Endpaper; The Going Rate

The widow wanted the cherry coffin. All she could think of was her husband, dead. Dead at 40 in the dead of winter; dead in the front yard of a Sunday morning with the ice spud beside him and his ice-fishing gear — tip-ups and jig poles, thermos and brandy — spilled from the white plastic bucket he kept them in, all littered in the snow and on the ice around him.

It was his fishing buddy who found him in the driveway, where he must have been banging at the ice that had accumulated with the snow and freezing rain overnight. It was the exertion, the banging, the cold — who knows? — his heart.

And all I could think of was how in a more tolerably imperfect world, if he had to die, banging at the bare ice until his heart gave out, a better God would have let him, at the least, go fishing: to die at play instead of duty, leaving a wife and a daughter and a son, all too young.

So when she stopped in front of the cherry coffin with the velvet interior and the deep red finish and nodded and said, ”This one, I think, this one,” I was thinking about my own young wife and my own children and my own helplessness when I suggested that maybe the oak or the poplar would be ”better.” Because the oak was a couple hundred dollars less than the cherry and the poplar was a few hundred dollars less than the oak, and ”the future is uncertain” and the ”expenses of children” and there was ”really no reason to overspend” and after all, no coffin would ”get him in to heaven or keep him out” and it was only ”here today and gone tomorrow.”

”Like him,” she whispered, a catch in her breath. ”And it’s my husband, and his funeral, and our money” — she spoke slowly, all calm and resolution-and I think I can figure what we can afford, without your assistance.”

If it’s bad form to tell the heartsore they have spent too little — and it surely is — is it any less presumptuous to tell them they have spent too much? These days I listen more, do as I’m told and leave such decisions to the ones who are paying. They pay me by the sadness for jobs like these.

They pay me by the word for jobs like this. they sell ads by the inch to companies who want to sell something to the likes of you — time shares, Wonderbras, cotton shirts — readers who might take a notion to spend a little of their hard-earned but otherwise disposable income on something they see advertised here.

So size matters, and color and copy and placement on the page and circulation and market share and, of course, words, which is what they want from the likes of me, the last words. Eight hundred of them — well, 300, now. See how it works?

There is only so much — words and time and money — we’re running out, the end is near.

The widow, her husband, his coffin: all gone now, but not forgotten. And if I had the words to spare I’d tell you more, about funerals. How much? How to? How come?

I could tender, for example, something convincing from a famous shrink about attachments, losses, love and grief, but long story short, I’ll quote, instead, the late Roy Orbison, who sang ”Love Hurts.” That’s right on the money when it comes to words: love hurts. It does. We get no choice. If we love, we grieve. Love hurts. The only way to avoid it is to avoid one another: easy come, easy go.

Funerals are for taking leave and letting go. the math is easy but the meaning proceeds not from what we buy but from what we do. It’s not the coffin with the tackle boxes on the corners, or the warm fuzzies, the gladiola or the pie in the sky, though these are not without their comforts. It is the deeply human business of witness, of watching and waiting and keeping track. So, keep the difficult vigils — with the dying and the dead and the bereaved. Tend to the bodies, living and dead; look in their faces, endure their silences. The souls for the most part take care of themselves. If you bury your people, bring the shovel, go to the hole in the ground, bear witness. If you burn your dead, warm to the fire, stay until it’s over, bear witness.

Spend what you have to — nothing more, nothing less. In the end, we all run out — time, money, words.

What counts? What lasts.

October 15, 2000
The new York Times