An expression of gratitude
I headed east out of Portland, along the country highway that ambles by the Clackamas River. The sun was glittering through the trees, which got thicker as I climbed towards the forests of Mount Hood. The road sparkled with promise that early Saturday morning, fifteen years ago.
I found my intersection and looked for a sign to the property, “Cornerstone Funeral Services.” Easy enough, as there was nothing else around except the funeral home and, directly across the road, the mom-and-pop Barton Store. I made my turn, and the guy pumping gas outside the store waved at me. That was all the encouragement I needed, plus I had time, so I stopped to refill my Big Gulp. As I walked in, the woman behind the counter asked me how I was doing. A few minutes later, fortified with caffeine and good will, I pulled onto the funeral home property. Yet another person, a woman I would learn was the owner’s wife, waved at me. Within five minutes, three people had laid eyes on me and actually seen me. I wasn’t just another figment of energy moving past, I was a human being who had been acknowledged. My heart soared.
The funeral home was tiny. George, the owner, explained that it was originally a goat barn he had remodeled to serve as a funeral parlour, and he needed someone licensed to run it. He showed me inside where I found paperwork and files all over the place. The mortuary board had just been out to inspect, and it looked like a hurricane had hit. George invited me to sit down. He resembled a tall Yoda. I expected him to start the interview, but he just stared at me for a while. Then, “So, what do you think, kid?”
What did I think? I didn’t have the first clue. What was his offer? Not very much, it turned out. George couldn’t pay me per hour. The previous manager/funeral director had racked up lots of bills that had to be paid off before the business was back in the black. George said he hoped I’d give the place serious thought. As I left, the gas station attendant waved again and I waved back. I drove slow toward the city, past geese at their mid-morning ablutions, past the grazing goats, back to the thinner scrim of trees, thinking the whole way about whether this was an opportunity in the rough or the next worst idea of my life.
Dismal pay? Handshake deal? Funeral home in Boring, Oregon? My fiancé, my friends, plus all my fiancé’s friends told me I was nuts and this crazy move would be slamming shut all corporate funeral doors on myself that I would need open because I would eventually come crawling back.
My first month at the little funeral home in Boring, Oregon can only be described as bleak. The phone hardly rang. When it did, it was most likely a salesperson or bill collector on the line. I only served two families the whole month. I walked to the Barton Store probably four times per day for boredom relief in between lining up urns on the chapel chairs to serve as my audience while I performed dance routines.
The second month didn’t start out much better. At least, by then I had all the files put away properly and the dust shoveled out of the place. Cornerstone was ready to receive company. All I had to do was figure out how to get mourners through the door. Sales reps kept ringing the phone with plenty of advertising opportunities, but I had no money to take them up on it. Since my predecessor had bought copious amounts of ad space and all kinds of ridiculous inventory, Cornerstone was in the red for the foreseeable future. I used my own credit card to print business cards. “Now we’re paying for you to work there?” my fiancé, Michael shouted.
George was understanding, but when the coffins are bare, so are the coffers. One day, he came by the office and explained he couldn’t cover my meager salary any more. “I don’t want to lose you, kid,” he said. “I think you’re the best chance this place has. Any way you’d stay on for a percentage of the income?” I said I would, and we shook on it. Once again, we didn’t bother with a formal contract. I took it on faith that when families came in, I would take some of that money home.
George wasn’t looking to take any of the profits for himself until I earned a reasonable salary. My job was to meet with families, make sure the bills were paid, and I’d receive any leftover money.
“So, now you’re working for nothing?” Michael said, turning this latest development over in his head. “No, wait, not even nothing, because there are a bunch of work expenses on our credit card. So basically, this is worse than working for free, honey.”
But there were bright spots. Winterizing the old goat barn was fairly simple. Without a basement, all I had to do was shut the vents to the crawl space and plug holes to prevent squirrels, mice, and rats from making their own parlours in my parlour walls. I was proud of myself, until I realized how little chill my putty knife had managed to keep out. The place was poorly insulated, and single-paned windows let in the wind and cold. On windy days the thin windows in my office rattled away like beads in a gourd. I wore mittens and cut the fingertips out of them so I could type death certificates. I popped bags of popcorn all day in the microwave, trying to keep myself warm with hot corn kernels.
Over the New Year, an ice storm knocked out the power for three days. Worried the pipes would burst and flood the funeral parlour, George hustled off to the hardware store for spray foam insulation to inject into the vents and openings. He discovered mice had been using the water pipe as a runway into the insulation under the floor. A few hours and more than a few buckets of rodent poison and insulating sealant later, I was freezing, weary, and close to tears. I cranked the heat up as best I could to thaw out.
