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The coffin gleamed beneath stained glass windows, a blanket of flowers resting atop elegant wood. Martin, the deceased's friend, admired his work, feeling he'd really outdone himself. Everything was perfect. Times like this made him proud to be an undertaker. And what better way to show his exceptional skill than for a friend?
Chairs were set up facing the closed coffin, each carefully placed to afford the maximum occupancy and yet allow each mourner a respectable amount of space. There were no crosses or other religious artifacts in the room at the request of his friend. He had no use for religion before, and this was no time to be hypocritical now. Sounded reasonable to Martin, so in place of the customary crucifix, he placed an 8 x 10 photograph of Jonathan in a tasteful wooden frame.
The last minute touches included lighting the candles to compliment the mood, and a gentle spray of floral perfume added to the atmosphere. The guest book lay open on a stand by the door, its crisp white pages anticipating the multitude of signatures and comments that would be written on it with the faux-gold pen that rested beside it.
His experienced eye glanced once more around the room. No, everything was fine. Soon they would come and would appreciate his handiwork, in a subconscious way of course. Nothing but the best for Jonathan. He'd made sure of that, and so had Jonathan.
At 7:00 p.m. sharp they began to arrive. A video camera, complete with microphone feeds set up discretely in strategic spots blinked on as programmed. No one would be the wiser, and this would be a treasured heirloom, Martin was certain.
Martin gently led the guests to their seats, the important ones closest to the coffin, the lesser beings nearer the back. It struck Martin how similar a good funeral was to a wedding; strange that. As the guests mingled he piped in some of Jonathan's favorite music, muted of course, so the pleasant strains would not interfere with the hushed conversation.
After a respectable amount of time, Martin stood at the podium beside the coffin and addressed the crowd. "Good people," he said, having a slight flair for the dramatic, "we are gathered here today to pay our respects to Jonathan Gold, our friend, relative, employee, our son. His wishes were that he be remembered not with prayer or sermon, but with the words of those who knew him. And so, to honour these wishes I ask that anyone who has something to say, please come up and share your memories with us. Madam, would you like to be first?" He said to the elegantly dressed woman in the second row.
"No." Was her reply. A man, dressed in suit and tie obviously worn only at events such as this one stood. "Okay," he said, "I'll talk." And went to the podium.
"Hello," he stated, "for those of you who don't know me, my name is Art Burrows. I knew John in school, and I wish I could say we were friends, but we weren't. He lived four doors down from me, and we would meet in the playground or on the sidewalk and I was kind of fat back then, wasn't I Mrs. Gold?" The deceased's mother nodded her head slightly in agreement. "As you can see that changed as I got older, but here I am, forty-one and the other day I ran into him on the street and he said, Hey Fat!, like I was still eight years old. He meant nothing by it, I'm sure, but you see he didn't think. He didn't think it'd hurt my feelings, but it did. Still, I'm here standing and he's not, sorry Mrs. Gold, so it's time to lay to rest the little boy and get on with my life. I hate seeing someone my own age dying like this; makes me think how easy it is to be here one minute and gone the next. I don't know how he died, but I am sorry for all of you that loved him and miss him. Uh, that's about it for me." Hanging his head, he returned to his seat.
"Well, um, that was honest of you, Art, was it? A glimpse of John as a boy. Has anyone else something to say?" Martin asked.
A slight figure of a girl stood up. "I'm Cassie," she said. Martin led her to the podium.
"Hi," she spoke softly, "I don't know why I'm up here but since no one else is talking I guess I will. You see, I worked with Mr. Gold. I'm in the clerical pool. It's a real shame, him gone like this. And so sudden too. I'm here to pay my respects to his family. I'm sorry." She coughed. "See, I didn't really know him. I've worked with him for three years, ever since I graduated high school, and like, he never said good morning. Never had the time I guess. And he wouldn't chat with us like the other managers do. Like he was above us or something. I was curious is all. I know he wasn't married, June there told me that." She glanced at her friend. "And well, we wondered how a guy like him, not bad to look at, making decent money, good job, how come he wasn't married? Maybe he was shy like me. Well, I came here thinking maybe I could learn more about him so maybe I would miss him a bit more than I do. Mrs. Gold, my deepest condolences on the loss of your son."
His mother mouthed a thank you to her and Cassie sat down.
Martin tried to get another speaker, someone more familiar who had something really interesting to say. But there were no takers. So he decided to pay homage himself. "Friends, it was a great pleasure knowing Jonathan Gold. We first met in university and since those campus days he has been stalwart person, generous to a fault in his charity donations, a baseball fanatic who always had tickets for a game. He could be counted on in times of need, why just the other day he loaned me his sports coat when mine was still at the cleaners and I had an emergency meeting..."
"Oh will you shut up ya pompous idiot!" a voice boomed from the back of the room. "Do you hear yourself?" Flustered, Martin replied, "Perhaps you could enlighten us?" "Not on your life!" Was the answer.
