The pleasure of selecting a coffin
Have you ever had the occasion to shop for a coffin? It needn’t be such a gloomy affair.
Scene: An Undertaking Parlor. The room is large and airy. A score of coffins are aristocratically arranged, as would be the pieces of furniture in a drawing-room. They range in color from snowy white through shades of gray to the deepest black. And from the palest lavender to the deepest purple. Grays and lavenders. A beautiful combination.
To the right, an open door reveals a tea-room, where the weak and hungry may procure refreshment during the stress of selecting a coffin. To the left, a small-sized dance hall, where minds may be distracted from grief to the tune of blithesome jazz. At the centre, a miniature cinema theatre, where films of stylish and up-to-date funerals are shown.
As the curtain rises, the undertaking parlor proper is devoid of people. Two women enter solemnly. They are clothed in the deepest and blackest black. One of the women is Winnie. The other is Fannie. As they close the street door after them, a dapper casket seller springs miraculously into view. He lightly approaches the two women, rubbing his hands quite as if he were trying to eradicate the odor of embalming fluid by means of Hoyt’s German.
Casket Seller (suavely): Good afternoon. (Fannie sobs)
Winnie: We would like to look at some coffins.
Casket Seller: With pleasure. Male or female?
Winnie: Why — (hesitates and looks at Fannie) Fannie do we want a male or female coffin?
Fannie (brokenly): A—a—male.
Winnie (to Casket Seller): A male coffin please. Of course. To be sure. What was I thinking of?
Casket Seller: Right this way please. (He turns and the women follow him)
Winnie: Something not so terribly expensive.
Casket Seller (still affably): Quite so.
Fannie: I think we ought to get the best there is. It is really the last thing we can do for him. (Sobs)
Winnie: Perhaps you’re right. Fannie. Let us see the best you have.
Casket Seller: What brought about the end of the deceased?
Winnie: Dear me, must you know that?
Casket Seller (affably): No, not necessarily. Only if it might help in the selection of a lining. When death results from erysipelas, for instance, I would suggest a maroon lining. For tuberculosis, a pallid gray. For delirium tremens, a wine color. Do you get the idea?
Winnie: Perfectly. In this case death resulted from an operation.
(Fannie covers her face with her hands and begins to weep copiously)
Winnie (irritably): Fannie, for heaven’s sake!
Casket Seller: Might I suggest a cup of tea and some gray-hay-am wafers? They are so resuscitating. Will you step into the tea-room please?
Winnie: Come on, Fannie. I’m really hungry.
Fannie: Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
Casket Seller: A cup of tea will make you a different woman. Do you see that lady in there with the black apples nodding so coquettishly on her hat? Well, a few minutes ago you should have seen her. She was almost swooning out here from grief. And look at her now!
Winnie: Come Fannie, do let’s have a cup of tea.
Fannie: You go. I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
Winnie (to casket seller): Console her while I’m gone.
(Winnie enters the tea room)
Casket Seller (consolingly): Was the end peaceful?
Fannie: Oh no. He suffered terribly. I never—(sobs)
Casket Seller: Just what was the operation?
Fannie: Appendectomy. … He—he—he— (sobs)
Casket Seller (interrupting): Do you see that lady in there with the gentleman in gray?
Fannie (looking into tea-room): Yes.
Casket Seller: She’s one of our best customers. This is the third time she has been here to make a selection. … She says coming here makes selecting a coffin almost if not quite a pleasure. She would not miss it for anything.
Fannie: I suppose that’s her brother with her now.
Casket Seller: Oh, no. He’s a prospect. She may be in here selecting something for him before another year has passed. Who knows? She says she has awful luck with husbands. (Pause.) Your friend in there seems to be enjoying her tea. I believe she has ordered something more substantial than gray-hay-am wafers to go with it. Yes, she has. A sandwich, a chicken salad, and bisque glace.
Fannie: Oh, how can she?
Casket Seller: There! She’s going to dance. Don’t you just love this fox trot, “Mourning Widow Blues”? I think it’s great. Would you like to try it with me?
Fannie: Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
(Winnie and a man in blue serge cross gaily over to the dance room)
(Winnie and her escort return to the tea-room)
Casket Seller: They are going back into the tea-room.
Fannie: Oh, how can she? I couldn’t touch a mouthful — I couldn’t. I haven’t since he passed away.
Casket Seller: She’s ordering again.
Fannie: Oh you don’t mean to tell me? It should be stopped. We came to look at coffins and not—
Casket Seller: Another sandwich, another chicken salad, and another bisque glace. Your friend certainly has the right idea. … Is she motioning to me?
(He goes over to Winnie. Fannie sits sadly watching him. She is weeping softly when he returns to her.)
Casket Seller: She wishes me to tell you to select the coffin. Whatever you choose will be all right. Now here we have — a solid mahogany casket, solid silver handles, lubed with the best quality Liberty satin, comfortably padded, with a well-made pillow, bevel glass top, with hinges solid mahogany lid, name plate of solid silver, Yale lock, extra heavy—
Winnie (hurrying over to them): Fannie, they have the best sandwiches and the best chicken salad I have ever tasted. And the bisque glace! Wonderful! Do come in and taste some of the food.
Fannie: Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
Winnie (enthusiastically): And the dance floor is perfect. And such tantalizing jazz! Have you made a selection yet, Fannie?
Fannie (weeping afresh): Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
Winnie (to Casket Seller): Dear me, you don’t seem to have consoled her a bit.
Casket Seller: Perhaps the cinema room would interest her. There you may see movin’ pitchers of the classiest funerals. Also the various styles of mourning. And the various ways of showing grief. And the looks of scorn to give the relatives whom you suspect are going to contest the will. Every little detail is shown. It obviates any dress rehearsal which one may deem necessary.
Winnie (enthusiastically): Do come, Fannie. It will be so interesting. We shall know just what to do on the day of the funeral.
Fannie (pathetically): Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t.
(Winnie and her new escort start off to the cinema together)
Winnie (calling back to Fannie): Do have the coffin all picked out by the time I get back.
Casket Seller (to Fannie): Perhaps you would like to look at some of the models?
Fannie: Oh, I couldn’t—I couldn’t. We’ll take the best you’ve got. It will be all right, I’m sure.
Casket Seller: Very well. That is settled. .. Will you excuse me while I give in the order? I suppose six feet will be ample long enough?
Fannie: Much too long. He was only—only—(sobs)—only four by eight! … I mean four feet, eight.
Casket Seller: Oh, four feet, eight. Small for his size. Yes, I should say very small for his size.
(Casket Seller goes away, leaving Fannie sitting disconsolate. Winnie and her dancing partner reappear)
Fannie: Do let us get out of this place.
Winnie: Why, I’ve had a perfectly lovely time. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Have you finished?
Winnie (to Casket Seller, who has returned): Well, everything seems to be settled now.
Casket Seller (to Winnie): Yes. Name and address, please. (To Fannie)
Winnie: My address is, Mrs. Winifred Stephens, 17 Dover Terrace.
Casket Seller (showing surprise): Is the casket to be sent there?
Winnie: Why, of course.
Casket Seller: Then this sad and stricken lady (indicating Fannie) is not the widow.
Winnie (proudly): Certainly not. I am the widow. She’s only my late husband’s private secretary.
(Fannie rises with effort, her handkerchief to her eyes. She leans on Winnie. As they go out, Winnie turns and smiles pleasantly at the Casket Seller, who stands open mouthed, staring at them.)
~ CURTAIN ~
>> Next: Glorifying the Gigolo
Hero image: Whiskey bottle funeral by Achille Beltrame, © 2004 DeAgostini/Getty Images