe I should have expected that.

Overall, I can’t say that I was disappointed. My funeral had been fairly close to what I’d envisioned. It seemed unbelievable that I had come to this point so quickly, from living to dead in just a few months. 

Perhaps though, I should begin at the beginning, since, after all, it is substantially different from the end.

           

*

 

I remember the day clearly—it was October 17th, at the wake of a business acquaintance, that this visionary sickness, this poisonous yet irresistible idea, first burrowed its way into my brain. It would come to consume me, and in time I surrendered myself completely to it. It has transformed me into—what? A man privileged to glimpse what few, if any, have seen before? Or a tragic fool whose actions have irrevocably exiled him from society?

The answer, perhaps to both questions, is yes.

The stray thought that spurred these events was one nefarious in its very innocence, a query utterly common to the attendance of funeral services, wakes, shivahs, et cetera. The wondering of how one’s own memorial might compare to that of the dearly departed is, on the surface, a natural and innocuous bit of imagining. But for me, the wondering blotted out the very life that would be remembered. It grew, all of it, in stages from that first day, all because I was not able to leave unanswered one single question:

How will I be remembered?

            I must know, I decided. I would know.

            This, of course, is more difficult than one might think. In order to coax the truth of my legacy into revealing itself, I would have to be dead. Otherwise, sympathy, or desire, or any of the myriad of human emotions would cause a rift between the true feelings of the people I’d known, and what they would actually admit. My own life was, perversely, the very thing that prevented me from knowing the measure of that life.

We must review some of the tiresome details (have no fear, I will be brief) so that you may appreciate the substantial effort that was required on my part. Foremost were the practical matters of faking one’s death. Could it be done convincingly? It would have to be faultless, for even the merest suspicion that I was not actually dead would affect the reactions of those very persons I wished to monitor.

I hatched a plan in which I would be lost at sea. I would require only one confidant, who would locate and rescue me using a GPS transponder attached to my person. My transport, a chartered fishing boat, would be sunk by exploding a small but critical hole below the water line. The boat, and any proof of my complicity, would disappear beneath the waves, its flimsy weight carried miles in the currents before it was even suspected anything was wrong. There would be questions later, unavoidable in such a disaster: “Why was there no call for help?” and “What caused the boat to sink so quickly, without a trace?” But the sea had harbored such mysteries before, and I wagered that it would again. The plan seemed simple and foolproof, and it could be put into action quickly when the time came. Until then, I would have to keep up appearances and attend to business as usual, so as not to betray my intentions.

This was, at first, the extent of my plan. I never intended to spend as much time examining the customs and trappings of death as I did. My research began quite accidentally as I was driving downtown one morning, late for a business meeting, and found myself delayed by a cortege of cars headed to a funeral. I confess, when I first turned on my headlights and fell into line behind the last car, I did it with the intention of taking advantage of a unique opportunity to pass through red lights unmolested.

As I followed the procession’s serpentine path, I grew curious about the passengers inside the car directly ahead of me—two young women, by their delicate silhouettes. Who were they? How far had they come to be here? Had they come out of grief, or obligation, or respect? Had they hesitated to take the day off from work? 

The cars turned smoothly, one after the other, into the Riverside Memorial Cemetery. Without hesitation, I did the same.

I stood quietly at the ceremony and listened.

I took the flower offered to me by the funeral director and placed it upon the casket at the appropriate moment.

I forgot my business meeting and did not call to reschedule.

That short time at the funeral service seemed to be lifted out of the muck of time and space. Other considerations—business commitments, the hunger in my stomach—were irrelevant and unimportant in comparison. After all, how could I judge my own memorial service if I did not have a large enough sample of other services to compare it with?

Attending funerals soon became my passion. Prowling the streets around churches on weekday mornings, I would invariably spot a line of vehicles departing with headlights lit, or some other common indicator of a funeral procession displayed in the windshields or flying from the antennas. I would flick my headlights on and follow the hearse and its caravan to the cemetery. The cars would coil through the streets and the traffic would turn aside; out of respect or fear, who knew which? Alone in my car, I would try to be the very last member of the chain, so that my presence wouldn’t be noticed. Sometimes I would get separated from the other cars, but that wasn’t a problem after the first couple of times. With a red pen, I circled the locations of all the nearby cemeteries on the map I kept in the glove compartment, and I became adept at extrapolating the path of the hearse to its logical destination.

Once arrived at the cemetery, I would make mental notes of every detail: What was read to the mourners? How was the deceased described? How many people cried?

