A Coffin, A Casket
The summer I was ten, my mother and I flew back east to Erie, Pennsylvania to visit family- my cousin Leo and his mother, my mother’s sister in law. This was over fifteen years ago and I’ve had to do some minor research to fill out a few of the details I’ve forgotten. I do know that for one reason or another during our visit my aunt’s relations came to town. I believe this was a brother of hers, a man unrelated to me whose name I don’t remember in the slightest, and his children, who were a little younger than Leo and myself.
This man was by trade a funeral director, and a member of the Western Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association. At the time I had some vague notions about the concept of death, and I understood enough to feel generally uneasy around this man, who had a very austere attitude and didn’t seem to find any humour whatsoever in his occupation. I do recall asking his daughter, my cousin’s cousin, if she had ever seen a dead body.
“Yeah,” she had replied, unfazed, clearly bored by the question. I’m sure she’d been asked by everyone who knew what her father did for a living.
The purpose for their visit, I gathered, was a funeral director’s convention being held at the Rainbow Gardens ballroom space at Waldameer, Erie’s old amusement park. It’s beyond me why the adults decided that this would make an entertaining diversion for the children (it’s possible controlled substances were involved, knowing my aunt and my mother) but somehow we all found ourselves piling out of a car in front of the convention centre entrance.
Parked outside the venue was a cadre of spit-shined black hearses with suited sales people in attendance. There was also a display of granite memorial stones set up near the entrance. My thoughts about this whole enterprise prior to arrival had not led me to anticipate this, but I was beginning to cotton on to the inevitable theme, which, of course, was dead people. The goods displayed were all about dead people. Clothes for dead people to wear, boxes for dead people to lie in, cars to drive dead people around, and stones upon which the names of dead people would eventually be written.
To say the event was formative might be an exaggeration, but it had a lasting effect on the way I think about what happens after death. As I walked into the vast space and looked around, I realized with a morbid thrill that I had been ushered into a world rarely seen by those outside the trade. A show room had been erected in the centre of the convention and was stocked with a large and well-appointed selection of caskets, lids flipped open to reveal the satin upholstery inside. After I vocalized a nervous observation “about the coffins”, I was given a stern, unsmiling lecture by our funeral director relative about the difference between a casket and a coffin. Coffins were wider at the head and narrow at the feet, he explained. Nobody used coffins anymore and the rectangular boxes used now were referred to as caskets. At the age of ten I was given to understand that “coffin” both as a term and a receptacle was considered passé by the industry insiders.
We did the rounds, inspecting “eternity wear”, suits that zipped up the back, and dresses of chintzy gauzy pastel covered fabric that invariably reminded me of fluffy old night dresses old ladies might wear- and that wasn’t really far off the mark if you took into account the general demographic on whom such fashions might be targeted. There was also specialized corpse makeup, embalming chemicals, and more headstones, looking quite strange on their plastic grass display. It’s disconcerting, seeing a grave stone out of its native grave yard, the “here lies” truncated, the memorial standing guard over unsanctified Astro Turf.
Perhaps the strangest detail was the convention’s theme. In my research I checked for this year’s Western Pennsylvania Funeral Association theme, which was “Dixie”. At the time of my visit, it was the decision of those managing the event that it should be “Mexican” themed. The resulting bad Mariachi music and sublimely racist “Mexican” card board cut out decorations (sombrero, burro and maracas) blended together to create a pitiful and impotent effort to inject some “family fun” into the surreal landscape. They even included a scavenger hunt, by virtue of which the young children –of which there were a surprising number- could visit each of the exhibitions in turn and receive candy and prizes from the sales people. At one of the stands, I got a small bottle of embalmer’s disinfectant.
The most surreal aspect of the entire event was not the overwhelming attention being paid to death, but of the carefully concealed reality of what death entails. That is, of course, the entire purpose behind the funeral industry- to insulate people from the reality of what is happening to the remains of their loved one. Underneath the glaring lights of the Rainbow Gardens, it’s easy to forget the entire purpose of each display is to add some kind of tangible, material quality to death in order to make it more integrated in our idea of having lived. There’s something familiar about the consumer atmosphere, even amid the trappings of death. It’s not until you look at the labels on the brightly coloured chemical bottles do you realize that the process behind making a dead body fit for viewing before its internment is a messy, undignified process, involving the draining of fluids and the use of plastic molds to restore sunken eyes or caved in faces. Every single thing I saw during that strange day was conceived to try and restore some idea of dignity to the person departed, and distract from the biological process of decay.
I don’t know if it was the result of this experience or if it would’ve happened anyway, but I have a healthy fascination with death. I’ve had death in my family. My father died several years ago, and while it was my step mother’s wish to hold a viewing, I did not set foot in that funeral home. It could be that I simply knew the façade was just that, or that I had last seen my father alive, had hugged him and that was the memory I preferred. While I was in film school, a group of students shot a documentary on the process of embalming and cremation, and at this juncture I am probably more informed about mortuary practices than anyone really ought to be.
The unsettling feeling that struck my ten year old self, upon reflection, seems to me now to be a reaction to the artifice and commodification of death rather than the fear of death itself. A coffin by any other name is still a box in the ground, and the idea of storing my chemically preserved remains in something that can be viewed in last month’s catalog just seems like the ultimate act of consumer denial. Nowadays you now purchase caskets at Costco- there’s a display with sample casket corners bolted into the wall. The Mexican one is a muted pink, with cameos of Our Lady of Guadalupe fixed on the corners.
Having a realistic sense of my own mortality, I’ve considered what I might want for myself after death, and I’ve decided on the old Roman way. I want to be cremated on a pyre somewhere on the Pacific coast, wrapped in a shroud, with a coin in my teeth for the ferryman. I want people to have a big bonfire party on the beach and toast my memory with an unending supply of spirits and music. I like the idea of my loved ones warming their hands over my charred remains. It might strike some as primitive or even barbaric, but I’ve given it many years of thought after having had a thorough look at the competition, and I simply prefer to think of it as cutting out the middle man.