Socko Finish

My son and I were moving caskets — an oak with Celtic crosses on the corners, a cherry with a finish like that of our dining-room table, a cardboard box with a reinforced bottom, caskets that could be buried, burned, blown into space or set adrift. (The boomers who are buying funerals now do better with a broad selection.) I was talking to him about ” protection,” about condoms and careful choices and coming of age. He’d been out too late the night before.

Is it Derry, then? Or Londonderry? Is it the North of Ireland or Northern Ireland? Is it Sean or Sidney? Mabel or Maeve? Are the violently conflicting views of the Six Counties of the North rooted in race or sect, language or doctrine, poverty or pride or power lust? ”Whatever you say,” wrote Seamus Heaney famously of the painful case of Ulster, ”say nothing.”

But my son has heard this speech already; he and his siblings, all in their 20’s, occupy a place where pleasure and risk intersect, so they are experts in cautionary tales. In a display room full of caskets and cremation urns, he would rather talk about his future.

He says he wants to be a funeral director. He wonders if I’d ever sell to S.C.I. — Service Corporation International, the Barnes & Noble of the funeral biz. They’re buying up firms like ours across the globe: Frank E. Campbell’s in Manhattan; Kenyon’s in London, which used to bury the royals. Closer to home, in Michigan, they bought out our nearest competition last year. The talk in the trade is that they raise prices, cut services, put in a fleet of telemarketers to push ”preneed” sales and pay their shareholders handsomely. They are aggressively positioning themselves for the baby-boom years, the next 20 or 30, when the number of annual deaths in the United States will grow by a million compared with today. The boomers’ presence is already being felt, of course — some are dying, many more are buying funerals for their parents.

”The only problem is they buy your name,” I tell my son. ”It’s all you really have.” The name on the sign — ours says Lynch & Sons — is the one they call in the middle of the night when there’s trouble. It’s the one that makes you accountable to the community you live in, the one asset we can’t replace and dare not sell.

My father taught me about protection. It was the late 1960’s, early 70’s. We’d go into the casket-selection room at the funeral home. He’d play the undertaker — no stretch for him. I’d be the bereaved client with a dead mother — pure theater for me. My mother was going strong back then, full of life. I was floundering between college and career, not quite certain about my ”future,” interested mostly in Irish poetry and Italian women. I worked at the funeral home to finance my travels and indecision. I caught the phones at night, slept in the apartment on the second floor, kept my passport handy, my bag packed.

”The first one you show them is very important,” my father said. ”It establishes the mid-range, the average. You know, not the most expensive and not the least.” He stopped beside a steel model called Praying Hands, named for the applique in the cap panel. He lifted the velvet overlay to expose the rubber gasket. ”The most important difference between one casket and another has to do with its protective qualities,” he said earnestly. ”Most of the metal caskets in this room are what we call sealed caskets, because of this gum-rubber gasket that runs around the perimeter of the shell.”

”Who cares?” I’d say, playing the doubting Thomas. ”Isn’t she dead?” He showed me the crank used to seal the lid shut, and then he handed me this ”key.”

”To some families protection is very important.” He paused. ”To others it means nothing at all.” The message was obvious: which kind of family are you from?

Then he displayed the various materials: mahogany, oak, cherry, steel and the top-of-the-line, one that shone like a bright new penny. ”This is solid copper, a permanent metal. Unlike steel, which might rust or corrode, copper oxidizes with age. It gets stronger and stronger. These precious metals are the best value in protective caskets.” The room hummed with anticipation as I thought it through.

Stronger, protective . . . Mom?

Protection and permanence were organizing ideas of my parents’ generation. Children of economic collapse and a planet constantly at war, they were schooled against waste and letting down their guard. There was general, low-grade anxiety over ”exposure” and liabilities. Well-engineered tampons, movie ratings, underarm deodorants — each offered defense against some contagion, embarrassment or invader.