In the weeks that followed, I expanded my research to wakes. I seized any opportunity to attend a viewing (indeed, at this point I saw them as opportunities, rare and valuable ones). In nearly every case, they were for people I had never known. Even the couple of times I recognized the name of the deceased, it was only by coincidence, the random result of living in a reasonably small town.

My selections were made simply by driving to the local funeral home at likely times of day, whenever I had a few hours available. Using the obituary page of the newspaper to decide which wakes to attend seemed promising at first, certainly a more calculated mechanism than my random visitations, but after several failed attempts at choosing from dozens of equally attractive wakes, I declared the task impossible and reverted to my random method, which relieved me of any responsibility in the matter.  

 Finding my way to the proper cemetery for the funeral now became even easier. The funeral details, including the name and location of the cemetery, were often posted near the sign-in book at the wake. Instead of following the hearse to the funeral, I began to drive ahead, and I would often arrive with more than a few minutes to spare before the other attendees arrived.

If there was no written information at the wake, I made sure to approach someone who stood alone or in a very small group and ask them where the funeral was to be held. Anyone standing alone at a wake is typically not a very close friend or relative, and is generally reluctant to speak to anyone. The spouses of distant relatives of the deceased were good targets, as they often drifted around the room, duty-bound to attend but anonymous, and reluctant to be introduced under such circumstances to relatives-in-law they had never met. They rarely asked questions about my relationship to the deceased, assuming me, depending on the age of the deceased, to be a friend, teacher, or colleague. Most people were too shy, too polite or too intoxicated in their own sorrows to pay much attention to me. Anyone who did have the wherewithal to ask me who I was, or how I knew the deceased, was easily convinced with a solemn “I knew him (or her) a long time ago.” They had no problem believing that I might be someone they’d never met before but whom the departed had some meaningful impact upon. After a few wakes, I became proficient in gleaning the facts I needed from the memorial photos and the other attendees—only one fact from each person, as I couldn’t make it obvious I was digging. Later, those facts—knowing the career, hobbies, interests of the deceased—would enable me to get even closer, and to analyze the reactions of the immediate family and friends.

            The challenge was an interesting diversion and helped to pass the dead time (no pun intended) after most of my primary research was complete. I was mainly interested in learning the location of the funeral, then noting any unusual touches in terms of eulogy or ceremony, counting the number of attendees and the average length of time stayed. I charted the number of criers, the number of wailers, the number of throwers-of-their-own-bodies-on-the-casket. This may all sound very complicated, but as with most things, determination and persistence proved success.

I began to develop and test formulas that would give me accurate estimates in all of these categories while using a smaller sample size, which would in turn allow me the freedom to indulge in more subjective areas of research. Eventually, I refined the process so that within half an hour of entering the funeral home as an ignorant stranger, my empirical data was gathered and I was confident enough in my knowledge of the deceased to approach the closest family members and offer condolences. Sometimes I gave my real name, sometimes not. It didn’t seem to matter, the families always had the glazed eyes produced by tears and too many faces passing by. They would not retain memories of any images but the one at the front of the room.

            The next progression was also somewhat accidental in origin, but one I am proud of nonetheless. One woman in particular, the wife of a man with an above-average sized crowd at his wake, was distraught to the point where she seemed to be attempting to join her spouse by crying herself to death.

            I knew from my information-gathering that the man had served in Vietnam, and I hatched a plan to comfort the woman by telling of her husband’s heroism, that he had saved my life back during the war. My age would make such a lie believable, but the risk of being found out by curious questioners or, worse, fellow soldiers of the deceased, led me to abandon it. Retaining the critical element—a noble act resulting in the saving of my life—I developed a new story, one that would be more believable and explain my presence, all at once.

            “Your husband once saved my life,” I said softly, kneeling down before her. Her tears stopped immediately, and her eyes begged me to continue. “I was driving home from work one day, and my car began to smoke. I pulled off to the side and took a look at the engine, but… well, I’m no mechanic. I tried to flag down a car for help, but it was rush hour and no one was much interested in stopping. I was there for ten minutes until a car finally pulled off to the shoulder.

            “The driver was your husband. He told me to hop in his car, he’d take me to the gas station a few miles up the road. We had no sooner pulled back onto the road, when my car exploded.”

            “My goodness,” the woman said.

            “Yes, goodness is what saved me. Your husband’s goodness, his stopping to help a stranger, was all that kept me from dying that day.”

            She began to tear up again, but this time it was a different kind of tear, the sort that fell slowly, one at a time, rather than in torrents.

             

I soon became better company at a wake than I ever was at a cocktail party. It has to do with attaining a certain comfort level, I think, which only experience can provide. That experience is a rare commodity, which most people wouldn’t judge to be worth the sacrifices required. Here in the suburbs, death is a secret to be avoided whenever possible – that is, any time except at funerals and wakes. On these occasions, the disguising tide recedes enough to expose the bitter truth behind suburban life: everything is impermanent. 

Perhaps that made my role here that much more important. After seeing the joy my words brought to family members who never knew the full extent of the deceased’s work life, or the co-workers who never knew the extent of the family or church life, I was tempted to make this my life’s work. I would become a bearer of glad tidings to those in distress, a stranger bearing gifts in the form of imagined kindnesses. Surely, it would be a noble and worthy way to spend my remaining days. But, as fascinating and fulfilling as my hobby had become, I had more important things to gain than temporary satisfaction. Seeing the joy in those faces as they heard of the good deeds and impressions their loved ones had made only made me want it even more. I would hear those kind words, those words of thanks, that deserving praise—for myself.

            I needed it. I could admit that. I had to admit it, there was no hiding it.

What had begun as simple curiosity had ballooned into much more. Now, I needed to see the outcome of what I had set in motion not just to satisfy my curiosity, but to find validation for my life. I had easily provided that validation to the families of the deceased with a few choice words. Now I needed someone to offer similar words for my benefit. The problem, and the opportunity, was that in seeking the proof myself I would know if those words were true. I would not be duped by platitudes or made-up stories, however appealing they might be.

I knew I had lived a life that was basically good; there were no skeletons in my closet. The question was whether that was enough. I needed to erase the doubts that had arisen in me about how I’d used my fifty-one years.

There had been assurances in the past, hadn’t there? There was the ongoing success of my municipal supply business; the Man of the Year award from the local Chamber of Commerce; the numerous photo opportunities with representatives of charities, resulting in grainy black and white pictures in the newspaper of me shaking hands and handing out oversized checks. But these things were not what I needed. I needed someone to tell how I’d changed his or her life for the better. I needed to know I’d be remembered. 

            Of course, I tried to harness my expectations and keep them within the realm of possibility, to avoid disappointment. I didn’t really expect anyone to offer a moving testimonial to me. I believed that a few kind words here or there would be enough.

            I was wrong.

 

*

 

I have never been one to take great joy in the act of shopping for a product or service, but I found that changing as I explored the exquisite particulars of “bereavement planning.”

Surely, the average person does not realize the immense selection available in the casket and gravestone production industries. A pity, that despite the wide range of excellent products and the ability to customize anything to whatever whims one might harbor, the vast majority of these items are purchased with no more thought than a morning coffee.

A business trip had called for travel out of state, and I used the opportunity to investigate the accoutrements of a modern funeral without the possibility of being recognized. I decided to focus on gravestones first, assisted by the sales staff of Eternal Memorials, L.L.C. of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

According to Brian Salazar, the sales manager, many people spent large sums on caskets—a foolish expenditure, I was told, for an item that would spend most of its useful life buried in the ground, hidden from sight. The gravestone, however—now that was worth spending some money.

I concurred. Who among us has not drifted toward the largest marker while visiting a graveyard, curious to see the name that commands such a magnificent memorial? They are our miniature Taj Mahals; for most of us, the only architecture that will ever be dedicated to us alone.

Salazar offered insights drawn from nineteen years’ experience in the tombstone trade. To draw repeat mourners, he said, one had to make one’s gravesite easy to find, beautiful to look at, inspiring to be around. He also advised purchasing a stone now, to beat the manufacturers’ annual price increases.

The choices were nearly too many to bear. A gravestone could be shaped from granite, bronze, or marble. Granite (the most popular choice, I learned) was available in a dazzling variety of colors: Canadian Mahogany, Dakota Mahogany, North American Pink, Paradise Black, Salisbury Pink, Star Blue, Vintage Red. 

 

I took even greater pleasure in visiting McIntyre Casket Company and lying down inside several models, critiquing the padding and workmanship while the confused staff indulged me as a harmless but apparently wealthy eccentric. It was all I could do to restrain myself from attempting a Transylvanian accent. To amuse myself, and to keep my identity confidential, I had given my name as “Vlad,” and none of the staff dared contest it. Instead, they merely showed their wares, occasionally correcting me by saying things like:

“Sir, we don’t use the word coffin here. We feel casket is a much more elegant word.”

