I have never liked funerals. I can appreciate the advantages of conventionalizing one’s relationship with Death, but this appreciation has never advanced beyond the level of pure theory. I do not like to view the televised funerals of assassinees, nor do I enjoy attending the last rites of friends and relatives. When I am introduced to an undertaker I categorize him at once as a sanctimonious money-grubbing necrophiliac. I realize this is an unfair generalization. I don’t care.
As far as I was concerned, this particular funeral was the worst of a bad lot. And this for purely subjective reasons: I had to get to the funeral parlor early and stay until the bitter end. I was going to miss the party afterward. And on top of everything else, the poor son of a bitch in the rosewood casket was the one person on earth I cared most for. All of this, added to my personal distaste for such ceremonies, made me sincerely wish I was miles from there.
But that was out of the question. They couldn’t have the show without me, because that was me, see, in that box there. We were gathered together in Klaus Hammacher’s funeral home in Griggstown, the capital city of Modonoland, for the last rites and burial of Evan Michael Tanner. And I’m him, or he’s me. Or what you will.
“We will bury you,” Armand Karp had said. Armand was a wrinkled Belgian Jew who had transplanted himself in Griggstown soil thirty years ago. Since then he had both flourished and withered, growing ever fatter in the trunk and ever thinner in the arms and legs and neck. “We will bury you,” he had said, eyes twinkling in his wizened face, and the phrase was neither as menacing nor as metaphorical as it had been when Nikita said it.
“There are things to be considerated,” he explained. He was speaking English, and had this sort of trouble with suffixes. He was fluent in French and Flemish and Yiddish and German, and better than good in Dutch and Hebrew, and we could have talked in any of these, but there were others in that basement room and English was the one language common to us all. Thus there were things to be considerated. “To continue. You are under house arrest. You are identificated with the Movement for Moderation in Modonoland. You are suspected for agitatement and making trouble. And you must removalize yourself from this house, which is my house-”
“Which is that our house is your house, Evan,” Karp’s wife said.
“This goes without statement, Evan. You know this. But facts must be faced. You must removalize yourself from here, you must get out of Griggstown altogether, and from there you have activation of your own to be done upon. So what is to be done upon? We will bury you, obviously, and then we will dig you up again, and then you will go on your merriment way.”
“Uh,” I said.
“We might announce the death this evening,” Dawson Dowling said. He was very tall and very black and either an industrial chemist or a chemical industrialist. Armand had told me, the title coming out something like chemistical industrialization, so there was no way to be certain. “The burial might take place on Friday.”
“Uh,” I said.
“Of course Hammacher would do the service,” Eyck said. He was Dutch and did something with diamonds.
“He overcharges,” someone observed.
“But he can be trusted. And what is to charge? The coffin will be returned to him, and there is to be no embalming, no plastic surgery, no-”
“Uh,” I said. “I just thought of something.”
They looked at me and I at them. There were about twenty of them gathered in that damp basement room, sitting on card chairs and orange crates, smoking large fat pipes and thin black cigars. Half of them were black and half of them were white and one of them was Plum, and they represented the hard core of the MMM, which in Griggstown had nothing to do with Scotch tape and everything to do with revolution, and they wanted to bury me.
“The something I thought of,” I told them, “is that we could do all of this more directly. By skipping the whole burial process, that is. I could just removalize myself from here” – Karp’s affliction was contagious – “and, uh, get out of town. Just like that.”
“But you are under house arrest, Evan.”
“We’re all under house arrest,” I said. “All but what? Two or three of us? Yet you all managed to sneak out and come here tonight. For me, house arrest means that there’s a clown out front leaning up against a palm tree and looking at the front door every few hours. But nobody’s watching the back door, and-”
I broke off. No one was saying anything, but they were all looking at me very sadly.
Plum said, “You do not understand, Evan.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“About house arrest.” Plum was fifteen years old, slim-hipped and wide-eyed and the color of blond motel furniture. Her father had been a Welsh soldier of fortune and her mother had been, and still was, a native of Griggstown, and Pelham “Plum” Jenkins was a product of their ephemeral alliance. This sort of thing didn’t happen in Modonoland, where everything was black and white and there were no shades of yellow. Plum was nevertheless about as sane as anyone in the MMM.
I asked her to explain.
“We are all under house arrest,” she said, “and we all snuck out. But we can all sneak back in again and no one will know the difference, or if they do they won’t be too shirty about it. But if you snuck out, you wouldn’t come back and they would all know about it. And also you are a foreigner and there is talk about you being a spy and a secret agent and all sorts of things, and this would bother them. It would be all right for you, but we would be in trouble.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And with the political situation the way it is, and the executions scheduled-”
I nodded. I understood.
