THE RIVAL UNDERTAKERS.
In the doorway of his office stood old Job Graves. A funeral procession passed. It was a funeral of Job’s; not “Job’s funeral,” mark you, but “A funeral of Job’s;” one of many which had fallen to his charge; for Job was an undertaker. Over the doorway was his weather-beaten sign, in dingy white paint; on the large front window was inscribed “Coffin Warerooms;” and within the window lay a funeral wreath of wax flowers, a silver coffin-plate, and a little white coffin, — Hope and Despair in one pathetic group.
Job stood in the doorway, and his thin body scarcely filled his threadbare coat. He leaned against the door-post, absently took off his rusty silk hat, and slowly wiped, first, his thin white face, and then his bald shiny head, with his red handkerchief. The face was worn, bleak, with tufts of white beard scattered among the hollows and under the shrunken jaw, like patches of snow among the hollows of a wind-swept wintry hillside.
Job’s gaze rested upon the old hearse,— his hearse, and the black horses, — his horses, and the black-garbed driver, — his assistant; the whole equipment, so to speak, the work of his hands; it seemed good in his sight; and a feeble sense of joy in its ownership struggled faintly with the habitual melancholy of the undertaker’s heart.
A slight elevation of the hearse-driver’s eyebrows asked of Job, “Is all as it should be?” And the master’s answering nod returned approval. Then Job’s thin frame straightened a little, his right hand paused with red handkerchief in air, and a slight frown gathered on his pale face; for he beheld, across the street, through the gaps in the passing carriages, two other men standing in a doorway. They also were viewing the procession, and critically; over that doorway was the sign, in bright gold letters, “Daver, Funeral Director;” on the half drawn olive shade of the broad window was the same legend, adorned with many scrolls and flutings. Within the window rested a large silver plate, reading, in delicate script, “C. A. Daver & Co., Funeral Directors.” Nothing more; no suggestive signs of the craft, no symbols of mortality. Rather a scrupulous simplicity; almost an admonitory simplicity; as one should say, “Look over there, at those barbaric emblems of woe, and then behold the refined taste, the chaste quality, of this ‘establishment.'”
That is what Daver & Co. maintained, an “Establishment;” old Job Graves was only a plain “Undertaker,” and had “Coffin Warerooms;” Daver and Co. were “Funeral Directors,” and maintained an “Establishment for Funeral Furnishings.”
There stood Daver, himself, in the doorway, with his assistant beside him. A short stout man he was, with round ruddy face, thin grayish hair and beard, his red good-natured face beaming through the hairy haze like the sun’s disk through a dissolving fog.
Daver’s glance always rested lightly, soothingly on all objects; yet few interesting things escaped his notice; his critical eye now passed over the procession, and over Job Graves; and he said, in a low tone, with a skillful suppression of facial muscles acquired by long experience, and amounting almost to ventriloquism, “That hearse, Jim! What an ark!”
Then the assistant, sharply, “It ought to be burned. I wouldn’t be seen in it for all I’m worth.” As he spoke thus enigmatically, he winked in a facetious way at the driver of the hearse, and the greeting was reciprocated; evidently there were underground sympathies existent, between the two, while outer rivalries were maintained.
“Strange,” continued Daver, reflectively, “how little self-respect and pride people have about such things. It’s hard to elevate the popular taste. Ten years we’ve tried it, here; not much improvement.” Then he yawned, and returned a politic salute to the one timidly offered by a driver on the third carriage. The man had driven for him scores of times, and often for Job Graves, his rival. Daver’s disapproval was limited to the hearse; not an intense antagonism, but a pained disapproval. Daver never antagonized anybody, took the world’s blows on a slanting buckler; but he was very clear as to which prizes he sought.
