So, I harbor fantasies of offing my in-laws. Doesn’t everyone? But unlike everyone, I got to live out those fantasies this past weekend … sort of. Having emerged more or less unscathed from what could have been a fatal disease last year, death has been on my mother-in-law’s mind of late. Well, not so much death as the trappings of death; i.e., her wake, her funeral, and those of her husband. Of course, it was me she called — her black sheep daughter-in-law — to discuss the issue of pre-arranging her funeral and that of her husband’s.
Why pick the black sheep’s brain? Well, no one else in the family was willing to broach this subject. It was like toxic waste, you see, or melted mozzarella. Ah. I should probably explain about the cheese. It seems that every one of my in-laws chokes on melted mozzarella. In an Italian-American family, this is akin to alcoholics being allergic to booze. Ergo, whenever a dish baked with mozzarella comes to the table, it is accompanied by hasty Signs of the Cross, shouts of, “Watch out for the mozzarella!” as if it were an oncoming, careening car, and furtive glances around the table to see who’ll be the first brave soul to nibble the melted mozzarella.
However, on the subject of death, or rather, the pre-planning of her parents’ funerals, I thought it only right to conscript my older sister-in-law, Susan. Susan’s reaction was much like that of Catholic school children in the Cold War ’60s, when the nuns commanded that said children hide, in the middle of the day, under their desks against potential atomic bombs. The area beneath the desks was no safer than anywhere else, save a bomb shelter, but we kids ducked there anyway, quick like bunnies, grateful for the brief respite from math and spelling.
Well, this was pretty much Susan’s reaction, without the brief respite. To her credit, she didn’t duck under the kitchen table (where I’ve twice found her, no lie, during other family crises). But she did hold her arms up over her face, quivering and sniveling, “No, no, I can’t discuss this! You take care of this; you’re the strong one!” “Strong one” is a euphemism. By this, she means that I’m the Tin Man in Dorothy’s Oz: minus a heart. I am by no means minus a heart. I simply have fantasies of offing my in-laws, that’s all. Thus, it fell to my husband and me to squire his parents to the funeral home of their choice.
The funeral home happened to be in the city … New York City, for you out of towners … and my in-laws live in one of the outlying boroughs. When I questioned this choice of locale, I was told that the home had done a nice job with a recently deceased relative. Beside which, “Dat cheap bay-stard, mah brudder-in-law upp-a State, won’t-a pay for da parking in-a the city!” This, from my father-in-law, who has held a lifelong hatred for my mother-in-law’s brother-in-law. (Do you need a scorecard yet? No? Stay tuned: you’ll soon need one, and a Valium.)
Getting my father-in-law to accompany us on this jaunt to see about his own pre-arrangements was, to say the least, difficult. He has a hard time with anything clinical or even mildly uncomfortable; he was pretty much useless when my mother-in-law, whom we’ll call Maria, was in the hospital last year. As she had explained gently to me, “You know how he is. He wanted to know why a janitor had not mopped up the blood on the floor of the delivery room when your nephew was born. Of course, he wasn’t in the delivery room for the birth. He was outside, being revived by smelling salts. He just can’t deal with these things.”
I’ll say. When his cardiologist announced that my father-in-law absolutely had to have aneurysm surgery a few years ago, or the thing in his chest would explode and kill him, my husband’s dad nodded crisply and replied, “Sure, Doc. Just-a as soon-a as-a my wife an’ Ah return from a six-a month tour of Italy!” This is not hyperbole; this is fact! And a reason for one of Susan’s turns under the kitchen table!
The funeral home was situated between a coffee shop and a music shop. Into the warm, July morning air wafted the mouth watering aroma of freshly ground coffee … and maybe something else that I’d not wished to examine too closely, given the proximity to the funeral parlor. “Ah’m-a have a little espresso,” my father-in-law declared stoutly. “Maybe two. Maybe a little biscotti. You three, you go, you have-a a good time in the funeral home.”
