The Casket Salesman’s Pitch

I cannot remember what the tricked-box that carried my first child to his destiny with the earth looked like, but I can sure remember picking it out. The shock that initially numbed me from the anguish of an accident didn’t help me when it came time to make difficult decisions on the mortician’s punch list of grief. And on that grim checklist, no item turned out to be more dreadful.

In October 1893, my husband, Michael and I followed a funeral director into a special room to pick out a casket to carry our teenage son, David. We were led into a room with soft dull lights where I gazed upon boxes that were gussied up to look like something grand.

I gasped and just stared.

The mortician, a large man in his early thirties, needed to sell a casket so he started his spiel with a pitch to empathy. “I’m sorry, I know just how you feel.”

“Have you buried a child?”

“No. Thankfully.”

“Then you really have no idea how I feel!”

It was a flat out, speak my mind utterance that I remember clearly because back then it was rare for me to say what I thought, or even to know what I felt. Especially if it was rude or made someone else uncomfortable. My rare moments of outspoken clarity hit my insides in an almost sensual way, a little jolt of adrenaline to my heart. A way to affirm that, “Dang it girl. You do have an opinion and a voice.”

That little spark of anger kept me going through the mortician’s spiels about types of wood, metal, knobs, and fluff. My least favorite of the options to discuss was hermetic sealing as he tried to be convincing about the value of paying for that little enhancement. I knew none of it mattered a bit. A small box couldn’t hold a racquetball kill shot, or a basketball layup, or backpacking trip in the mountains. We would place so much promise in that box and whatever it looked like, it would get dropped into the ground and eventually it would not look great. That was the way the earth worked.

I let Michael talk to the mortician unless I needed to utter something in response to a simple question. I only felt like snarling at the guy. As I stood listening, I considered how awful a job selling caskets would be and then thought, “At least he has a job with a paycheck during a recession.”

They came up with someone else to help us with our next task. That change in mortuary personnel was a good thing, but the smarmy salesman had served his purpose. For a little slice of time, I was able to feel rage and anger at a person other than myself. I needed that little jolt before we moved on to check off the next item on the horrid to-do list.

We needed to find a place for the earth to devour our son. Of all the things required, I dreaded this trip the most. Michael and I wanted a plot that was unpretentious but reasonably maintained.David loved the mountains, so we hoped we could find a place with a view of them without going to the windswept cemeteries at the top of Portland’s West Hills. Those felt too formal, too manicured, and too pristine for our son.

For the tour of places to hold our misery, I sat in the back of the funeral director’s car, a stoic mom with a job to do. Michael sat to my left. As rain pelted the car I stared out streaked windows and wondered about how I could face life and keep going. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to manage to see David placed into the ground. And then, after I walked away, I had no idea how I would manage to face the world of people who didn’t know we were blessed and that our lives were part of God’s plan. Retreating from the public couldn’t happen in a tidy way because I was on the school board and trying to peddle real estate. Can’t do that those things in private. As we drove city streets and rural roads of Washington County, each streak of rain that I watched roll down the car window did the work for eyes that were too numb to cry on their own.

I tried to focus on how grateful I was for all the food, messages, and visits that cradled us in caring. But it was hard for me to feel blessed by that love. I was still riding in a car and picking out the place to bury my son. I felt trapped in anguish.

Maybe a breakdown was a luxury I could afford. I stared out and fantasized about getting wheeled into a peaceful place, meals prepared, and people speaking quietly. I knew someone who had a breakdown and her insurance paid for the stay. We still had insurance.

Maybe I could break down just long enough for the worst of this to pass. Maybe some attention from people who were paid to help me would succor my soul. Maybe the Lord would look down and know I couldn’t take anymore and things would change.

As I considered visions of institutional peace, I knew that if I bailed out, the problems would remain. Construction interest rates would still be over 20%. Michael would still be depressed. We would still lose the house. And grieving children would still need to be nurtured to believe that God’s plan would work out for our family. Sometime.

For now, I felt that succumbing to sorrow or insanity wouldn’t help that grand plan from on high, and falling into despair would be prima facie evidence of a lack of faith. I sure needed faith right then and I feared that if I slipped into a breakdown I would lose the tenuous thread of spiritual hope that kept me going.

There was another issue I didn’t grasp under the pain right then. Belief kept me numb to shame. I couldn’t abandon my determined faith—even for respite from aching responsibility.

I sagged into that car seat with the weight of my thoughts. Michael noticed and unbuckled his seat belt to slide across the back seat to hold me. I started to protest his unlatched belt. But I knew Michael didn’t care—it wasn’t his issue. I just savored his shoulder and together we rode in silence.

After hearing a description of the type of plot we hoped to find, the funeral director gave us his best shot and drove to Union Point Cemetery in the little town of Banks. When we arrived, we saw it was off the beaten path. Not manicured, but trim and neat. Behind us, a sawmill and activity in the town whirred with life. I knew that the Union Point Cemetery was really their spot, their place to gather and bury part of their lives. It wasn’t ours and I felt like we were interlopers. But then nowhere was ours, so all we could do was ask to include a hunk of our love and heartache into the town’s gathering place for memories. We asked the mortician to try and get a spot at the crest of the cemetery’s hill because that is the place David would want to be.

Another item checked off.

Two days later, our family and friends gathered for a large funeral that overflowed the church. David’s friends from school and sports teams were there, co-workers, administrators from school, and friends from church. I felt like I was coping just fine. I was determined to hold up well for I believed that my serenity would be a public demonstration of faith in God’s plan. And then, with faith, the misery would pass.

Delusion was a cloak that I often wore in those days.

After the service as we walked from our cars to the hole that would swallow David, we had sweeping views to the east over the farmlands and orchards of Oregon’s Tualatin Valley. Beyond were the West Hills of Portland, and Mt. Hood was a distant sentinel that gleamed with a new dusting of fall snow.

It was a pristine day for miserable duty, and for that much I was grateful.

My fourteen-year-old daughter was in a wheelchair pushed by her grandfather. He’d hardly left her side at the hospital. A 13-year-old son who also survived was surrounded by friends. Our two youngest daughters were in the care of their oldest brother and other relatives. The sun warmed us and made me feel that Providence was looking down and comforting us.

There were so many flowers. Before this time I thought flowers were a temporary staunch to grief. I had an idea that donations to an appropriate cause were more thoughtful than flowers that would fade. But as I walked toward the bouquets and a gorgeous drape of blooms that covered the casket, I realized that the flowers soothed my soul and shone as warm little affirmations of caring. The flowers did fade, but one Schefflera plant still remains. I’ve fussed over it, repotted it, taken cuttings, and watched it thrive over nine moves in over 30 years. An abiding token of love shown to us so long ago.

When it seemed like all was in order with children cared for and family members present, I circulated and greeted guests and onlookers with a smile. I wanted to show my children that we were celebrating their survival, not mourning a loss, and that we would be with David again if remained faithful. I wanted to believe that destiny would guide us. I knew I had a role in God’s plan and I played it for all I was worth. With a smile. It is what I thought God gave me to do.

As I write and look back to face my role in causing that terrible day, my only comfort is that I tried so hard for all of us. I was just too blind, too desperate, and too careless. Tragically, the result has been a reverberating heartache for everyone I love. Whatever I may fear, my life is a story that I need to unfold and tell.


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