His answering salute to the driver could hardly have been sworn to, as such, in a court of law; a slight corrugation of the forehead, passing down into a brief closing of the eyes, and ending in an almost imperceptible sinking of the chin, and it was done, and no outsider the wiser. Then Daver yawned again, and retired, with his assistant, into the office; and Job Graves, with the slightest possible sigh of relief, put on his rusty hat, adjusted the striped cotton neckerchief around his old-fashioned high stock, climbed stiffly into his old chaise at the curbstone, and took up his position at the rear of the procession.
That was Job’s custom, to ride alone, at the end of the line. He had maintained this custom through the funerals of forty years; having inherited it with other customs from his father, undertaker before him. Whereas Daver, with his other “progressive” ideas, had introduced the custom of leading the line; which he did, very grandly, in a luxurious coupe, with gold lettering. This innovation was accomplished gradually, discreetly. The first year the new “Funeral Director” moved up behind the clergyman’s carriage; the next year he pushed up past the clergyman, and followed the hearse; the third year he pushed past the hearse, and led the line, in a very impressive way. This position he had ever since maintained, despite the concerted attempt, in the fourth year, of seven clergymen — one a Doctor of Divinity — to retire him.
It was the ages-long struggle between the New and the Old, this rivalry across the street. Elsewhere it is “hand-work versus steam,” or “Puritan against Cavalier,” or “stratified rock at war with the leaf of a book;” here it was “caskets against coffins,” with all that these implied. Always, however, the iron rule is — with occasional exceptions — New conquers, modified by Old. So it was here; and Job saw the evil day afar off — as many a conservative sees it — but held, with might, and largely with conscience, to the old methods, to the accustomed ways.
Job knew nothing of “caskets;” he made “coffins;” made them in that back-shop; his father had made them there, and was buried in one of his own fashioning. So would Job be buried. “Am I better than my fathers?” Many a time, as a child, Job had taken his afternoon nap in a coffin in the back-shop, and nobody harmed, no human life the shorter for it. Years afterward, when his wife died, Job knew that life’s noon had passed. After that day the cemetery seemed different to him; seemed more personally related to him; even attractive. He understood now why people lingered there, after a burial, and resorted there at other times. He bought an iron settee and placed it on his lot, close by his wife’s grave; he might feel like using it.
Then the two boys went; one to lie beside his mother; a boy of ten; diphtheria; Job had a “case” of it, and might have slighted his dread duties; but Job never shirked his “work;” and the boy at home died. The other, a wild lad of eighteen, wandered into the “far country,” to be swallowed up in distance and degradation, and perhaps despair. Then Job selected cedar, and made his own coffin; twilight was about him; darkness would follow; then the coffin would be needed; coffins and darkness come together; best to have all things ready; Job was a “fore-handed” man, the people said.
The two undertakers differed widely, in many ways. They met death weekly, daily; but they met it differently. In Daver’s bluff abounding presence, death seemed minimized–he reduced it to an incident; but mourners found it loom crushingly, after his departure. Whereas Job knew it as a visitation, and his presence counselled patience, submission.
Therefore people who desired “cheerful funerals” — those chimeras — sought Daver’s tactful offices; but sensitive people and those whose fathers and mothers had been buried by Job’s father, turned to Job’s father’s son, in their hour of need, and their hearts’ wounds were touched most gently.
As Job and Daver differed in their attitudes toward the dead, so also they differed in their relations with the living. When coarse careless people made stupid jests about death and the duties of his vocation, Job listened in silence and passed on in pity. Stupidity is piteous. But Daver always laughed louder than the jester, — and hated him in his heart, and grimly wondered when he might be privileged to look at him through a casket-lid.
Daver & Co., Funeral Directors, knew nothing of coffins. They had, however, “A choice line of caskets.” “This way, please,” with bows and smiles, and eager hands rubbed over each other; and you followed master or assistant into the mysterious rear-room, and you chose from “A fine stock, sir! A high grade, madame!” Occasionally, after careful scrutiny of the buyer, and skillful measuring of the degree of his grief, it was — “Extra quality, sir! Anybody using one of these never will use any other as long as he lives.” But that facetious sentence was venturesome; it was forbidden to the assistant, and was rarely indulged in by Daver himself. The main object was that some selection should be made, from the “caskets in plain black, brown, magenta or white;” or from “caskets in plush, black, brown, magenta or white.”