Elegant! It was a strange way to describe a product whose main selling point was how long it kept the worms at bay. I played along, enjoying myself and making mental notes of which features I liked and which I did not. I was giddy, simply giddy, with excitement. I felt like a kid again, preparing for a make-believe adventure by gathering costumes and props to create a convincing shell for my fantasies. Where the wakes and funerals had prepared me for the more morose elements of my plan, this offered a much-needed dash of levity.

 

Due to the absence of a corpse in most deaths at sea, the traditional casket and burial is the exception, not the norm. A memorial service, often in conjunction with a graveside ceremony to dedicate the headstone, is typically substituted to offer the family some feeling of completion.

The idea of a memorial service, though it would differ only slightly from a conventional viewing, did not appeal to me, though at the time I could not have explained my reasons. Obviously, there would be no body forthcoming, but I was determined to have a casket nonetheless. There was something about the ritual itself, the actual burial into the ground, that I needed to see happen. The question was, how could I make sure it did happen? I would have to put it in my will, I supposed, which would bring my attorney into complicity. Even with him sworn to confidentiality, I was not comfortable with the idea of his knowing the truth.

I needed time to think. A funeral is a once in a lifetime occurrence. It would be a shame, I thought, if a lack of careful planning were to spoil it.

 

*

 

            Mr. Sam Mortiman, sales representative of Oakwood Memorial cemetery, never met a more eager prospect than me. I had done much of the legwork for my staged death and funeral, but thus far neglected what perhaps should have been the starting point of my inquiries. This oversight was highlighted, and the stage set for its solution, by a phone call that I had received many times before and always ignored.  

            “Hello, may I speak to Mr. Boudreau?”

            “Speaking.”

            “Hello sir, my name is Sam Mortiman, and I represent Oakwood Memorial cemetery. Sir, are you aware that the cost of burial plots has doubled over the past five years, and is expected to double again in the next five?”

            I had been to Oakwood Memorial several times during my research trips, and it was by far my favorite of all the area cemeteries. Where other cemeteries created literal necropolises, gray cities of the dead, sterile even with their skyscraping monuments and elaborate mausoleums, Oakwood was arboreal, a perfect antithesis. It was less intimidating to mourners, I had noticed. Children, often spared from the graveside service for fear of inspiring tears and nightmares, could run and play at Oakwood without a second thought, or watch the squirrels chase each other while the solemn business of burying the dead was completed. Oakwood has more squirrels per acre than any of the other cemeteries in the area—I counted.

Rather than stringing Mr. Mortiman along needlessly, forcing him to complete his well-rehearsed lines, I cut to the chase.

            “I’m very interested to speak with you. Can you come to my office right now?”

            Mr. Mortiman hesitated, probably trying to evaluate me over the phone and decide whether he would be wasting his time to come over. Perhaps he thought he might be playing into some elaborate scheme of revenge for too many dinners interrupted by phone solicitations. Finally, he said, “Yes, sir, I can be there in… fifteen minutes.” Mr. Mortiman was a good salesman—the fear of failure, and embarrassment, was put behind him in the quest for another sale. He confirmed the address and hung up the phone.

            I do not exaggerate in saying those were possibly the longest fifteen minutes of my life. So many questions were fighting to be asked first. Could I visit the available burial sites in person, on a formal tour of the cemetery grounds? What was the minimum distance that would be maintained between my headstone and the next nearest? What were the visiting hours of the graveyard? Was there security on hand to prevent vandalism?

            My longtime secretary watched over me like a mother hen, and I needed to keep any hint of my plans hidden from her. Upon Mr. Mortiman’s arrival, we quickly retired to my office to speak in private without so much as a word to indicate his purpose. Marjorie, who usually chatted with visitors while plying them with coffee, magazines, and conversation, showed surprise at my eagerness to meet what seemed to her just another in the endless stream of unsolicited solicitors that a successful business receives.

            Mr. Mortiman was a small, nervous man in his forties who seemed much less comfortable talking in person than he had on the phone. It wasn’t difficult to see why, as his deep, resonant voice was both a total mismatch for the rest of his unimpressive frame, and the only saving grace for his salesmanship. I wondered briefly how he had drifted into such an unglamorous branch of sales.

Relying on his years of experience to guide him through the uncertainty he clearly felt, he started into his scare statistics. He began fishing for the first names of relatives, to insert them into his scripts and explain how burdened they would be by the funeral arrangements when the time came to depart this life. I shushed him with the confidence that age and certainty will develop in a person, and explained my concerns.

