The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to

Oh dear… Now I know that I am getting old –why else would my curiosity be peaked by an article about embalming? I just happened upon it one day as I was perusing some of my apps that have the temerity to Email me their contents. No, they are not funeral apps, or death apps, or anything –they are just apps, eh? I mean, I don’t pick what they write about, I just, well, riffle through them as it were, picking out articles that catch my eye. Not that embalming would ordinarily hold my eyes, you understand, it’s just that this one was disguised as an interest piece on how the practice took off in the first place. Anyway, I’m a curious creature; I know it’s likely a character flaw…

I think maybe it’s something like my staring at what remains of an accident when I drive past the remnants on the highway. That’s normal, right? It’s not something that would usually occupy my mind, and it’s certainly not something I feel I have to know anything more about… And not embalming either. I figure it’s probably unhealthy, but it must have stayed in my mind.

You know, it’s amazing what you can hear in Starbuck’s if you really listen -all sorts of personal things I’d rather not hear, and yet I can’t turn my ears off at will. Well, actually one of them is  impaired, so sometimes I have trouble making out all the words and I have to turn my head to catch the stream and to watch mouths open and close. Anyway, I would have turned away again but I thought I heard the word ‘cremate’… Or did I see it? Lips can be tricky. Two women were whispering nearby –and you don’t whisper in Starbuck’s unless it’s about death, or an affair; in either case, one  side of my head was hooked. Like a lightbulb on a summer porch, things like that are bound to attract stuff, don’t you think? Okay, ears, then…

I was ensconced in my favourite Starbuck’s at my usual table in a shadowed corner –the one closest to the washroom, and yet not so close that I have to worry about people spilling my coffee in their frantic urological dashes. It’s a perfect location to study persons-of-interest from the darkness, like a wolf in the forest. And I think the two women were sitting in my gloom for a reason.

Perhaps the topic of funerary scholarship is more exciting than I had hitherto realized, or one woman had a moth flying near her face, but I have to say that I was surprised at the way she kept bobbing her head around.

“I suggested we cremate each other, you know.” The woman was likely in her late sixties, but from the amount of bling she had hanging from her wrists and neck, she probably hoped she looked fifty. Her exceedingly short hair seemed unnaturally white –even in the shadows. She was wearing a matching blouse, and something dark covering her legs but, like my ears, I think my eyes are also past their best-befores, and I couldn’t see much more without joining their table.

The other woman, probably of similar age, but wearing a dark turtle neck sweater that looked uncomfortably tight on her neck, leaned forward onto the table at the sound of the word. “That sounds so… I don’t know – so final, don’t you think, Ellie?”

Ellie’s eyes opened wider for a moment, and then she shrugged with a little tinkle of her wrists. “That’s exactly what he said.” She paused for a moment to dig into her cookie with her fingernail. Maybe her friend had been overly vigorous in pronouncing ‘final’, because Ellie  decided to break the cookie in half when she couldn’t solve the problem with her nail. “I don’t think he’s ready to accept the inevitable. But I told him he was an old fool to think he didn’t need to prepare for it.”

“And what did he say?”

There was a deeper, very unmusical clunk when she shrugged, but this time I think it was because she knocked her cookie plate -or maybe it was her dental plate, I couldn’t be sure. “He said he didn’t think we should do it together, Maudie.” She took a deep, stertorous breath. “After all these years,” she added, shaking her head sadly, “he still thinks I should wait till later.”

Maudie nodded her head sympathetically, her longer, greyer hair dancing stiffly on top of her scalp. “How old is he, anyway?”

Ellie just looked at her friend, her eyes sad, doll-like things peering out from behind their sparkled frames like curious animals at a zoo. Then she cocked her head slowly, as if Maud had got off on the wrong floor. “What does his age have to do with it, Maud?”

Maud sighed and picked at her own cookie. “Didn’t you tell me he was having trouble remembering things?”

Ellen thought about that for a second. “Well, maybe, but anyway it’s a tradition in the Philosophy department when you retire. You pretty well have to cremate somebody.” She said it as if it was certainly the most natural thing to do. “And I figure we should both go together as a sort of valediction. A chance for a Parthian shot…”

By this stage I could hardly believe their lips, and was almost leaning on their napkins to see them better when the two women finally noticed. The sudden convergence of eyes still surprised me, though. I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled and sat back in my chair. They remained silent for a heavy, uncomfortable moment, and I thought I would use the opportunity to offer my own take on death.

“I don’t want to be embalmed or cremated,” I said, smiling and warming to the subject. “I want to naturally decompose -to, you know, give something back…”

They both stared at me silently for the longest time with their mouths open. Then, as if signalling each other with hastily hooded eyes, they both got up and left. It suddenly occurred to me that I shouldn’t have split the infinitives, and I suppose I shouldn’t have interfered with their discussion, either. Death is a personal thing, right?

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