Daver & Co. sold many, of both kinds. Job likewise sold many, of the one simple unvarying pattern which he had learned to make, taught by his father. Before Daver & Co. appeared, Job, by working hard, met the entire demand; after the “Funeral Director’s” coming, trade fell off. Then Job Graves waited patiently; “This is not a business that you can push,” he said. But in a year or two custom increased, up to the old amount, and Job was fairly busy; his products were soon taken; “Supply creates demand;” (an economic law, we are told; — of almost suicidal application, here).
The two undertakers differed widely, in their conduct of funeral services. Job did as his father had done; not because that way was best, but because it was his father’s way. This rule of conduct became more absolute with him each year. Now that wife and sons were gone, he had no future; he had “the imagination of regret, having lost the imagination of hope.” The star of success, before him beckoned no longer; the star of experience, from behind, illumined his sad path. Job had given up the idealism of purpose for his sons; he lived by the idealism of example, from his father. Often he brooded anxiously about that absent lad, but his anxiety was not suspected by others; an undertaker is not supposed to have griefs of his own.
In the house of mourning Job came and went silently, unnoticed. At the funeral service he effaced himself, coming forward, at the close, with resolute step and squeaky boots, from some retreat, to state, in a plain sturdy sentence, “There will now be a chance for every one to look at the body.” After this old-fashioned invitation had been accepted, and the general farewell had been taken, the company separated, like a chemical solution, into liquids and solids; liquids, — casual friends, — flowing off homeward; solids, — mourning friends, — remaining. Then Job, reading laboriously through heavy gold-bowed spectacles, like a clerk casting up accounts, called, in a firm tone, the mourners, in fours, from the residuary group, in the order of their grief.
Here there were nice shades of distinction, as in arranging guests at a court-dinner; but Job was not only an undertaker of experience, he was an old resident; he knew all the circles within circles; knew not only how deep each person’s sorrow should be, but about how deep it really was. And he always spoke with such quiet confidence, that even if he sometimes gave a “second cousin on the maternal side” precedence over a “nephew on the paternal side,” he was so convincing, that a listener might sometimes forget his own identity, or even become a trifle confused regarding his own sex.
Daver & Co. discarded many of these “old-fashioned ideas.” They did away with the sombre bunch of crape on the door-bell; and placed there, instead, “floral emblems.” By these, skilfully graduated, were expressed more distinctions than the “seven ages” of Shakespeare. A cluster of white buds, or one of full-blown flowers, — white or yellow, or white and red mixed, — these, tied with ribbons, — white, violet or black, — could become a language of flowers so plain that he who ran might read; (though, of course, he would not run, in passing a house adorned with such a symbol). In addition to the flowers, a few brown autumn leaves were considered significant; or a wisp of brown grass was added; this last symbolized the “bearded grain” of the poet.
During the funeral service itself Daver & Co. were very much in evidence, either master or assistant; on important occasions, — great crises of the profession, so to speak, — both were present; very much so; active, cheerful, inspiring all with confidence. And whereas Job Graves humbly wore around his stock a kerchief with a little “color,” in deference to the “parson,” Daver & Co. boldly wore immaculate white ties; and, with their faultless black clothes, might be easily mistaken for clergymen; thus the service often took on the high quality of a solemn festival.
But Daver and his assistant were not clergymen; Daver had no foolish deference for “the cloth.” During a funeral service he tried, visibly, even conspicuously, to be patient with the readings and prayers; it was customary to have these; therefore he must acquiesce; and, always smiling, he utilized the time in scanning the faces of the people present, to detect signs of physical weakening, and, possibly, of mortal disease. Such people, — or, better, their near relatives, — he afterward spoke to with especial consideration.
