A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution
© 2020, Hugh Ashton
You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.
“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that. Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?
And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.
And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.
But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.
Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.
“I want to book a funeral,” he said.
Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.
“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”
“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”
He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”
“But that’s only two days away.”
“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”
I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”
“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”
At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.
So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.
“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”
“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”
Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.
“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”
He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.
By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”
I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.
“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.
Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.
He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.
Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.
“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”
“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”
Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.
“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.
“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.
“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.
Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”
Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.
Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.
“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”
“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.
“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”