            “Mr. Mortiman, I have very few relatives, and those I do have will not be put into financial hardship because of my death. I am a wealthy man, and I know what I want. Now let’s talk details.”

 

*

 

There is no more important choice of words one can ever make than one’s own epitaph. These words, more than any others, will represent the life led in a pithy sound bite, ready for consumption by the casual passer-by, yet worthy of the broken-hearted mourner as well. It is all most people will ever know about those who lived outside their own lifetimes.

One Monday, after the funeral of Steven Neer, guidance counselor, high school baseball coach, married father of two, I wandered among the cemetery headstones, taking note of some of the epitaphs that appealed to me. Many of them were deeply affecting. Some were humorous, some dignified, some plain and simple. None of them seemed right for me, or gave me any idea of what would be right. A summary of my life, my philosophy of life perhaps, in just a few words? Perhaps a professional publicist or advertiser, paid properly, could compose something appropriate. I knew from the occasional conversation with my niece, a student of journalism, that writing one’s own epitaph or obituary was a common introductory assignment for students—what class had she said it was for? Journalism? Philosophy? Religion? It could have been any of those, I suppose.

A crueler assignment could not have been invented. To itemize one’s accomplishments and hold them up to the cold light of day in an obituary was traumatic enough; to try to compress all of one’s feelings, values, wishes, hopes, dreams, and wit into a summation short enough to fit on a two foot by four foot gravestone… that was near impossible.

Stymied, I dedicated further study to a few representative epitaphs, which I hoped might serve as inspiration. I selected one from each of four broad, self-created categories:

 

Literary:                                                                       Humorous:

 

 

“So we beat on, boats, against                                   “And Away We Go”

the current, borne back                                  

ceaselessly into the past.”                                            (Jackie Gleason)

 

(F. Scott Fitzgerald)                                                    

                                                                       

 

Literary Humorous:                                                     Simple:

 

“The Body of                                                                “Called Back”

B. Franklin, Printer                                    

Like the Cover of an old Book                                      (Emily Dickinson)

Its Contents turn out

And Stript of its Lettering & Guilding

Lies here. Food for Worms

For, it will as he believed

Appear once more

In a new and more elegant Edition

corrected and improved

By the Author”

 

(Benjamin Franklin)

 

 

Finding the process slow, difficult, and frustrating, I decided to postpone the selection of an epitaph until all of the other arrangements had been completed. Only then would I be able to give the matter my full and undivided attention, as it deserved, as it demanded.

 

*

 

At this point, an astute reader may have detected my mistake. If not, feel no shame, for it was again only fate, coincidence, synchronicity—call it what you will—that revealed it to me at all. Let me explain:

Searching for further inspiration, I found myself exploring the esoteric history of the funeral tradition, which offered several appealing but ultimately impractical ideas. Paid, professional mourners at a funeral, for example—it seemed a worthy tradition, widely practiced from ancient Greece to modern-day China, perhaps as good a way to spend money as any other. In considering it for my own funeral, my main concern was simply whether such an arrangement could be made in secret.

The opportunity, then: to appear, courtesy of compensated wailing women, as a much-beloved member of society despite the truth or untruth of that characterization; to perhaps inspire grief where there was little, or none; to propagate sorrow like a contagious disease, the unsuspecting crowd the host and me the willing parasite.

Parasite­—perhaps it was that distasteful word, and all its implications, that helped bring me to my senses and realize my error. The pure, original intentions of my plan had been abandoned, and now I was actively, if somewhat unconsciously, preparing to deceive myself by seizing control of every variable I could, down to manipulating the very reactions of the mourners.

My hope from the beginning was that my life, however insignificant it might be, would achieve some small measure of immortality in the hearts and minds of those who knew me. But paid mourners, along with my pre-selected gravestone, casket, funeral plot, even the as yet uncomposed epitaph, were just so much window dressing. They were distractions, strictly incidental to the greater goal, and though the prospect scared me more as my time grew near, that goal remained: a clear, unembellished view of my life.

I wanted to hear good things, but I needed to know the truth. 

            Enlightened, I abandoned my plans for the fancy gravestone, the simple but tasteful casket, the carefully selected grave plot. Without specific advance instructions from me, a graveyard burial was no longer a certainty. In this, the culmination of my life of fifty-one years, and the surest judgment day I would receive, it was difficult, nearly impossible, to relinquish control. Yet that was precisely what I had to do.