After “the church” had been tolerated for a half-hour, the great moment arrived; the moment which — Daver knew — alone justified this coming together; and the skilful man’s heart beat high with pride as he stood by the casket and offered for inspection the unequalled quality of his “work,” a triumph of funereal art.
Sometimes a family was strangely unappreciative; gave orders to keep the casket closed. Then you should have seen the “Funeral Director.” Then, only, did his unvarying “immortelle” smile vanish. “Do I understand, my dear sir,” (in a measured, circumflex tone), “that the casket is to remain closed?”
“Very good, sir! It shall so be, sir.” And no human ear, however keen, could detect that pity and scorn in his voice, which the Omniscient One knew was in his heart.
Thus Daver & Co., zealous, in season and out of season, grew and prospered. They had now become the “City Undertakers;” and their doings were often chronicled in the papers. “How did they become the City Undertakers?” Who knows? This is an age of wires; both “overhead” and “underground.” However, everybody now knew of their existence, — half the problem of financial success solved — and, in the haste of sudden affliction, recalled the name.
Then, too, there were the little gifts — bookmarks, paper-cutters, paper-weights — which many of the physicians found on their desks; Christmas presents, New Year’s Greetings, with “compliments of Daver & Co.”
“Capital fellow, Daver!” And the doctor “remembered” Daver — “the next time.” “People do lean so on the family doctor.”
So Daver & Co. increased in favor and prospered; and still sturdy old Job Graves said, again and again, as he drove his plane, or plied his sandpaper, or wielded his shears, “A business that you can’t push! You can’t push it, as you can other kinds of business.”
Everybody knows that undertakers are hard-hearted, soulless. Just how everybody knows this is another question. It is a portion of that general fund of knowledge which is born with many people. Therefore Job was rarely asked for charity; beggars paused not at his office; tramps glanced at his sign and passed on. Even the children looked askance at him, when they learned his occupation.
Yes, it is a part of the Public’s innate axiomatic knowledge, that undertakers have no feelings; machines merely; necessary evils. Job felt his alienation deeply; felt it the more, since wife and children had gone away. The old-fashioned, sad-faced, silent man, in his rusty coat and high stock, went in and out among the homes of sorrow; he heard sighs and moans, saw bitter tears trickling, dropping; but always for others, never a breath of sympathy for him. He moved, a white shadow, in darkened rooms, yet a shadow with a heart. Oh, his heart was hungry, often, for pity, for affection. He even envied, sometimes, the silent form in the coffin; it at least had love rained upon it. Voices, which spoke to him in stern command, sobbed there; faces, which turned to him in critical inquiry, grew distorted with anguish as they bent over that other face, scarcely whiter than his own.
Thus Job lived, and hungered, and was “in the world but not of the world.” His impassive worn old face told little of the need of his desolate heart. He accepted his destiny, which was, — “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
One early morning a drunken, dishevelled tramp found rear entrance to the “Coffin Warerooms,” and lay, in a stupor, under a bench. Job’s assistant discovered him there. Perhaps this degraded human remnant, seeking such hospitality, lacked the knowledge regarding undertakers so fully bestowed on men and women in general. The assistant pushed a bag of plush trimmings under his head. Job entered hastily, preparing to journey to a distant city, to bring back a “body” for burial. He glanced at the heavy besotted face, partly hidden by an unkempt beard, and said, “Let him sleep it off, here! Afterward give him food, and my old coat on that nail, there!” Then he hurried stiffly down the street, to his train.
The tramp did not “sleep it off.” He had “slept off” too many such states before. He was a shattered wreck. There are two exits from stupor. One is back into this visible world, the other is forward into the Unseen. The latter was the shorter exit for the stertorous tramp, and tramps prefer short routes. So he took it.