“Not a chance, Buster,” I gritted, and hauled him inside by his shirt sleeve. The funeral director was tinier than me (which is pretty tiny) and looked about 25 years old. For this, I rejoiced. She was still young enough to forge another career, for an hour or so with my in-laws was sure to send her running for one.
First, we went over costs. Since my mother-in-law has vowed to kill herself if my father-in-law goes first, I was all set to bargain for a “two for the price of one” … or as close as I could cut it. I was ready to cite my in-laws’ advanced ages, the fact that they are on Social Security, and even Mr. Obama’s threat to yank those SS checks unceremoniously unless the yobos in DC could reach a consensus about the National Debt.
My father-in-law (let’s call him Paolo) sat back in his chair, waved his hand, and told his wife, “Whatever you want, Maria, I’m-a good for it!”
“No, you’re not,” I pointed out sweetly, “You’re retired, remember? You’re on a limited income!”
“Eh, you tink Ah was-a stoopid, girly? Ah gotta money in-a bank! Ah gotta some gold bullion, Ah gotta stocks, Ah gotta –”
“A big mouth,” my husband sighed. So much for the discounts!
But the subject of money had, apparently, distracted my father-in-law from the more gruesome aspects of why we were there. We learned that the cost for an average, modest funeral was roughly $13,000 — for a pre-arrangement, that is. Pre-arrangement means that everything would be paid for in advance and placed into an FDIC fund, thus hedging against ever-rising inflation and thus giving the funeral parlor some ready dough with which to play. A symbiotic relationship if ever I saw one.
The $13,000 included but was surely not limited to a fee of $1,400 per day of each viewing, to have a representative of the funeral home oversee the proceedings (read: have someone physically present to hand out tissues to the grieving family), a fee of $1,250 for the grave diggers to open the grave and, once filled, seal it (I’m obviously in the wrong line of work), $200 for the cosmetologist (“I never wear make-up!” my frugal mother-in-law sniffed), and $360 for the pallbearers: $60 per guy.
“You cheap-a sister!” Paolo thundered at this last fee, red in the face and slamming his fist on the funeral director’s desk. Business cards and fine logo’d pens, not to mention the humans in the room, jumped like Mexican beans. “She couldn’t-a spend a measly $360 when-a ‘er husband passed away?!? Ah had-a to ‘ave-a mah sciatica and-a mah shingles and-a mah nerves act up for-a t’ree weeks because-a she wanted her brothers-in-law to be-a the pallbearers?!?”
“What about the price of caskets?” I quipped, to get Paolo off the scent.
“Well, it depends upon the material used,” the director explained. “And, we have full caskets and the half caskets.”
My mother-in-law blinked. “Half caskets? What do you do with the other half of us?”
“You’ll see in a minute, Ma. Why don’t we view the caskets now?” I asked brightly, because Paolo, when he gets started, is like a dog with a bone. And nobody’s ever accused my mother-in-law of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. I hoped that the sight of a few caskets might cow my husband’s dad into semi-silence and remind him of the old Biblical saying, “To dust thou shalt return.”
All hope died aborning.
We descended in an ancient elevator and arrived in the casket room. It was quiet in there, almost muffled. Compared to Paolo’s pontifications, I liked it. I could have spent the rest of the day there, in relative peace. But no. Immediately, Paolo examined each sample casket like a lion inspecting the scat of a rival on his self-policed turf. Paolo, you see, had been in the construction trade, from which he’d retired with quite a reputation … based, not exclusively, upon his quality craftsmanship.
“Loook-a dees-a sheet-a,” he sneered, running his hands over a simple pine coffin. “Da grain, she no match-a on-a da sides! You gotta bring-a da grain around from-a da front goin’ the same way, dees-a sum-un-a-beetch-a!”
“That’s our least expensive casket,” the little funeral director coughed.
Paolo beat his chest like King Kong. “I was-a da best-a metal worker in-a da city! I wanna metal casket!!”
