He Undertook Her


by Deirdre Fagan

"Have you ever seen Six Feet Under?"

He was filling out the form for my father's cremation. He had just finished asking me for my dad's place of birth. My father died yesterday, in a car accident. He was living at a retirement home and had made dinner plans. He shouldn't have been driving. He was eighty-three, near-sighted, and his reflexes weren't very good. But he didn't have anything to bring to a dinner, so he ventured out to the CVS at the last minute, and turned left in front of a Chevy pick-up.

He looked up, "Yeah, a few times."

"I know it probably sounds funny, my asking you that, but I was just wondering, y'know. It's a pretty interesting show to me, since I'm not in the funeral business."

What I was really thinking is, the people on the show seem like regular people, they seem normal, well, sort of. I mean, they have typical problems, even though they work around dead people all day. They are still falling in love and having sex and being elated and being depressed and all that.

"No, it's not really strange your asking me," he chuckled, nervously, never looking up, as he continued to fill out the form, his bicep flexing and straining under his navy blue suit jacket.

"Well, what do you think of it? Do you think the show is accurate? I'm asking because I'm a teacher and they never portray teachers accurately on TV. I mean, they are usually either over-the-top inspirational, or really demeaning, or just looking to seduce some poor unsuspecting student. Do you think that on Six Feet Under they are accurately portraying the funeral business or is it all Hollywood like everything else?"

"What was your father's date of birth?"

"February 24th, 1926," I said, fiddling with the hem on my shirt.

He wrote in the date.

I waited, noting the smile lines around his mouth and the five o'clock shadow breaking through his crisp cheeks.

"What was his profession?"

"Writer."

I continued to play with the hem on my shirt.

"So?"

"So, yeah, it's pretty interesting your asking me that." He sat back in his chair a bit, finally lifting his dark brown eyes from the paper. He glanced around the room, looking ceiling-ward, then back down at the shiny black shoe on his right foot which was crossed over his left pinstriped leg. He leaned even farther back, contemplating, then sort of shot forward out of his contemplation and picked up his pen.

"Yes, I'd say it's pretty accurate, at least the regular day-to-day stuff. They don't show a lot of what it's really like, day after day, because they seem to be focused on love lives and death and that sort of thing, but they do kind of show the day-to-day in and outs. I guess it's just not all that dramatic most times."

I stared down at my feet. It's not all that dramatic—for him. People die. That's what they do. He cleans up the mess. That's what he does. All six-feet-two, three, one of him.

"I mean, it's not dramatic like it is on TV. People aren't ummm...."

"Dying every day?" I asked, with an awkward smile and raised brows.

"Well, um, yes, they are, but..." and now his smile was awkward, his brows furrowed.

"It's okay, I know what you mean," I began, my voice trailing off a bit with each word, and then with a sudden burst of emotion, speaking at a higher pitch and with a sweeping finality: "I get it."

We finished filling out the paperwork. While he was crunching the numbers, I looked around at the walls. There were a lot of framed degrees and certificates. Not all of them were in his name. It's a family business, I realized. His dad or brother or uncles or something were on the walls with him. They were all Bentleys.

"So, is this what you always wanted to do, Adam Bentley? Or are you like a Jameson, you are born a Jameson, y'know—Jameson's Irish Whiskey—and you just know what you are going to do? I was in Dublin, and they had the family tree of John Jameson's at the distillery, and yeah, well, it was pretty clear what you were going to do if you were born a Jameson, boy, that is."

"Yeah, actually, it is. I grew up in this house, we lived upstairs when I was a kid. This was my home and it was nice always having my family around. It was, uh, homey. I guess that's sort of weird to other people, but to me it was home. My dad was always around and there were always people in our house, and I liked that."

"But wasn't it hard seeing people crying all the time?"

"Well, yes and no. I guess when I was really little my parents kept me away from that part of it, but when I got a bit older, I liked being able to be around. Being around kids always makes people act differently, so when I was around seven or eight, they just seemed to focus on me, and I guess, well, sort of pull it together."

"Oh," I said, remaining fairly pulled together.

"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry about your father."

"It's okay. I mean, it's not okay, but it's okay. He was older...not that that makes it okay, but...it's not like I didn't know it was coming," I said, looking sideways and clearing my throat. "He was going to die, it's just, well, you just never know when, I guess. I guess that's it, you just never know when."

The sun was streaming through the front window in a beam that lit up a framed picture that sat on his desk, slightly titled in my direction, slightly tilted in his, of what I presume was his wife and daughters. His prominent and unabashed display of his family was a reminder that the last member of my family was lying somewhere in this building. I suddenly wanted to take the ideal family smiling at me so exuberantly from an ornate metal frame and stuff it in my purse.

"Are you ready to start talking about what you want to do with the remains? Since he is going to be cremated, we will have his ashes next week, and you will want to decide what you would like to do with them. Are you going to be burying them or scattering them?"

I stared at him blankly. I hadn't heard what he had asked; I was too busy trying to figure out how to steal his family and fit them in my bag. Well, not his family exactly, but at least that 5 x 7 frame.