“Poor devil!” said Job’s assistant, and summoned the doctor and coroner; they tried pulse, opened eyelid, felt heart, voted the beast dead. Chuckled over his wisdom in selecting his lodging-house. Affirmed that he had chosen his own undertaker; “the wishes of the dead should be respected;” then a loud laugh, and they departed. So “Daver, City Undertaker,” lost this case.
Here was the ambitious assistant’s opportunity. An assistant, may not be trusted by a careful master to prepare “regular cases,” but a tramp — It was a rare opportunity; the assistant washed, shaved, clothed, — in short, “laid out” the body.
When Job returned, that evening, the assistant met him at the door, told him the unexpected, and with pride led the way into the back-shop, to a painted pine coffin beside the bench. And Job Graves, undertaker, looked, then stared, then gasped, and then recognized — the dead face of his wayward son. Death had done its purifying work, as assistant or even master could never have done it; the coarse tramp-face had dissolved, vanished; the fine features of innocent, hopeful, eager youth lay there revealed. And as patient, wounded old Job felt this awful blow upon his tired heart, he looked about him appealingly; looked for some one to lean upon. There was nobody but the assistant and his hastily-offered arm. Not what the anguished man sought, but he accepted it; then sank, drooping, upon a box; and cold drops beaded his brow.
There he sat in silence, and the tall old-fashioned clock in the corner counted out the seconds, as a physician counts out the drops from a vial, at a bedside. Job heard them, and they seemed like years; — his own weary years coming back to him out of the past. He realized now that he had been desperately holding a hope and a purpose in his heart; realized now, by its absence, that it had been there, unnamed, unrecognized. He put his hand unconsciously to his side; something seemed to be going; the assistant saw that his lips were parted wide, and that he breathed in gasps; but Job uttered no word, told nothing of the desolation that had come to him. Who was there to tell? Who cared about an undertaker’s grief? That face! O, that poor white face of his boy!
There was a sermon, to which the old undertaker had listened, years before, which had many a time recurred to his thought; it was a sermon on the prodigal son’s return; and in whatever way he had looked at the hard facts and faced the dark probabilities, that picture of a home-coming and forgiveness had pushed its way to the front. Often he had read the beautiful parable, going away alone and unperceived to do it; and at those words “fell on his neck and kissed him,” he always stopped, and repeated them slowly and softly, and a look of hungry longing came over his face, and the good book was slowly closed and laid away. There would be no more reading of that old story. Yesterday it held a gleam of light in its depths; to-day the words were like loose formless ashes; gray like his own face; and he seemed to shrink and wither, as he sat tottering, one hand pressing his side, the other weakly supporting himself.
The next day Job did not appear at the office; he was ill, in bed.
An undertaker, ill, is a strange sight; seriously, dangerously ill; he the only man who actually wars with death and gains even a partial victory. He surrenders, indeed, as all men do, but he seems to dictate terms of capitulation. Strange it is, then, to think upon the man who traffics confidently, controllingly, in caskets and coffins, when he views them from so weak a strategic position as a sick-bed. But the old formula of dialectics reads, “Man is mortal,” — major premise; and out of our dark sad experience we append the minor premise, “Undertakers are men.” Then the conclusion is instant, inevitable.
A week later a physician stood by Job’s bedside and told him that he had no ailment, and would be “out” in a few days. For answer Job looked calmly at him and said, “On your way to your office, call at my attorney’s! Send him here! I wish to make my will!”
“But, my good man, there is really not the slightest —”
Job raised his white thin hand deprecatingly, closed his eyes, hesitated, then said, with an effort, “Please also send Daver to me! You know Daver? Does good work; has some new-fangled notions, but does good work.”
Then Job turned his face to the wall. He knew his own condition. He was dying. We all begin to die at our birth; that is normal dying. Nature does it skillfully, inexorably, gently. Job Graves had been dying with abnormal rapidity for twenty years; dying of hunger, and solitary imprisonment for life; hunger for affection; solitary imprisonment within the gloomy walls of his strange vocation. Was this also Nature’s doing? If not, whose?
