The room had low benches set into the walls and big doors at either end. They'd been let in through the first set, and arranged themselves along the waist-high, U-shaped wall in the center of the room. From down the hall, through the other doors, he could hear the soft whine of the electric motors that powered the...
What, he wondered, would you call it? He'd worked in a warehouse, decades ago, running the powered pallet-jacks of boxes up the ramps into the cargo compartments of the tractor-trailers, and he knew that, at its heart, this was the same machine, but to call the apparatus bringing what remained of her mortal remains to her family a “pallet-jack” seemed disrespectful.
And then it arrived, no more time for speculation. There was a concrete slab with four or six dark bricks arrayed down it, bricks that had supported the coffin before support became unnecessary, and in between the bricks were the grayish white bones and bits of dust, fine wisps of smoke still rising in places.
Ten years prior, they'd had the little dog cremated, so he knew the basics of what was to come, but the little dog was, had been, the little dog.
Well-beloved, but not a sister, nor a wife, nor a mother, nor any of the other things the bones in front of him had been, to the others in the room, in the last seventy years.
Just. Such an ugly idea but just. He'd just been the little dog.
And when the little dog's bones had arrived, it was clear that there had been a little dog there, much smaller than his puffy Pomeranian pompadour had projected, of course, but it looked like the skeleton of a dog.
The tiny, tiny skull.
The man, the priest... was he a priest? The man in charge, had taken one of the bones in his hands and explained that it was no longer a bone, snapped it between his fingers, crumbled it in his fingertips and they'd all picked up the bamboo chopsticks and carefully placed the bones of the little dog into the urn, and when the urn grew full, the priest took out a sort of pestle and pushed, crushed, ground the bones down to a powder to free up space in the urn.
Everything had fit, in the end, and the little dog spent a year or three in his urn, on the mantle, before being transferred into a small plot in the garden, as pets are meant to be.
So he knew what to expect, and he'd spent the past three days hanging back, waiting to be told what to do because it wasn't his culture, and the funeral of a little dog is different than the funeral of a sister, a wife, a mother.
Father and son lifted the first bone, together, the way you don't do it with food, into the urn.
It was a toe, because you work from the bottom up.
And then everyone joined in. Toes, fingers, a bit of pelvis.
His wife had passed through that space, at one very early point in her life.
So they loaded the bones into the urn, until it was full.
And it was done.
But he wondered, later, about the remains.
He didn't remember seeing ribs, a spine.
The skeleton, fully covered and intact ninety minutes prior, looked more like the results of archeology, paleontology, than the simple result of extreme high temperature.
Was it age? Do the bones soften enough over the course of seven-plus decades that they simply crumble once their underlying chemical structure has been reduced to its component elements?
Or do the crematory workers have a hand in it?
He recoiled, the thought was unworthy, and his wife would never forgive it, not even if it was correct.
Especially if it was correct.
But the tradition is a holdover from an older age, a harder age, an age when the women would wash and dress the bodies of the dead, not like now, with the morticians applying makeup to the corpse before laying it in state for the family to see.
He hadn't touched her after she died. Not out of squeamishness; he'd wanted to, wanted to give her a last rub on her forehead, the way she'd liked when she lay immobile in the hospital bed, to give her a last kiss goodbye, but he was afraid, afraid afraid of smearing smudging melting the damn makeup and ruining it all for her real family because his job was to simply not fuck anything up.
Just don't fuck it up for them, he told himself.
When she'd been diagnosed, he'd gone out and bought a black suit, the sort of suit that one would wear only to a wedding or a funeral.
Looked up the word for “funeral” in the dictionary and gone to the men's department.
Hello, yes, I need a suit for a funeral. When? I don't know, but it could be soon.
The salesman asked him if he preferred single or double-breasted. He chose single, not wanting to appear too flashy, but a nearly a year later, he was one of the few without two rows of buttons down his torso.
One of the few, but not the only one.
Just don't fuck things up.
And on the day her mother died, his wife asked him do you have a formal suit do you need to go shopping today and he'd confessed that he had one, and when she asked him since when, he told her, honestly.
And she'd just nodded, accepting. Okay, good.
He didn't know whether to be proud or ashamed of his foresight, his pessimism.
In the West, the last stage of a cremation is putting the bones, or their de-fossilized shadows, through a pulverizer.
The last thing that happens to your body is they grind your bones with a machine.
So as not to shock your relatives.
But here, but here, here we say our goodbyes and fill the coffin with flowers as the priest, the minister, The Man tells us that this is the last time we'll see her body, we fill the coffin with flowers and grave goods, candies, the little stuffed toys we gave her to cuddle in the hospital, the flowers and flowers and flowers, a month of his salary's worth of flowers, everyone leaning over and in the background there's a metronomic ker-chop, ker-chop, ker-chop as the funeral home redshirts methodically demolish the thirty, twenty, fifty-foot wide array bouquet of flowers that dad splashed out on to frame the coffin and the front of the room, all those flowers, it occurs to him that this is probably the original funeral rite, the original rite of the human animal, dropping flowers on the corpse, predating the present syncretist Christian ceremony, predating religion, predating language, present at, perhaps being the very birth of culture, old indeed, far older than the mere threescore and ten and change she'd walked the earth.
But when the coffin is full, they bring the lid, detached, for this is a crematory coffin, made probably of pressboard, held together (he was later to learn, on viewing the ashes) with wood staples, covered with a sort of damask, no hinges to the lid, but a window, a window with little shutters, and the lid is on and there's one last last look then they close the shutters and all of them file into the oversized elevator, surrounding and encircling her in her coffin of particle board and damask.
In the lobby, his wife asks him to help carry it to the the hearse. It's only his fourth funeral, he realizes later, but already he's a pallbearer. The coffin has no handles, but many bearers, all the uncles are involved, and it's a struggle not to trip over the others' feet, to keep his feet clear of theirs, and when they arrive at the hearse, one of the ladies employed by the funeral parlor guides them in, then takes her place at the back and shoves the coffin onto the rollers, secures it and closes the door, and they're into the minibus that trails the hearse to the municipal crematorium.
Of course there's a municipal crematorium, but that's a thought for another time.
And in a little while, in the time it took he and his wife to travel to the hospital and back, all those trips over the past year, it will be done, over and done, they'll be picking through her bones, the ghosts of her bones, with their bamboo chopsticks, selecting which bits will go in the urn, and which in the grave, and it will be done, it is done, it is done.
If you've made it this far, I want to note that while this is not completely unedited, it was written over a couple days. Like many other things at the moment, it's still pretty raw, so I apologize for any errors in it. Stylistically? I dunno, but it is done, it is done, it is done.
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