“You want it right now?” I gritted, only to get a sharp poke in both sides: my mother-in-law to my left and my husband to my right. When I was able to catch my breath, I realized that the funeral director was touting the merits of the metal coffins, particularly, the rubber gaskets that prevent rain and mud from infiltrating the casket.
“Isn’t that a little … unnecessary … given the circumstances?” I asked.
“You know Dad doesn’t like the rain,” Maria pointed out delicately. “He grew up in sunny Italy.”
If only he’d stayed there, I thought but knew enough not to say, for I might’ve had my feet stomped on next.
“Dees-a-one’s for me!” Paolo declared, laying his hand on a fine bronze casket big enough to fit him and a few of his hand-wrought sculptures. It carried a matching price tag. “Pick-a one for you-self-a, Maria!” He said it magnanimously, as if he were springing for a mink coat.
“Well, no … I’d … I’d rather not.”
“Maria. You bring-a me down-a here when Ah could-a been sipping’ espresso next door, playin’ bocce in-a da park, fishing in-a da bay, or fertilizin’ my tomatoes and peppers and figs in-a da backyard. So now you pick-a you casket! Right now!!”
“No, no!” my poor mother-in-law screamed and burst into tears. Whereupon, Paolo explained to the funeral director, “Oh, see? You no have-a no pink coffins. She like-a pink. ‘ees-a her favorite color. No worry. Ah paint-a for her!” If I were my mother-in-law, I’d watch my back and re-check my insurance policy. Paolo uttered those words with certainty, as if his wife would be the first to quit this Earth.
At his offer to decorate his wife’s coffin, I steered the director away by her elbow. “These caskets are lookin’ better and better to me,” I told her, sotto voce. “I might want to rent one for the rest of the day.” She gulped and asked if we’d like to see the rooms upstairs, where the deceased parties are laid out for the viewings. Sure, why not? Another “distraction” for Paolo.
Immediately, we noticed the wide, flat screen TV above the area that would bear the casket. Paolo sneered, “Ah no like-a dat. You sheet-ass-a brother-in-law upp-a State, Maria … if-a one o’ ees-a kids pays-a for da parking lot, he gonna watch-a soccer games on dat ting! Over mah dead body!”
Silence reigned supreme. After a heartbeat or three, it was broken by the funeral director, who explained that no, the screen was there so that the funeral home could create a DVD of the deceased’s life, through photographs contributed by family members. And that this would be a most pleasant way to remember the deceased. “Bool-a-sheet!” my father-in-law chuckled. “Dees-a requires creativity. Dey don’a have-a one creative bone in-a dere bodies, mah family. Well, mah daughter in law, she’s-a pretty creative,” he winked at me, whereupon the heart shriveled in my chest.
“I don’t think so, Dad,” I begged off. “This should be done by a professional, I think.”
“Si, si, but-a … Cecile B. DeMille, he dead-a, no?!?” At Paolo’s raucous laughter, the funeral director gave me a supplicating look. I don’t know what her problem was; she only has to bury them. I have to live with them! Well, thankfully, not under the same roof.
This all happened this past Saturday. As of today, my father-in-law is scripting his own epic send-off, insisting that a voice-over, with his own voice, of course, be added to the side show, I mean, slide show, of his life. He’s also adding a codicil to his will so that the brother-in-law “upp-a State” can’t watch Italy vs. Brazil or even the Bronx Bombers vs. the Red Sox as my father-in-law lies in state. My mother-in-law is busy selecting paint chips for her pink casket, because she wants just the right tint. It has to complement the silver in her hair. My husband has his head in the sand (a smart man).
Me? I was contemplating joining Susan under the table, where she scooted when I relayed all of this to her. But I have a better idea. I think I’ll arrange to have the usual post-funeral dinner in the actual funeral home. I think I’ll make some nice baked ziti … with plenty of melted mozzarella. The resulting hue and cry just might be loud enough to wake the dead! If you’re wondering why I’d consider reviving the in-laws, here’s why. It’s so not fair that they enjoy everlasting peace when I haven’t had a moment’s peace since I married into their family!!!