An aphorism I have always liked states that “A man writes his own epitaph.” I had always taken this to mean that a man can, and must, dictate to the world how he is to be remembered. Perhaps I was guilty of solipsism, filtering the words through my own ingrained preferences, distorting it through my desire to believe that I could control my ultimate fate, whether here in the temporal world or as a memory in the minds of others. I saw the writing of one’s epitaph as a solemn responsibility shirked by those who refused to confront their own mortality, a responsibility too often satisfied in haste by grieving family members who could not possibly do justice to the deceased. The epitaph had appealed to me as a neat and practical consummation to human life. I realized now that I had misunderstood the meaning of that aphorism.

My epitaph had already been written, word by word, letter by letter, steadily revised every day of the last fifty-one years. It was all of my doing, but now stood beyond my control. The nature of this beast was that it could not rest in final form until after the death of its subject, when it would be revealed, encapsulated and packaged like a news story for page ten, never to be read by the one who might most desire to read it. 

Unless that one was not actually dead.

It was then that I realized that my original instincts were correct.  My plan, which I had been ready to abandon as trivial, selfish, and indulgent, now seemed inspired by the heavens themselves. The price for the knowledge I sought was the risk of an uncertain outcome.

It seemed a fair trade.

 

*

 

            There is a scene in Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer, in which Tom, Joe Harper, and Huck Finn attend their own funeral service, having been mistakenly given up for dead in the course of their adventures. It is handled, as I recall, with Twain’s typical light and humorous touch, but even as a boy the episode struck me as something more than simple entertainment. It hinted at a secret eschatology, and between its lines it bespoke a very human voyeuristic tendency carried to its natural end.

            Consequently, in attending my own service, I felt no less than the fulfillment of an inborn curiosity, the scratching of an itch that, once irritated, would never otherwise recede. 

            I stood at the back of the long, dim room, feeling suffocated in its calculated gloom, trying to read the lips and faces of the consolers paying respects. My efforts were doomed to failure by the many distractions that surrounded me. Every few minutes I heard my name mentioned off to the right or to the left, from within crowds of people I didn’t always recognize. Sometimes their voices carried a suitably reverent tone, sometimes a blustery sharpness. Each time it was an effort to restrain myself and not move closer, but I knew that however tantalizing the possibility, I could not risk becoming involved in their conversations. My voice would be the surest giveaway to my identity. I do not consider it to be a remarkable voice in any way, but then, who among us hasn’t been surprised by the sound of an apparent stranger emanating from our own throats when captured on a recording? We are poor judges of our own distinctive cadences; caution dictated that I speak as little as possible. To be discovered now would destroy all that I had worked for.

            My peripheral vision was hindered by colored contact lenses, which made me feel even more ghost-like than I would have otherwise. The blurred view seemed a natural consequence to straddling the line between dead and alive. I wore shades most of the evening—this was not as unusual as it might sound, as perhaps a tenth of the attendees did the same, despite the winter darkness having arrived outside hours ago. I had colored my hair, cut it differently, and purchased a new suit, in cash, at the local discount retailer. I wore lifts in my shoes, and after many minutes before a mirror practicing everyday movements differently than I would usually perform them, I felt confident. I had tested less-comprehensive disguises at countless other wakes and funerals where I knew attendees, and no one had recognized me yet.

            As I silently watched and listened, every sight, every sound surprised me in some way. With as much planning and as much research as I’d done, I was still not prepared for any of it.

I studied the backs of heads to determine the composition of the front row of mourners. I stole glances at the funeral register to put names to faces I did not recognize. I traced connections by tracking the exchanges of handshakes and hugs. The latecomers were making their trips to the front, dutifully mumbling platitudes, but what else were they to do? Not one of them had the advantage of my extensive experience in the art of offering condolences.

            All the while, the flower-laden casket at the front of the room drew me toward it like a magnet. It loomed, a polished steel totem that seemed to occupy the entire room at once. I hesitated. At that moment, it seemed possible that there might be a body waiting for me, a doppelganger condemned to death so that I might live, a physical representation of the schism that had taken place in my mind between the before and the after.

I brushed such foolish apprehensions aside and commanded my legs forward. The front of the room was nearly empty, as most of the attendees had paid their respects and taken seats, or at least moved back from the casket. It was the perfect time to see, up close, what exactly I had wrought.

            The casket was open—an unusual touch, perhaps an indication of hope for my survival? My death at sea had left matters painfully unresolved for my family, and yet I was pleased that in their uncertainty, they had chosen to purchase the admittedly unnecessary vessel of burial. I stood before the great steel box and gazed with an otherworldly detachment and a profound sense of peace at the framed pictures that had been propped against the inside of the casket. 

            There was one of me and Alex as teenagers, taken back before he ran off to join the Marines and get himself killed somewhere on the Mekong Delta, but not before a farewell blaze of glory in which he’d unintentionally planted the seed that would one day become his daughter Miriam. Another photograph captured the faded glory of a family summer picnic at Anderson Park: me, Alex, Mom and Dad. I was twelve.  I remembered that day so clearly, but I didn’t remember ever seeing the picture before. Who had taken it, I wondered? Aunt Felicia? 

            I looked at these and the other photographs with fondness, but I was not moved to tears. The photos, and the events they had captured, seemed like relics from a distant past, another life, and I viewed them with the clinical objectivity of the finest archeologist.

            While in that same mindset, I admired the choice of casket. It looked to be 18 or 20 gage steel, a respectable but modest choice, considering the many more expensive models available. I was happy to see that vast sums had not been wasted on its purchase. Who made that decision, I wondered, and of what motivation? Respect for me, and the frugal manner in which I lived my life? Or a base effort to preserve as much of my finances as possible, while satisfying the minimum standards not to be gossiped over as a scandalous disrespecter of the dead?

            A sense of despair gripped me. Had I gone to all of this trouble, willingly ostracized myself from the world I’d known in search of answers, only to see my questions replaced with new ones? It seemed the fates held the secrets captive on their looms, just out of reach, but close enough to tantalize.

            From behind me, I heard a muffled sobbing, and I realized I was lingering too long. I turned, with no clear intention but to distance myself from the casket and the pictures that surrounded it, and saw my family.

            After Alex’s death the word family had lost its meaning for me. Thereafter, I thought of my family with what might be described as a vague sense of affection. Kinship became a genealogical term, a useful social classification and not much more. But there was more, much more. They were my link with the past and, more importantly, my link to the future. There would be, if I made no other mark upon this world, a legacy of sorts in the common blood shared between me and those who would survive me.

Aunt Felicia, my father’s sister, was now the only link to that history, my father having passed of cancer in 1978; my mother, from heartbreak as much as health, followed in 1979. I never married, and Miriam, my niece, was the family’s only hope for continuation of our modest bloodline. These two sat huddled with arms wrapped around each other, offering tissues and consolation. There were others present in the front rows as well, distant cousins from every branch of the extended family tree, but Miriam stood out to me the most.

            It was not because of the loudness of her crying—I had seen enough wakes and memorial services in the past few months to know that people responded very differently to tragedy, even to the point of sometimes restraining themselves from any emotional display at all until, suddenly, it all burst forth in an explosion of tears.

            I felt I had victimized her. The others too, but mostly her, my niece, the nearest thing I’d ever known to my own child. By removing myself from the ranks of the living, I had prematurely pruned a branch of that family tree. Did I have the right? In my efforts to satisfy my morbid curiosity, how much pain and suffering had I inflicted on them? On her?

            I composed myself and walked straight down the center aisle, avoiding the eyes of the members of the front rows, who had probably dismissed me as a business acquaintance putting in a quick appearance.

            In the last row of chairs, I found a seat away from anyone else, hoping that the distance would signal my desire not to commiserate.

            Since this was not the formal funeral service itself, there was no religious delegate to lead the ceremony, and none of the mourners rose to make a eulogy. As I sat there, the room slowly emptied. As much as I wanted to stay and watch for any last-minute displays of emotion, the risk of discovery was too great. I quietly left the room, called a cab from the pay phone in the foyer of the funeral parlor, and returned to my hotel room the next town over.

 

*

           

            Eulogies written by religious officials are not known for their emotional depth. By necessity, short on time and long on responsibility, these professionals can quickly boil a life down to its essential elements. I sat in the audience at the Cloverdale United Methodist Church, and listened as the minister slowly and deliberately described what my life had been. His finger kept place as he moved down his checklist, invisibly marking each item complete as he mentioned it.

            “A generous man, known for his contributions to local charities.” I had no doubt that my donations had been appreciated, but the size of my donations had never warranted the true prizes that most philanthropists secretly, or not so secretly, desire; the hospital wings or schools that would bear one’s name in perpetuity were beyond the reach of my modestly successful financial empire. It was one thing for representatives of the recipient charities to make glowing speeches and testimonials to the integrity of my character while I was alive—there was always that next donation to secure, and the positive effects of flattery have been well documented. Now that I was dead, though, there was only silence. The charities would merely notice one less donor next year, and perhaps a little less in the operating budget.