In the years that have passed since my father taught me caskets, I have sold my share of them. We don’t push protection anymore. ”Choice” is the buzzword. Everything is customized. The generation now in the market for mortuary wares is redefining death in much the same way that, three decades back, it redefined sex and gender.

If my father sold caskets on protection and permanence, I offer choices, options, New Age alternatives. Where he occupied a world of black and white, custom and tradition, moral certainty, my fellow boomers still see our rights and wrongs as relative; we roll our own orthodoxies.

Always the demographic bullies on the block, boomers are now grieving and dying, so grief and death are all the rage. The market is bullish on ritual and metaphor, for acting out our hurts the way our ancients did. Whether we burn or bury our dead is less important than what we do before we dispose of them. Boomers are hustling to reinvent the rituals that got our parents and their parents through age and sickness and sadness and loss, in case, just in case, it could happen to us. Faced with the deaths of the ones we love, we are stuck between the will to do everything, anything and nothing at all.

Back at the funeral home the hot topics (forgive me) are cremation and designer funerals. Members of my parents’ generation, in their 70’s now, are behaving as their boomer children once did — fast and mobile, they’re buying motor homes and time shares in casino towns, and they do not want their lives or deaths to be a burden to their kids. They do not want to be ”grounded” to the graves they bought when people stayed put and always came home. Their ashes are Fed-Exed around the hemisphere in little packages, roughly the weight of a bowling ball. Not nearly the life-size burden of a casket, not nearly the bother or expense. They get sent back from Florida and Phoenix, to old homes in the cold north and Rust Belt states.

Still, their sons and daughters, in receipt of these tiny reminders, are beginning to wonder: Is that all there is? Is it enough to get out our cell phones and our Gold Cards and have our dead elders disappear with no more pause than it takes to order up sushi to go? Can we distance ourselves entirely from the physical realities of death and still expect to enjoy the physical wonders of life? Is a good bargain on a funeral really such a good deal if it doesn’t do the job of properly commemorating death? Even the late Jessica Mitford, that priestess of simplicity, whose ”American Way of Death Revisited” is due out from Knopf next month, had a lavish multimedia farewell in London last year.

Hence, more and more, we boomers care for our own dying. More and more we are making up new liturgies to say goodbye. More and more we seem willing to engage fully in the process of leave-taking. We rise early to watch the televised departures of princesses and modern saints. We read the obituaries every day. We eulogize, elegize and memorialize with vigor. The trade is brisk in wakes and funerals that offer a personalized touch. My father’s generation did copper and concrete and granite memorials. We do biodegradables, economy models and ecofriendly cyberobsequies. He sold velvet and satin and crepe interiors. We do urns that look like golf bags and go to cemeteries with names like golf courses. You can buy a casket off the Internet, or buy plans for a self-built ”coffin table” or one that doubles as a bookshelf until you ”need” it. There’s a push for ”do it yourself” funerals — as if grief were ever anything but. Cremated remains can be recycled as memorial kitty litter, sprinkled on rosebushes, mixed with our oil paints to add texture to fresh masterpieces.

We have, as the Batesville Casket Company calls its latest marketing approach, Options. And as the demographic aneurysm gets nearer to bursting in two or three decades, the marketplace is readying for another boom. Soon, every off-ramp on the interstate across the continent will have a Burger King, Barnes & Noble and Funerals ”R” Us. Telemarketers are busy interrupting our dinners, selling us choices from the ridiculous to the sublime, from bang to whimper, and everywhere between. The fashions change. The feelings seldom do.

The facts of life and death remain the same. We live and die, we love and grieve, we breed and disappear. And between these existential gravities, we search for meaning, save our memories, leave a record for those who will remember us.

I am the age my father was when I was my son’s age. Figure that. Halfway between the half a century between those two — sometimes it seems that we repeat ourselves. I hear my father’s caution in the way I caution him about life’s changes and dangers, about drugs and drink and being ”sexually active.” We talk about making responsible choices, safe sex, committed relationships, condoms and consequences: permanence and protection come round again.

One of these days I’ll have to teach them caskets.

July 12, 1998
The New York Times