"What?"

"Are you going to be burying them or scattering them?"

"Uh...um...I don't really know. Do I have to decide that now?"

"Well, no, not really, but if you'd like me to let you know what your options are...."

"Yes, I'd like to know the options," I said, suddenly self-assured. "I like having all the information I can to make a decision."

"Okay, well, then, I'll have to take you downstairs. That's where we have the various containers. There are some that are designed for burial, and some that are designed for keeping in the home. We also have keepsakes, if you plan on burying or scattering the ashes, but would also like a keepsake."

A keepsake? Like, I take a leg or a cheek and I put them in a jar? Or, I suppose once a person is melted down like that it's not really a leg or a cheek but more like a goulash of some kind. I stared at his cheek again. His smooth, fairly youthful, only slightly creased cheek.

"Downstairs is fine," I said, half-imagining the embalming room on Six Feet Under while realizing that was not where he was taking me.

"I really don't know what I want."

"That's okay. People often don't, but I'll show you, and that might help you decide."

We proceeded to the elevator. It was old. He pulled the metal door closed and then pushed the button. The elevator lurched into service, and down we went, into the crypt. For a moment I felt a panic attack coming on, as I continued to imagine an embalming room.

When we exited, there were caskets everywhere—an entire room of caskets sitting on plush beige carpeting enclosed by cream colored walls. These were the shorter ones, probably five feet. Displaying the 6'8 ones like my father's would take up a lot of room, I supposed, and they wouldn't want to unnerve people with baby-sized ones.

Then we took a quick right, and we were in a room of vases, or so it seemed to me. Little green and blue ones and tall ones that were of solid pewter. And gold and floral ones.

"These smaller ones are the keepsakes I was mentioning. If you think you might bury or scatter, but would like a keepsake, these would be appropriate. What we would do is, when you came to pick up the remains, we would have the keepsake for you, sealed, and you could display it on a small stand. We would also have the rest of the remains in one of these burial boxes, or in a temporary case for scattering."

The remains of what? What is this container going to contain, exactly?

"We make sure that the keepsake is sealed, so that there is no possibility of...."

Escape, I thought, "I see," I said. "I suppose one of these keepsakes would be just fine. What are my options with the burying and scattering thing again?"

"These containers are for burial," he said, gesturing, with the cloth again tight against his strong, secure upper arm, toward one wall, "and the ones for scattering we don't really display, because they are just temporary."

Temporary, like our lives, I thought. "I pick the blue one," I said. "He has amazing blue eyes. Well, he had amazing blue eyes"...which will now be in my keepsake, maybe..."so I'll pick that one."

We decided on the scattering box, because it's cheaper, and I could always get a burial box later.

As we exited the container room, I inquired, "So, which one of these caskets is the most expensive?"

His mahogany eyes lit up.

"Well, um, it depends. This one over here is the most expensive all around," he said excitedly, leading me to a pretty one towards the back. "It's made of copper, has 24 karat gold embellishments, a champagne velvet interior, a lock system, and an adjustable bed mattress," he said without taking a breath.

"Adjustable mattress?" I blurted out. "A lock system?" "Who's trying to get in?" I choked my words out as I doubled over with laughter. Escape. Now.

"Well, sometimes there are grave robbers, and also the adjustable bed," he started to say solemnly, almost retracting, trying to explain, and then a smirk broke and he started laughing too.

And there we were, both laughing, but I began laughing so hard that I began choking out tears, and that's when I reached for his sturdy arm to steady myself on my right, and a galvanized steel casket to steady myself on my left. There we were, sandwiched between caskets, me laughing hysterically one moment, me crying the next.

And he stepped right up, like he'd been doing it all his life, which I knew he had. He put an awkward tight arm around me and there we stood, with me sobbing into his navy blue pinstriped stoical lapel.

The Feet, mechanical, go round...this is the Hour of Lead...Remembered if outlived.... The Feet, mechanical, go round...this is the Hour of Lead....

After I composed myself, I demurely wiped my nose on my sleeve and walked numbly to the elevator, following his postured lead.

When we arrived on the first floor, he asked if I was alright. I assured him I was. He then told me that the remains of my father would be back by Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. His last trip, I realized.

"We'll give you a call when they arrive," he said, and I winced at the use of the third person plural for my father, the writer. He is now a they, I thought. He would abhor the impropriety of it; he may chortle at the inaccuracy.

"Thank you, Adam," I said, and walked briskly out the door.

Then I headed directly to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers, which I had heard reviewed on NPR several years before. I wanted to know where my father was going next.


BIO: Deirdre Fagan is an Assistant Professor of English at Quincy University. She is the author of Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has also published articles in The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Explicator, South Asian Review, and Americana Review. She recently published her first short story in Picayune and has poems forthcoming in nibble. Her interests include but are not limited to American poetry, memoir, and creative writing. She currently reads, writes, and cooks in Illinois, feeling happily a bit out of place as a native New Yorker. Her son writes poetry for her, her daughter babbles it, and her husband turns it into philosophy.