A woman stood, Kleenex in hand, eyes rimmed in red. "I, I'm going to talk here if you don't mind." Martin shook his head. "Okay, well, I went out with John for three years back in the early eighties. You remember me, Mrs. Gold? Good. I'm Jennifer. Mrs. Arbuckle now. I've got two kids, girls, aged three and seven. Anyway, I came 'cause I hoped he'd found himself the person he was looking for. I always got the feeling I wasn't good enough, even though back then I made more money than he did. We broke up when I told him it was either marry me or hit the road. Never heard from him since. Oh wait, that's not true, he did show up at my door a few days later looking for his cassettes and his blue sweater. Well, now, I'm making him sound awful. I did stay with him for three years so he can't have been all bad. He bought me flowers once. I think. Or maybe that was Tim. Anyway, I did love him. It's too bad he went so young. Thanks for listening." She sat down.
The elegant woman in the second row stood up. "I was his girlfriend. He cheated on me." And with that, she left.
"People, people, I know this has all been such a shock and emotions are running close to the surface. Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind is the hurtful things. But what about the good things? Now there's Mr. Smith, John's boss. Why don't you say a few words?" Martin pleaded. This was bad, very bad. Surely the boss could put things back on track.
Mr. Smith cleared his throat. Not bothering to stand, he said, "He was punctual. But his expense accounts were a bit excessive. And I'd like to know where his laptop computer is. It belongs to the company."
A small hand went up. "I'm Mark. His nephew. He always remembered my birthday."
"Good, now that's the sort of thing we're looking for!" Martin exclaimed.
The booming voice from the back shouted, "Who is we?"
"Why all of us, of course," the beleaguered Martin responded.
"There's something funny about this set up. Where's the corpse. Rita, did you see him?" Said the voice.
"No," wailed Jonathan's mother, "I don't even know how he died!" A hand reached around her shoulders to comfort her. "I only heard about it yesterday!"
"Same here." Replied the man.
Soon a mumble rose throughout the room. Martin had never encountered such a crowd. How would he ever reclaim the dignity a funeral deserves?
"Rita, did they tell you how he died?" Questioned the voice.
"Said it was an accident."
"And who told you this?"
"Why, it was the undertaker here." She said pointing at Martin.
"Since when do undertakers pronounce someone dead?" Hissed the voice.
There was a shuffle as the assembly turned to look at one another. Something was definitely not right here. "Well," whimpered Martin, "if there's no other tributes, I think I'll bring this funeral to a close..."
"Okay smart guy," the hulking man with the booming voice said as he strode towards the podium, "where is he? I wanna see the dead guy."
"I think I'll be going now..."
"I think not," said the man as he reached for Martin's lapels. "Show me the body."
"I can't!" Whimpered Martin. "Help me!"
An audible gasp rose as the very much alive Jonathan snuck into the room. His mother screamed. Jonathan raised a hand, attempting to quiet the crowd. "Sorry everyone. It was an experiment."
"A what?" Roared the man who was still holding Martin by the lapels.
"Well, you see I took a course that said you should picture what you think people would say at your funeral to imagine the kind of person you are. I didn't think it'd turn out like this though."
With that the man hit him in the back of the head. As Jonathan struggled to remain conscious he said, "The money. I want it tomorrow."
And from the back his boss shouted, "You're fired!"
Someone threw a chair and the room went wild, flowers were tossed at the two cowering men, and there was so much commotion that for all intents and purposes a riot had begun. Someone had the sense to call 911 and before the two men could be turned into actual corpses, the police had arrested twenty-two people, one of whom was Jonathan's mother who, at the time she was apprehended was attempting to pull out Martin's hair.
Released on bail, Jonathan and Martin sat in a dark corner of an nondescript bar, nursing their wounds and their drinks. "They ruined my suit." Martin said.
"Oh shut up," Jonathan spit out, "you've ruined my life."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," he replied.
"My mother won't talk to me again."
"Sure she will. Besides, I needed the business."
"Uh huh. And do you have any thoughts on where I'm going to get the job to be able to pay you for this fiasco?"
Martin shook his head. Then a smile crept across his bruised lips. "Say, Jonathan, do you have any insurance?"
"Course I do."
"What if you really were to die?" He said with an evil grin. "Where would you like to go? Someplace warm perhaps? It could be arranged, you know..."
"Arrange this!" Shouted Jonathan as he plowed a fist into Martin's smarmy face.
It was interesting, the newspapers noted, that the very day in which two men had chosen to stage a fraudulent funeral a car should come careening around a rain slicked corner, crashing through the front of a small licensed establishment and coming to rest in a pool of gasoline, which, when touched by a candle that had fallen from a table, promptly ignited and exploded, obliterating the building and its occupants.
A memorial service will be held at a later date. Previous mourners need not attend.
Catherine M. Harris Davies