If I had known planning my burial would be so entertaining, I'd have done it ages ago.
When my wife Rose and I got into our sixties, we decided to face what we considered to be a gruesome task. We resolutely chose to plan our funerals and prepay all of our burial expenses. We met with the funeral planner, Mrs. Exiter, expecting a dreadful hour or two of morose dealings. Instead, the woman won us over almost instantly.
"Oh, how I love it when you young people come in to preplan your funerals," she said.
Rose and I looked at each other. "Young?"
"Most of the time I am dealing with utterly distraught 85-year-old widows who are wringing their hands, crying uncontrollably, and are clueless as to what they have in the way of insurance," Mrs. Exiter explained. "But here you are in the prime of life, free of despair, and full of logic. I simply cannot tell you how much I admire people like you who choose to handle these matters in a rational, practical way."
I sat up a little straighter. I decided it was okay for her to tell me how much she admired me. No problem there.
"I'm going to give you each a booklet to take home," she said. "It's a fill-in-the-blank sort of thing where you decide what songs you want, what passages of Scripture, and which people you want to present eulogies. Take your time. Just have it back to us sometime within the next twenty years." I liked the way this woman thought.
Actually, I'd anticipated these requests. The hymn I wanted was, "Arise, My Soul, Arise." The Bible verse I wanted was, John 11:11, "Our friend...has only fallen asleep, and I am going to wake him up." And the eulogy I wanted was, "Hey, I think this guy is still moving."
Mrs. Exiter had some additional paperwork requirements, such as needing my military discharge documents. "You vets get a free flag," she said. Here we parted ways a bit, for "free" was hardly what I called a year of slogging through swamps in Vietnam. Nevertheless....
Using a calculator on her cell phone, she tallied costs for everything from the guest book to the parlor rental. Then it was time to zero in on the big items: caskets. She led us into a large room. It had wooden and metal caskets, even plastic models.
"Let's start here," she said pointing to a rather bland, generic, dark-colored casket with purple silk lining. "First, we need to see if you'd like the customized add-ons."
"Add-ons?" asked Rose.
"Yes, indeed. You'll notice there are six brass spheres attached to the bottom of the casket, three on each side." She pointed. "In days gone by, pallbearers used these to lift the casket. Today, we use extension lifts, so the spheres are now more decorative than functional. As such, our designers have come up with add-ons to go over the spheres that reflect the interests of the deceased."
She disappeared for a moment and returned with a large box. She extracted a circular object and pushed it over one of the brass spheres. "Here you see an add-on that shows the deceased was an avid seamstress."
Projecting from the add-on, like a deranged octopus, were such appendages as a tape measure, a needle and thread, a thimble, and random buttons, zippers, and cloth swatches. It was ghastly.
"Are you a career woman?" she asked Rose.
"I was an elementary school teacher for about fifteen years," my wife answered warily.
"Oh, perfect," said Mrs. Exiter. She withdrew a new add-on and forced it over a different brass holder. "Isn't this cute?"
It wasn't. A circular clump of wood was encrusted with a ruler, an old-fashioned slate, a piece of chalk, some granny glasses, and an oversized red apple. Rose didn't know whether to gasp, laugh, or moan.
"And you? What about you?" she asked, turning to me. I wondered what kind of an add-on she'd have for a college writing instructor who churned out a book now and then.
"I'm a hack journalist," I said. "Do you have an add-on with rejection letters, bad reviews, and miniscule royalty checks?"
She pondered a moment, then said, "If you can provide us with a sketch, I can see if...."
"That's fine," I interjected. "Actually, I like to think those brass knuckles are the real me anyway."
"Okay, so no add-ons," she said, putting the box aside. "Let's look at structural options."
She led us between two long rows of caskets. On each unit, the front half of the lid was open. She suggested we walk among them to see if something appealed to us. At the very first one, I stopped abruptly and pointed. "What's this?" On the front panel of the lower section of the coffin, the part still closed, there was a drawer.
"That's the keepsake drawer," she explained.
"For what?" I asked, totally confused.
"For anything," she answered brightly. "Grandchildren can write good-bye notes to their grandparent and put them in there. Spouses can insert love letters. Friends can put in mementos."
"Mementos? For dead people?" I was genuinely dumbfounded. "Such as what?"
"Well," said Mrs. Exiter, "two weeks ago a lady came in to pay her respects to a friend who had died of cancer. They had worked side by side in a factory for more than twenty years. She knew the brand of cigarettes the woman had liked, so she put a pack inside the keepsakes drawer, kind of for old-times' sake."
I stared a moment. "What do you think put the deceased in the casket in the first place?"
My wife pointed to another casket. "Uh...this drawer has a lock on it. Who, exactly, is supposed to get the key?" By now we both were wondering if this could get any more ludicrous.
