THURSDAY | MY FIRST DAY
THE THE FUNERAL HOME mostly consists of a tour of the premises, which is
more than merely interesting as Bates & Dodds is the oldest funeral
home in the city still on its original premises. Around the back, the funeral
director's motorcycle and the company van (an unmarked dusty purple minivan
with rollers for the casket on the floor where seats might otherwise be)
sit in the garage that once held funeral coaches. A ramp once led to the
horses' stables upstairs. There are caskets everywhere, next to a pile
of furniture and boxes that belong to the daughter of Stanley, one of the
owners. She's storing her stuff there while she looks for an apartment.
In one room, between a disused shower stall and file cabinets containing
the home's records going back over 100 years, a low table holds a group
of boxes, wrapped in butcher paper and labelled, just smaller than a shoebox.
These are the ashes of people buried out of the home, many of them unclaimed.
The oldest box is dated 1968.
I watch as Stanley and Steven lift Mrs. Walker off of
the table in the preparation room and into her casket. As they fuss with
arranging her in the box, her nephew Mervin, a former pro football player,
walks through the smoking lounge and finds them at work. Steven quickly
takes him by the arm and leads him back to the viewing lounge and chapel
at the front. Stanley looks at me, eyes wide open. They're rattled -- customers
aren't supposed to see them at work. As Stanley finishes up and wheels
Mrs. Walker to the front, I notice Mrs. Liu, under a sheet, on another
table in the corner of the room.
There's a myth that the greatest shock of a funeral is
the seeming absense of the dead, or rather the unusual way that something
essential seems to leave the corpse of a loved one, diminishing their remains
in some mysterious way, leaving a drained vessel, somehow lacking in the
dynamic force of the same person when alive. It is a story that, I suppose,
is meant as proof of the soul. I have to say that I've noticed exactly
the opposite in my time at Bates & Dodds.
Far from being mere shells, little better than furniture
or meat, the bodies lying in state here have a remarkable presence, and
not just for members of the grieving family. I find myself drawn to them,
and frequently stare at Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Liu as they lie in state,
in the little alcoves in the chapel and the viewing lounge. I suppose it
might be because, unlike the living, they can't stare back or confront
me for my rudeness, so I can gawk with impunity. More than that, though,
they have an undeniable air of gravitas, a stillness that can only be described
FRIDAY | MRS. LIU IS TAKEN
TO A CEMETERY in the suburbs for her service. I accompany Stanley in the
rented hearse, while Barry, the hearse's driver, is following behind with
the Buddhist monk in the funeral home's lead car, a black Chevy sedan.
At the chapel, Mrs. Liu's family is waiting, somberly,
at the deepest moment of their grief. While Mrs. Liu's husband, in a retiree's
uniform of baseball cap and shades, sits in his pew, unmoving, her daugher,
wearing a black fur vest and carrying a bike courier's bag slung across
her shoulders, is fighting back sobs. A grandson, in a white sweater and
baggy pants, seems as distraught. Outside the building, Stanley helps the
family burn paper offerings in a pail, stirring the ashes with a steel
rod. The monk finally arrives, and hurries off to get prepared.
I stand at the back of the chapel and watch the service,
a long, metronomic chant in Cantonese accompanied by rapid tapping on a
wooden block by the monk, bracketed by the ringing of bells. At the graveside,
the family stuffs a backgammon board and various pieces of luggage into
the heavy lead vault that snugly holds Mrs. Liu's casket. The vault's lid
is rolled on, and two groundskeepers winch the whole heavy container into
the ground. I wonder to myself what future archaeologists will speculate
about us from our, varied and inconsistent, burial customs. What kind of
wildly incorrect assumptions are we making about the ancient Egyptians,
Romans, Vikings and Celts?
On the way back downtown, Stanley tells me that he has
to stop and pick up a watch for the monk, who sits in the front seat with
him, laughing and haranguing Stanley in Cantonese. In an industrial park
in the suburbs, Stanley gets out and returns with a small package that
he hands to the monk. Inside is a Baume
& Mercier wristwatch, gold with a ring of diamonds around the face.
The monk giggles as he hands it back to us, and Stanley tells us that he
has a collection of several Rolexes, a few Patek Phillipes, a Cartier or
two, that he keeps in a vault. Normally, another monk from the temple would
have done this service, but he was able to get the head monk since the
wristband needed repair, and the distributor was near the cemetery. We
admire the watch, and hand it back to the monk, who slips it back into
its suede wallet, then falls asleep in the front seat.
SATURDAY | MRS. WALKER'S
CASKET is heavier than I thought, and I grunt as I help Steven lift it
into the back of the hearse. We're due at the Grant A.M.E. (African Methodist
Episcopal) church in a half-hour, so I help Steven and Stanley load flowers
into the back of the lead car. At the church, Steven and Barry walk through
the route the casket will have to take, up two steep sets of stairs, around
several tight angles, and up the side aisle of the church. With six pallbearers,
it's even more tight, but Mrs. Walker makes it on time, with no misadventure.
While I stand outside the church chatting with Barry,
Laws, a prominent local black activist arrives late, and glances at
us with undisguised hatred. Laws is an old-style, Black Panther-inspired
character, one of the first to bring American-style race politics to Canada.
I'm not saying that Canada is a paradise on earth if you're black, but
our problems are a little bit different from south of the border, for a
lot of reasons. In any case, I don't enjoy being regarded with such visible
disdain by someone I don't know. "Just two white men in suits," I suppose
he was thinking -- "What right do they have to be here?" Barry is an ex-cop,
and looks it, so that might explain something. And so it continues, the
never-ending cycle of fear and hate.
SUNDAY | THE END OF A
BEAUTIFUL weekend. K. is working out on the deck garden, transplanting
the chives and tarragon that began sprouting again immediately after the
snow had melted off of the dried twigs and stalks left over from last year.
We make note of the two hardiest plants in our garden, which managed to
survive the winter in pots, out at the edge of the deck, three stories
up in the north wind.
Yesterday, after I got home from the funeral home, we
went off to the hardware store for bags of soil, and picked up seedlings
from the corner store at O'Hara. I planted thyme and lavender in a galvanized
tin window box, while K. filled a plastic trough with parsley, spearmint
and red basil. She put pansies in another big container with the daisies
our neighbour gave us, and so the new season begins.
I spend much of the day on the couch in the living room.
I change the needle on my turntable back to the LP stylus, and dust off
vinyl records I haven't played in years. I'm in a Modern Jazz Quartet kind
of mood, and play Django
Sun in Venice, along with a Sandole Brothers record I bought at
a record fair two years ago and never played. I play half of Mozart's Requiem,
and a side each of Herbie
Nichols and a live Italian bootleg of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool"
band. The jazz is a nice break from the techno I've been playing lately.
It used to be just the opposite. Somehow, I don't mind getting up every
twenty minutes to change sides. I nip into Victor Klemperer's tense
and terrifying diaries, and a book on the home
front in WW2 Britain. Nothing can get me down; in spite of the reading
material, it's a good day.