I might as well have had a cheese grater covering the building for all the good the roof was doing me. Mourning families had to endure chapel services or visitations while looking at a small garbage can between the chairs. I winced whenever I heard little drops of water plinking and splashing into my make-shift bucket while guests paid their last respects. If it were possible to die of humiliation, I would have been one ashamed mortician lying in a casket, but I made it through winter with shreds of my dignity intact.
By the time the rainy season begrudgingly gave way to a sunny day now and again, the parlour was doing enough business to break even on the basic bills. Michael and I were married in July, and the road was sparkling with promise once again like the first time I drove out to Boring.
And then came The Call that transformed my repurposed goat barn future.
A woman asked if I could meet her and some friends at their favorite pub to discuss funeral arrangements for someone named Wanda. I agreed and said I’d be there in the time it took to make the drive. Wanda’s friends were a close-knit group of gentle people. While filling out the death certificate, they were stumped as to why they weren’t allowed to list Wanda’s occupation as “Wanderer,” and “The Earth” as the accompanying industry. After all, that is what Wanda had been.
Her friends felt they could only truly honor Wanda the Wanderer by laying her to rest on the fifteen country acres where they all lived. “This is new territory for me,” I cautioned. “Let me make some calls and get back to you.” The local zoning department confirmed that home burials were allowed and explained the regulations to me. So, I lined up a backhoe, and we were good to go the next day.
The service was top-drawer. Wanda’s friends and family played drums, chanted, and spoke of her kindness. We held hands to form a circle around her newly dug resting place and stood in silence as her three sons lowered her gently into the earth. Her tiny frame was cloaked with a quilt she had made as a teenager. Soon, the plain grave was covered with soil, a knoll of dirt on top to compensate for the settling that would happen over time. There was no marker, just native foliage. After a closing prayer, we feasted on fish caught down the way in the Clackamas River.
“It was beautiful,” I told Michael that night. “I wish you had been there. It made so much sense.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, they got to do it in their own way. You could see how much comfort it gave them to be able to stay with her and take care of her body. They didn’t have to go through that weird, disconnected feeling people have when they arrive at the funeral home and first see the body lying in the coffin. Someone was with her the whole time from the time she died until the time she was buried. For once, I didn’t have that nagging feeling the whole experience was falling short. I was able to help those people get what they needed.”
The regulars at the Barton Store asked me about the burial the following day. Apparently, there’s nothing more welcome in a rural cafe or post office lobby than something unusual or juicy to visit about. So, I put the rhododendron bush telegraph to work, spreading the word that I’d just directed my first backyard burial. Very quickly, I was fielding all kinds of questions. One woman stopped by the parlour to see exactly what kind of operation I was running out of the old goat barn. A fellow named Harry, in his mid-eighties, invited me over for his birthday to talk about death. Specifically, his death. People starting calling, asking to speak to the Green Reaper. George told me he was going to sit back and enjoy watching the show, which I took as a huge compliment.
I worked a full day on the day I gave birth. I was suspicious I might be in the early stages of labor, but couldn’t afford to miss any work. Early in the evening, I met with a large family at their home on Wildcat Mountain to make funeral plans for their patriarch, Rocky.
“What are you doing after this?” one of Rocky’s sisters asked during the visit.
“Probably driving myself to the hospital to have a baby.”
Rocky’s family thought this was hysterically funny. Two of his daughters whipped open my sweater to have a closer look since they thought I was exaggerating and making a joke. No joke, for when we finished I drove myself to the hospital knowing it was time. My birthing supplies had been packed and stowed in the back of the van for days. At the hospital, I unloaded bottles of wine for the nurses, my family pictures, a long-cherished Tony Bennett CD, and my birth plan. On the examining table, a nurse announced I was dilated three centimeters and really needed to stop taking funeral home calls.
On Sofia’s second morning in the world, I rose at the crack of dawn and practiced gentle yoga stretches on the hospital floor. I couldn’t afford to lie in bed; I had a funeral home to run if I could work out my postpartum stiffness and cramping. A nurse walked in and asked, “Where’s the mother?”
“I’m the mother,” I grinned, working my hips toward downward dog position.
She turned on her heels. In a moment, she was back with the doctor. They watched me ease my way into bridge pose and the doctor deduced I could go home early. I didn’t waste a minute packing up my things and my baby. After wheeling me to where my car was parked, the transport guy said, “You are the first mom I know of who drove herself to and from the hospital.”
“No time for maternity leave,” I said, brightly. If he only knew what was next on my list!