"That's a judgment call," said Mrs. Exiter. "When some people are told, 'You can't take it with you,' they reply, 'The heck I can't.' They order their lawyers to put their gold watches, rings, and other valuables into the drawer, lock it securely, and then dispose of the key. Other people ask that their baseball card collection or their coin collection be inserted in the drawer, locked, and the key be put inside one of their pockets."
"It didn't work for King Tut," I said.
She raised one eyebrow. "We have better locks these days."
NO CASH TRANSACTIONS
We settled on two caskets and went back to the office to prepay the bill. When I asked about the total, Mrs. Exiter explained, "Well, see, that's not how it works. Actually, what you do is have us take out an insurance policy on you so that when you die, the policy will pay the total costs." She wrote down what the premium would be for policies on each of us and passed the paper to me.
"So, that's the total you need?" I asked, pen poised.
"Uh, no," she said. "We suggest you pay it in three equally-divided annual premiums."
"But I have the money," I explained, "and I'd just like to get this wrapped up."
"It's an odds game," she stated. "There is no additional charge for paying the premium in three yearly installments. And, if you get killed in a car wreck or die by choking on a bone, your wife won't have to pay those extra two premiums. Think of how happy that would make her."
I did. I took a moment to imagine my wife standing in black garb next to my open casket as I lay stone cold inside. Here would be Rose smiling broadly, shaking hands with mourners, who would say, "Rose, you are so strong. Dennis is dead, yet you seem so positive." And Rose would respond, "Of course. Thank goodness, I had to pay only one-third of the costs of this funeral because when Dennis flew off that toboggan and broke his neck, it was before the second premium had come due. I've already booked my tickets for a Caribbean cruise ship leaving as soon as we get him planted."
I turned and scowled at my wife.
She looked quizzically. "What?"
"Don't be smug," I warned. "Maybe you'll go before the second premium."
She shook her head and mumbled something about men in general, and writers in particular.
"Does no one ever pay the total amount ahead of time?" I asked Mrs. Exiter.
"Some do, on occasion. One very old man from the little town of Garrett came in last month," she began, her eyes averted in recollection. "This elderly fellow had been saving ten and twenty dollar bills in shopping bags for fifteen years. When his doctor told him he had only four months to live, he had his niece drive him to see us. He put four shopping bags here on our table."
The fact that this was a true story made me, a journalist, lean forward in rapt attention. Being from Indiana myself, I knew Garrett had a population of 5,207 people, 264 dogs, and 119 cats.
Mrs. Exiter sighed. "It took me and two secretaries more than an hour to sort, count, and wrap all of that cash. Then we ran into a problem when I asked the old fellow to turn his driver's license over to me."
"Why'd you need that?" I asked.
"Well, the Drug Enforcement Agency says that all transactions in cash over ten thousand dollars have to be reported to the federal government. This is to prevent money laundering by drug traffickers. When I explained that to the old gentleman, he looked at me forlornly and said, 'I'm pretty sure I'm not running a drug ring in Garrett.' I knew this was probably true, but the law is the law, so I said again that I had to have his driver's license to make a photocopy for the DEA."
"Did he comply?"
"He couldn't," she said. "He told me, 'Well, we've got another problem. You see, seven years ago the State of Indiana told me I was no longer fit to drive, so my license was taken away.'"
I nodded, being very empathetic with the discernment of the State of Indiana. "What'd you do?"
"Turns out, his niece remembered he had a state ID card. We used that."
"So, the old man didn't have to go to jail?" I asked, whimsically.
"Moot point," said Mrs. Exiter solemnly. "He died a week later."
"Hmmmm," Rose mused. "He should have opted for the three-installment plan."
Admittedly, we learned it costs as much to die as it does to live. There are separate fees for digging up your grave and for filling it back in. There are separate fees for the casket and for the metal liner that goes around it. There are separate fees for the gravestone and for the support slab it rests on. There are separate fees for engraving your date of birth on the tombstone and later engraving your date of death. Suddenly, expressions such as "you're killing me" and "you're sending me to an early grave" no longer seemed like clichés. I'd need to live another 20 years just so I could afford to die.
"Your children are going to appreciate all this preplanning," Mrs. Exiter assured us as we tied up all the final details.
"I hope so," I said with a shrug. "Have you done all this? You know...prepaid for all of your funeral and burial costs."
"Not really," said Mrs. Exiter. "I've made...other plans for covering the costs."
And as we shook hands to say good-bye, I noticed that her charm bracelet had an endless number of little keys attached to it.
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is director of the Professional Writing Department at Taylor University, where he holds the rank of full professor. He is the author of 54 books, the latest of which is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishing).