2nd Timing is Everything

The chairs fit neatly one on top of the other. This pile of moulded plastic measuring barely six foot had just half an hour before seated 30 people and now they would fit snugly into a space measuring 60 cm by 60 cm. They would be wheeled out time and again as people gathered to hear the solemn eulogies delivered to commemorate the dead. Now with COVID they were arranged to seat the few who maintained a comfortable distance, and stood in place of those who were observing the live streamed obsequies from home. I stood discretely at one corner suitably masked in black and ready to attend to the small requests demanded of the grieving family. Who was I exactly? I was a line item in the funeral package. In effect I was there to set up and pack up at the end of the day. It was not a bad job.  There was plenty of time to reflect. The day’s funerals started with a bad one. It was a suicide, although nobody used that word, but you can tell. The loved ones, the ones who never saw it coming they had that look of fish out of water gulping air and choking on their grief. The slide show which followed the speeches was meant to show the deceased in happier times, but it felt like a sham; a cruel trick meant to distract from the calamity ahead. What was going on behind those frozen smiles?  When did the irreversible slide begin?  Was it then, or later?  Like the divorcee reviewing photos of happier times with their unfaithful spouse were those memories now irredeemably tainted by what followed?  It’s the not knowing which rubs salt into the wound.  He had chosen his time and place, but the timing was bad. That was the takeaway from this business. Life is all about timing. Knowing when to come and when to go. As that funeral was drawing to a close I was already preparing for the next. The file bearing the company’s tastefully embossed logo was neatly tabbed with the day’s funerals. They occurred in three hour blocks. The next funeral was for an old gentleman, but the photo on the front of the program showed a handsome man in the full blossom of youth. It would be a full house and people were already lining up in the virtual waiting room ready to be admitted. His death would provoke laughter and reminiscences. It would draw old friends and family together. Old connections would be reaffirmed, old relationships renewed and perhaps new ones forged. He would not outlive his family and see everything start to fall apart. That was great timing. He knew when to leave.

That brings me to the final funeral of the day. I call them the joker funerals. They are the wildcards of this profession. You can see it in the face of the assembled attendees. This death was totally unexpected. It was hand of God stuff.  Nobody knew whether to laugh or cry. Each person looked at the other for some indication of how to behave and then at the casket as if they doubted the deceased was really gone. The obituary read like an awards ceremony. Her life was gilded; every moment weighed down with official recognition. Talented, gifted, hard driving. All the words used to describe a person that was disliked, possibly loathed, in their lifetime. Once the obligatory press releases – sorry eulogies – were delivered the casket was readied for transportation to the crematorium. This was always the kicker. The place was packed. We lost nobody in the journey from chapel to crematorium.  The assembled crowd stood silently and with barely contained impatience as we waited for the furnace to reach its requisite temperature. When the casket finally disappeared into the maws of the incinerator there was a collective sigh of relief. The silence lingered for a moment longer.

‘I’m starving’ announced someone to nobody in particular.

‘I could do with something to drink’ was the response.

‘Your shout, no, make it your scream!’ Tittered another.

‘Whatever it takes…’ intoned a deep throated voice which was met with rapturous applause.

The spell was broken at last.

As the attendees slowly filtered out you couldn’t help agreeing with the unspoken mood of the occasion: our time would come, as it would for everyone, but for the moment it was good to be alive.

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