I drove Sofia directly to the crematory to pick up Rocky’s cremains, then drove back up Wildcat Mountain. I had an urn of ashes in one hand and a newborn in the other, but the family wouldn’t have believed my story if I hadn’t still had the hospital bands on my arm. After they got over their shock, Rocky’s wife asked to hold Sofia. I lay my infant daughter in the heartbroken widow’s arms and watched her tension and grief ease a bit. Sofia made a tiny squeak and settled in as if she had been born for the job of comforting the bereaved.
Sofia proved to be an excellent icebreaker with the locals. The first time I showed up at the Barton Store carrying my newly minted daughter, the love warmed my heart. Gossip, speculation, and debate stopped while the baby was inspected and cooed over. Jeannie, the owner, declared Sofia the official Barton Store Baby. Jeannie produced a camera and recorded Sofia’s sweet infant face for posterity — and for the wall near the register where it was proudly hung.
It was easy to have her with me at work; she inherently knew what to do. She was in the midst of bawling only a few times when a call came in. I could latch her onto me for a nice, warm drink of milk to quickly quiet any noise or fuss. The people on the phone had no idea I was breastfeeding my baby while quoting them backyard burial costs.
One day, I situated Sofia in her baby lounger next to my desk. I was powering up my computer when I heard a loud noise. It sounded like an angry squirrel, coming from the direction of the chapel. The closer I got to the fireplace, the louder the scolding. Concerned this beast might actually be inside the building, I retreated and closed the door to my office. No way would this squirrel run across my precious baby.
With a flashlight from the supply closet, I returned to the chapel fireplace. Peering into the narrow gap between the insert and the surround, I saw two furious little eyes glaring back at me. We contemplated each other anxiously for a long moment when suddenly, he twitched forward. I shrieked operatically and lunged backward, knocking a couple of chairs out of their soldierly lines in the process. Alarmed, the phantom rodent retreated as fast as he could wriggle his compressed form in reverse. I watched until he beat a hasty retreat toward the roof, then went to the office to comfort Sofia, who had been wakened by the commotion.
Quietly, I shut sleeping Sofia in the office, blocking the crack under the door with some casket catalogues. I marched out to the pump house where George kept miscellaneous tools and materials for the constant repairs required to maintain a forty-acre property. I rummaged around and came up with a few items I thought showed promise. After a great deal of experimentation, I constructed and installed a wire mesh barrier to fit over the vent pipe. My black suit looked as if I’d been rolling around on the gravel driveway. My pantyhose was a lost cause. “I can totally do country funeral life!” I told Sofia, quite pleased with my headway, during her four o’clock feeding.
George was generous and helpful, but an old building is an old building. The roof would eventually be replaced, but there was always an issue. The parlour was still colder than a well-digger’s britches, except for the days there was a funeral or visitation. I didn’t have the funds to spend on electricity to heat the entire building when only my office was in use. Fortunately, most of my drop-ins were country people well-educated about zonal heating.
Michael’s support made the rest of the winter a lot easier, at least mentally. I felt surrounded in adoration, wrapped in a warm electric blanket of sustenance, knowing I could call him whenever something came up. No more facing these headaches alone and worrying about how to break bad news to him at the end of the day.
The phone rang, more and more. As the business grew, I relied more and more on my husband’s help. In addition to doing the lion’s share of Sofia’s daily care as she was now a rambunctious toddler, he did a lot of the transport work and the parlour repairs. Michael kept the books in the kind of pristine condition only a bottom line money sort of guy has the patience for — and boy, he needed major patience with me sometimes.
“‘You’re not charging enough!”
“I’m not raising prices!”
“Elizabeth, be reasonable, we’re not running a charity.”
“I’m aware, but you know I feel strongly about remaining as close to non-profit as possible.”
“The profits are how we eat and pay bills and keep the doors open!”
During my third year at Cornerstone, George offered to sell his goat barn funeral home business to me. “My health’s not so good anymore, kid,” he explained, “and I think it’s time to turn this place loose to you. You’ve done real good out here. You’ve earned it, kid.”
He presented his offer while I tried to imagine what Michael would say about it. I hadn’t had a substantial paycheck for a very long time, and the business couldn’t pay for itself. The only way to purchase it would be to dip into our private funds. Still, I had to think this through. There was no way I could buy a funeral parlour of my own using conventional means before I keeled over, and I wasn’t likely to find another deal like the one George was offering. I decided to accept. Michael, to his New Jersey credit, cursed just a wee bit when I told him my news.
Today marks fifteen years that I took over the chair I’m sitting in. The view is the same, but I am completely changed. George left for his home in the sky years ago. His picture hangs in my office and sometimes it knocks the breath out of me to see his face. When dark days come to my parlour doorstep, I walk around the property and touch the ancient farm equipment he was so cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs about. And if the air is right, I can hear his voice on the wind saying “So, what do you think, kid?”