BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Death and profits

Editorials & Columns
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

MY stepfather passed away a couple weeks ago. His death came suddenly and too soon, catching us all by surprise. He wasn’t ill or anything. It was a trying time for the family, especially my mother, so the burden of making various funeral and other arrangements fell to me.

As I dealt with the funeral home and was subjected to all manner of salesmanship, I decided that used car salesmen have nothing on these hustlers. I was reminded of a passage from Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” in which he ran into an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. Although I cleaned up the grammar a little for the benefit of the reader, the attitudes haven’t changed much:

“Does a coffin pay so well? Is there much profit on a coffin?”

“Go-way! How you talk!” Then, with a confidential wink, a dropping of the voice, and an impressive laying of his hand on my arm: “Look here; there’s one thing in this world which isn’t ever cheap. That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person doesn’t ever try to talk you down on. That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person doesn’t say —’I’ll look around a little, and if I find I can’t do better I’ll come back and take it.’ That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person won’t take in pine if he can go walnut; and won’t take in walnut if he can go mahogany; and won’t take in mahogany if he can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles. That’s a coffin. And there’s one thing in this world which you don’t have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that’s a coffin. Undertaking? — why it’s the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest.

“Why, just look at it. A rich man won’t have anything but your very best; and you can just pile it on, too — pile it on and sock it to him — he won’t ever holler. And you take in a poor man, and if you work him right, he’ll bust himself on a single lay-out. Or especially a woman. For instance: Mrs. O’Flaherty comes in — widow — wiping her eyes and kind of moaning. Unhandkerchiefs one eye, bats it around tearfully over the stock; says —

“ ‘And what might you ask for that one?’

“ ‘Thirty-nine dollars, madam,’ says I.

“ ‘It’s a fine big price, sure, but Pat shall be buried like a gentleman, as he was, if I have to work me fingers off for it. I’ll have that one, sure.”

“ ‘Yes, madam,’ says I, ‘and it is a very good one, too; not costly, to be sure, but in this life, we must cut our garment to our clothes, as the saying is.’ And as she starts out, I heave in, kind of casually, ‘This one with the white satin lining is a beauty, but I am afraid — well, sixty-five dollars is a rather — but no matter, I felt obliged to say to Mrs. O’Shaughnessy —

“ ‘Do you mean to say that Bridget O’Shaughnessy bought the mate to that jewel box to ship that drunken devil to Purgatory in?’

“ ‘Yes, madam.’

“ ‘Then Pat shall go to heaven in the twin to it, if it takes the last rap the O’Flaherties can raise; and mind you, stick on some extras, too, and I’ll give you another dollar.’

“And as I lay-in with the livery stables, of course I don’t forget to mention that Mrs. O’Shaughnessy hired fifty-four dollars’ worth of hacks and flung as much style into Dennis’s funeral as if he had been a duke or an assassin. And of course, she sails in and goes the O’Shaughnessy about four hacks and an omnibus better. That used to be, but that’s all played now; that is, in this particular town. The Irish got to piling up hacks so, on their funerals, that a funeral left them ragged and hungry for two years afterward; so the priest pitched in and broke it all up. He doesn’t allow them to have but two hacks now, and sometimes only one.’

“Well,” said I, “if you are so light-hearted and jolly in ordinary times, what must you be in an epidemic?”

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

Read more articles