            “A loyal member of our local business and community organizations.” Men joined all sorts of clubs, societies, and lodges, the main benefit of which, aside from the occasional pot luck dinner, was having a loyal legion to populate the funeral service when you died. It was one of the unwritten rules of membership: “You attend my wake and I’ll attend yours.” My absence would leave those groups shorthanded for the upcoming annual planning sessions, but nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature is no exception. Someone would step up and take on my former responsibilities, and little by little, I would fade from those collective memories.

            “He never married or had children, but he was devoted to his family.” Devoted? A kind exaggeration, at best.

Overall, the eulogy mirrored the obituary that had been printed in the newspaper almost exactly.

 

*

 

            The funeral service, as I said earlier, was succinct. The weather was bad, and anyone who wished to say anything had ample opportunity at the wake last night, or at the church this morning.

            I stood there in the cold staring at my headstone, bare without its epitaph.

            Had there been nothing worth saying about my life, other than acknowledgement that it had been lived?

            This was exactly what I had feared most. While making my elaborate preparations for false death, occasional lucid moments had forced me to realize that the end result of all my efforts might not be pleasant. Once the Pandora’s Box had been opened, however, the gravity of my questions seemed to inevitably pull me to this point, destroying all my illusions of control in the process, until I felt that I no longer had any control over anything, that events had been predestined to play out this way, and that no other result had ever been possible.

            And yet, I was still alive. Didn’t my continued existence betray the finality of these proceedings? Was this really the end of Martin Boudreau?

            I turned from the headstone and did not permit myself to loiter. The gray sky, hinting at more snow, was neither foreboding nor depressing—it merely seemed blank. Empty, like an untouched canvas.

            After a few minutes of walking, I felt possessed by a desire to turn and look back on my grave one last time. I did so, and saw a single figure poised there.

            I was out in the open along the main path, but the figure seemed not to notice me, as I was still a good distance away. I walked closer, not bothering to hide my presence.

            It was my niece, Miriam, alone. She hovered over the gravestone, her head bowed. I could see her lips moving. She was saying something.

Questions raced through my mind. How had she excused herself from the rest of the funeral procession? Why had she returned for a private goodbye? What words did she whisper to the unhearing stone which had taken the place of my ears? 

Despite all my plans, all my efforts, I could not solve these mysteries.

            The desire I felt to run to my niece and embrace her tightly was the most compelling I have ever felt. Why, then, didn’t I do it?

            I stood still now, watching. I bent down on my haunches and folded my hands under my chin.

            A reunion was certainly tempting, but what would be its ultimate outcome? No one, not even my wonderful niece, would understand what I’d done. They would call it selfish and mean-spirited, a cruel trick played at the expense of those who cared about me most. Perhaps they would be right.     

            If I revealed myself, the few good marks my life had made in the lives of those around me would be erased, replaced by the stigma of having brutally betrayed the emotions of others. Even the apparent affection that had caused Miriam to return to my grave alone might be destroyed forever if I traded my hard-earned status as a dead man for one brief moment of validation. No, I decided—what I had done would only be cruel and unforgivable if I revealed myself to her, alive. Without that, she would never know otherwise.

            I stood again and approached the tree I had hid behind earlier, during the funeral. I watched, carefully concealed, as my niece said her final goodbyes. She took a step back from the gravestone, reached into her billowing coat, and pulled something from one of the pockets.

            It was a single, long-stemmed red rose. She leaned down and stabbed it into the packed snow, anchoring it by pushing more snow in a circle around it. When she had finished, only the red petals themselves were left unburied. She paused for a moment to assess her handiwork, touched her gloved fingers to her mouth and then to the ground before the rose, and departed.

            By the time I approached the gravestone, the red had been nearly covered by the oncoming blanket of white.             

            So now I stand here, half-frozen in this graveyard, having condemned myself to a limbo few have known. Martin Boudreau is dead; I have killed him, as surely as if I had slit his wrists. I am he who will die twice but live only once. I am forced to wait for my right to ceremonies that have already taken place; I am a mistake in the natural order of things, an anomaly neither alive nor dead. It is a lonely place, and yet I can’t help feeling that somehow, I’ve succeeded.

 

THE END

 

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "The Man Who Cried 'Death'!" peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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