Daver, mystified but smiling, prompt but constrained, came the next day. Job’s lips moved a salutation, but no sound came. Daver waited. He was ill at ease. He was in an unaccustomed position. He often was called to dark rooms and sheeted beds, but with the conditions different. This summons was premature; Daver was restless; cleared his throat loudly, fingered his hat. “To be called here! To this house, of all houses! To this man, of all men!” Daver’s ruling principle was to please; always to gloss the painful stubborn fact; but ruling principles may be suspended; hearts, like states, may experience rebellion; souls, like nations, may suffer revolution; the governing power may be unseated.
So it was with Daver. In his accustomed groove, a “Funeral Director;” outside that groove, a man; and strange rills opened in his heart, unwonted vibrations tingled along his nerves. His round red face grew anxious, sad. A man’s pity, tenderness, looked out through a “Funeral Director’s ” eyes, as they rested on that sick wan face.
The old undertaker’s eyes opened slowly; his gaze wandered restlessly about the bare room, then paused upon a crude crayon portrait of an old man, near the foot of the bed. The face resembled his own. Job’s gaze clung to it tenderly, trustfully. Then his gaze wandered, rested on the man beside his bed; he started as if with surprise, but recollected. “Daver, I have sent for you, — you know why.” He spoke feebly; the other nodded, looking constrainedly into his filmy eyes.
“I wish I could take — this — old body— with me, or see to its burying, myself; but I can’t. We all have to ask help at last, Daver.”
The plain direct appeal of the old man moved Daver strangely. He wondered at himself, as he sat there.
“We must depend on — on somebody else, Daver, when — when we are finally the ‘case,’ ourselves; and assistants are not to be trusted,— not to be trusted.” He raised his eyes, with inquiry, toward the crayon portrait; then added, “Father never slighted his work.” And a faint smile of content flickered over the dying man’s face, saying what the humble man’s lips would not utter, that he too had never slighted his work.
“Daver, neighbor,” he murmured, putting out his thin hand, seeking, in his last hours, after what he had vainly sought, for many lonely years, — a grasp of understanding and sympathy — “Daver, you — do — good— work; but you — know — what — I would wish done. My way, this time, Daver? That —is —all.”
And the “Funeral Director’s” strong red hand closed over the “Undertaker’s” wasted white one, and the grasp was a pledge. A long silence. Then Daver departed, and Job rested peacefully.
Exactly when his last breath came, nobody in the house could say; but it was about dawn, the next morning; the weary spirit slipped away. Job Graves left earth, — an undertaker; he entered heaven, — a man.
A few days later, a funeral procession passed along the street, between the two offices. It was “A funeral of Daver’s,” but it was “Job Graves’s funeral.” Throughout all the arrangements, the Old and the New in funereal art were strangely blended; and a discerning Public felt injured, as it felt baffled in its attempt at explanation. The door-knob of the “Coffin Warerooms” was hung with a knot of black crape, yet the hearse was from the ” establishment of Daver & Co., City Undertakers,” whose assistant acted as driver; the assistant from the “Coffin Warerooms” rode in the mourners’ carriage; and, — strange to tell, — inexplicable to the wise, all-knowing Public, quite contrary to his custom, Daver, in his luxurious coupe, followed the few carriages, came last in the line.
The Parsonage Porch: Seven Stories from a Clergyman’s Note-book, Bradley Gilman, 1900: pp. 221-248
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A fine epitaph for all who serve: “He Never Slighted His Work.”
Mrs Daffodil would like to take this opportunity (as she has been prodded with a hearse plume by that subfusc person over at Haunted Ohio) to announce that a new Victorian Book of the Dead blog has made its debut. The blog will provide unique, primary source material on Victorian death and mourning as well as collecting all posts on mourning, which have previously appeared on this blog and on the Haunted Ohio site blog.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.