“So,” Karp said, “if you are voluntary-”
“What the hell,” I said. “I don’t mind. It’s my funeral.”
And now I lay in my coffin, and a beautiful thing it was, all oiled rosewood with ornamental carving and brass hardware. And what a beautiful thing I was, for that matter, with cotton pads under my lips and rouge on my cheeks and my nails manicured and my hands powdered and a single African lily clasped in them. Klaus Hammacher had done everything but embalm me (and would have done that if he could), and his careful application of the very techniques which allegedly brought life to the features of the dead made me look like the entrée at a ghouls’ banquet. My cheeks looked waxen, my hair looked like a wig, and my future looked dim.
“He looks so natural,” someone said. “So lifelike.”
“Hammacher does beautiful work.”
“Oh, he’s an artist. When my mother died, God rest her soul, he took years off her. She hadn’t looked so good-”
They drifted off and I tuned them out. The open-casket bit was something I’ve always considered tasteless to begin with, and now it was an abomination. But everyone had insisted on it, from the doctor who had doctored a death certificate to Hammacher himself. The argument was that agents of the white supremacist junta would surely attend the funeral, and they would require more than the sight of a closed casket to assure themselves that the notorious American agent was truly and properly dead.
Actually I was as close to dead as I could manage. There’s this yogic relaxation technique that I do when I want to rest, involving a regimen of tensing and relaxing all one’s muscles and making one’s mind as blank as possible and slowing various bodily functions, and I was doing this. I kept my breathing as shallow as I could, and a rig Hammacher had contrived kept my suit jacket and shirt front in place and concealed any rise and fall of my chest.
“Such a young man! The prime of life. What did he die of?”
“They said encephalitis-”
Encephalitis. Sleeping sickness. The corpse considered this and had trouble keeping a straight face. It was indeed to laugh.
And a woman’s voice, slow, halting, thickly accented: “You know, he doesn’t look dead. To look at him, you would think he was alive. You would look at him and you would say, hoo, he ain’t dead, hoo, he’s only sleeping.”
Well, you get the idea. It went on from there, and I suppose the service was shorter than usual, and I know it seemed longer. Tom Sawyer, I seem to remember, had a grand time at his own funeral. De gustibus and all that. I had a rotten time myself.
When the service ended, Hammacher and his assistant closed the casket and nailed down the lid, and it was like all those dim dark nightmares. There were air holes in the box, and I had rehearsed this part of it before and knew it was possible to breathe, but when they hammered those nails home the air inside there suddenly seemed inadequate in the extreme.
Then six good men and true bore my pall to the rickety old hearse. They might have carried me more carefully. The hearse bounced and jounced over a terrible old road out to the cemetery, and there was a mercifully short graveside service that I, mercifully, couldn’t hear very clearly through the coffin lid. And then there was a hell of a wrench and the coffin was abruptly lowered six feet to the bottom of the fresh grave. I suppose it was imagination at work, but at once the air in the box seemed to turn cold and clammy and tainted with the odors of embalming fluid and formaldehyde.
Then a pause, during which I suppose the mourners and curiosity seekers went away, and then conversation I could not make out, and then the first horrible thud of the first horrible shovelful of earth on the coffin lid.
This was the part I hated. The funeral was bad enough, and the coffin and the grave were worse, but the idea of having them fill in the hole was too much. Since I was going to be disinterred in an hour or two, I couldn’t see why they had to fill in the hole and then dig it up all over again. It reminded me of a WPA project and made about as much sense.
But there was no way around it. Three alcoholics had the grave-digging concession in Griggstown, and it was inconceivable that anyone else could play their part in the drama, and it was at least as inconceivable that they be trusted with the knowledge of my undead state. In the interests of security they had to be allowed to fill in the hole, and later on some of the MMM comrades would unfill it, and rescue me, and fill it again, and that, presumably, would be that.
They were a long time filling that grave, and if I hadn’t been breathing very shallowly, very economically, I might have run out of air before they ran out of dirt. But finally they seemed to be done, and I took the six foot-long lengths of aluminum tubing from beside me, and I dislodged the little inch-wide plug in the coffin lid, and I pushed the lengths of tubing up through the lid and through the earth above it, fitting them through one by one, screwing them together, and eventually creating a breathing tube reaching just to the surface.
This process probably sounds incredibly awkward. It should, because it was. I had practiced it over and over beforehand, and I had become as good at it as it was possible to be, and it was still awkward. But it worked. It honestly worked. The end of my breathing tube broke the earth’s surface, and I blew the dirt out of its tip, and I drew air through it. It was damp air, warm air, muggy air, but it was very goddamned fresh air compared to the air in the box with me, and I took deep breaths in and out, in and out, in and out, and began waiting for them to dig me up.