This story starts with death. Then it gets worse. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My father died on May 15. He was 85 and he’d suffered from Alzheimer’s for years. His illness, even more than his death, was a tragedy. He was a retired accountant, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, and he’d led a quiet life. That’s why it’s so strange the aftermath of his death deteriorated into a series of botched events that shouldn’t happen to the quick or the dead. That brings me to the House of Death, my affectionate nickname for the Austin funeral home that handled and mishandled my father’s remains. Let me recount the ways.
First, the HOD forgot to notify me that it had my father’s body. My husband and I, who were still in New York, were forced to call a number of Austin funeral homes before we found out where he was.
Once we located his body, the negotiations about cremation began. “Duane,” our personal liaison at the HOD, told us witnessed statements from my sister and me, the sole survivors, were necessary to authorize cremation. Sure, my sister lived in Poland, where she had to get the statements translated, but that was just a part of the cremation process, according to Duane. “After all,” Duane intoned more than once, “cremation is an irrevocable act.”
Cremation was irrevocable? Like death wasn’t? But it was early in the day, the first day of my father’s non-existence. I didn’t want to argue about anything.
So, my sister and I both got signed, notarized and witnessed in our respective cities. We also both corrected the misspelling of our father’s first name, Hiram. Duane, it seemed, had preferred to spell it with a “y.”
Days passed. Duane called back. “We need to do it all over again,” he said, “since your father’s name was misspelled.” His attitude indicated that misspelling, like death, was an act of God, authored by no one in particular and certainly not Duane himself. “It’s going to take a few more days,” Duane said, sighing loudly.
We re-signed, re-notarized, re-witnessed; my sister had her document re-translated. Back to Duane, who noted we were well on our way to that irrevocable act. In the meantime, he would make certain Daddy’s obituary and photo were in the Sunday Austin American-Statesman so people would be notified about his memorial service.
Sunday came, without my father’s obituary in the newspaper. Duane had neglected to send it in, another HOD spokeswoman said when I called, distraught. I’d worked hard on that obituary, writing something I hoped would capture my father and his life.
“I’m arriving in Austin tomorrow, and I don’t want to work with that incompetent moron again,” I told the woman. She said that was fine, since Duane wasn’t scheduled to be in the office the next day, anyway.
Over the next few days, we worked with a new funeral director; I saw my father’s body, his face unlined and cool to the touch; we had a small religious service for him, which he would have wanted. My husband and I returned to New York to pack our belongings to come back to Austin.
It wasn’t till a month later I realized the House of Death hadn’t called about Daddy’s ashes. “I don’t know why no one called your family,” yet another liaison told me when I got to the HOD. “I’m so sorry.”
She gave me a certificate of cremation. “In case you want to take him on a plane,” she said, nodding at my father’s ashes. She talked on, her voice lilting with that syrupy solemnity they must teach you in the death industry, her face appropriately pained. But I didn’t listen to her.
I was thinking about my father, not that package of ashes. If anything had defined Daddy, it was his relentless search for humor in life – which he would then use for any occasion he had for public speaking. He loved to stand in front of an audience and he loved to tell jokes – the cornier the better. We had different senses of humor (mine was too dry for him, his too old-fashioned for me).
But here’s a story he and I could have both told: Guy leads calm, uneventful life. Always follows the rules, always plays it safe. Dies peacefully in his sleep. Just when he’s trying to get a little eternal rest, the House of Death blunders in. Oh, we would have laughed about that one.