Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 43
ABOUT the same time, I encountered a man in the street, whom I had not seen for six or seven years; and something like this talk followed. I said--
'But you used to look sad and oldish; you don't now. Where did you get all this youth and bubbling cheerfulness? Give me the address.'
He chuckled blithely, took off his shining tile, pointed to a notched pink circlet of paper pasted into its crown, with something lettered on it, and went on chuckling while I read, 'J. B----, UNDERTAKER.' Then he clapped his hat on, gave it an irreverent tilt to leeward, and cried out--
'That's what's the matter! It used to be rough times with me when you knew me--insurance-agency business, you know; mighty irregular. Big fire, all right--brisk trade for ten days while people scared; after that, dull policy-business till next fire. Town like this don't have fires often enough--a fellow strikes so many dull weeks in a row that he gets discouraged. But you bet you, this is the business! People don't wait for examples to die. No, sir, they drop off right along--there ain't any dull spots in the undertaker line. I just started in with two or three little old coffins and a hired hearse, and now look at the thing! I've worked up a business here that would satisfy any man, don't care who he is. Five years ago, lodged in an attic; live in a swell house now, with a mansard roof, and all the modern inconveniences.'
'Does a coffin pay so well. Is there much profit on a coffin?'
'Go-way! How you talk!' Then, with a confidential wink, a dropping of the voice, and an impressive laying of his hand on my arm; 'Look here; there's one thing in this world which isn't ever cheap. That's a coffin. There's one thing in this world which a person don't ever try to jew you down on. That's a coffin. There's one thing in this world which a person don't say--"I'll look around a little, and if I find I can't do better I'll come back and take it." That's a coffin. There's one thing in this world which a person won't take in pine if he can go walnut; and won't take in walnut if he can go mahogany; and won't take in mahogany if he can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles. That's a coffin. And there's one thing in this world which you don't have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that's a coffin. Undertaking?--why it's the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest.
'Why, just look at it. A rich man won't have anything but your very best; and you can just pile it on, too--pile it on and sock it to him--he won't ever holler. And you take in a poor man, and if you work him right he'll bust himself on a single lay-out. Or especially a woman. F'r instance: Mrs. O'Flaherty comes in--widow--wiping her eyes and kind of moaning. Unhandkerchiefs one eye, bats it around tearfully over the stock; says--
'"And fhat might ye ask for that wan?"
'"Thirty-nine dollars, madam," says I.
'"It 's a foine big price, sure, but Pat shall be buried like a gintleman, as he was, if I have to work me fingers off for it. I'll have that wan, sor."
'"Yes, madam," says I, "and it is a very good one, too; not costly, to be sure, but in this life we must cut our garment to our clothes, as the saying is." And as she starts out, I heave in, kind of casually, "This one with the white satin lining is a beauty, but I am afraid--well, sixty-five dollars is a rather--rather--but no matter, I felt obliged to say to Mrs. O'Shaughnessy--"
'"D'ye mane to soy that Bridget O'Shaughnessy bought the mate to that joo-ul box to ship that dhrunken divil to Purgatory in?"
'"Then Pat shall go to heaven in the twin to it, if it takes the last rap the O'Flaherties can raise; and moind you, stick on some extras, too, and I'll give ye another dollar."
'And as I lay-in with the livery stables, of course I don't forget to mention that Mrs. O'Shaughnessy hired fifty-four dollars' worth of hacks and flung as much style into Dennis's funeral as if he had been a duke or an assassin. And of course she sails in and goes the O'Shaughnessy about four hacks and an omnibus better. That used to be, but that's all played now; that is, in this particular town. The Irish got to piling up hacks so, on their funerals, that a funeral left them ragged and hungry for two years afterward; so the priest pitched in and broke it all up. He don't allow them to have but two hacks now, and sometimes only one.'
'Well,' said I, 'if you are so light-hearted and jolly in ordinary times, what must you be in an epidemic?'
He shook his head.
'No, you're off, there. We don't like to see an epidemic. An epidemic don't pay. Well, of course I don't mean that, exactly; but it don't pay in proportion to the regular thing. Don't it occur to you, why?'
'I can't imagine. What is it?'
'It's just two things.'
'Well, what are they?'
'And what's the other?'
'How is that?'
'Well, in ordinary times, a person dies, and we lay him up in ice; one day two days, maybe three, to wait for friends to come. Takes a lot of it--melts fast. We charge jewelry rates for that ice, and war-prices for attendance. Well, don't you know, when there's an epidemic, they rush 'em to the cemetery the minute the breath's out. No market for ice in an epidemic. Same with Embamming. You take a family that's able to embam, and you've got a soft thing. You can mention sixteen different ways to do it--though there AIN'T only one or two ways, when you come down to the bottom facts of it--and they'll take the highest-priced way, every time. It's human nature--human nature in grief. It don't reason, you see. Time being, it don't care a dam. All it wants is physical immortality for deceased, and they're willing to pay for it. All you've got to do is to just be ca'm and stack it up--they'll stand the racket. Why, man, you can take a defunct that you couldn't GIVE away; and get your embamming traps around you and go to work; and in a couple of hours he is worth a cool six hundred--that's what HE'S worth. There ain't anything equal to it but trading rats for di'monds in time of famine. Well, don't you see, when there's an epidemic, people don't wait to embam. No, indeed they don't; and it hurts the business like hell-th, as we say--hurts it like hell-th, HEALTH, see?--Our little joke in the trade. Well, I must be going. Give me a call whenever you need any--I mean, when you're going by, sometime.'
In his joyful high spirits, he did the exaggerating himself, if any has been done. I have not enlarged on him.
With the above brief references to inhumation, let us leave the subject. As for me, I hope to be cremated. I made that remark to my pastor once, who said, with what he seemed to think was an impressive manner--
'I wouldn't worry about that, if I had your chances.' Much he knew about it--the family all so opposed to it.