national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Personalizing the Service

The Mourners, Kayla Escobedo

My Uncle Billy just died and I don’t care. This isn’t me being cold. I just don’t care; pure indifference. We navigate intently through the deep caverns of compassion and sometimes we come up bankrupt of sympathy. There’s not enough currency reserved that I am willing to spend to understand his death. I take that back. I understand his death. Cancer cells commenced the great mitosis and infiltrated his colon, like all the great warriors of the cancer cell brigade; machine like persistence: the death that is contained in all our death, existent in us from the minute we’re born, fulfilling a destiny. I understand his death completely, so that perhaps is the wrong word to use. I just don’t necessarily care. But in case you’re more interested than I am, I’ll expound briefly his ephemeral existence.

He was a squirrelly character from the south of Bridgeport who, when he was younger, looked vaguely like Frank Sinatra when Sinatra was part of Jimmy Dorsey’s band; the gaunt 1930s Sinatra, with the sunken eyes, although Billy was far less handsome and much more palsied. He was incapable of maintaining a job, so his brother-in-law put him to work as a driver and errand runner; he had an affinity for Billy. He’d known the man since he was a small child; also, one day as a bet, Billy had eaten an astonishing quantity of silver dollar pancakes, seventy or so in one sitting. This became endearing.

There’s much more you can do to personalize a service than simply engraving a
loved one’s name on a plaque. When you include personal touches to a memorial service, you give those in attendance a better opportunity to know the person. We can help. Our funeral home makes great efforts to support you with all your personalization needs, time constraints, and arrangements. Trust us to guide you.

What is it about a funeral parlor that reeks of anachronism? Benign salmon countertops with stale coffee and sawdust donuts; the vending machines that don’t take singles, just change, useless, lifeless change; cumbersome, robotic ice boxes of smoke-stained, beige coffee machines; prodigious rectangles of anachronism; and knockoff  Rockwell oil paintings, all perfectly named: “Reflections of Yesteryear” or “Yesterday’s Memories”; smoke-stained tableaux of bygone Chicago theaters like Madison Ave’s The Paradise and The Marlboro; baroque modern conceits reduced to the waiting room aesthetic of the dead. Everything in the lounges of funeral parlors is reduced to dead fabric, muted panoplies of browns and grays, gunmetal ash, and dirtied yellows. Death cannot be modernized.

In the crevices of the room lie trenchant metaphors: old Reader’s Digest cartoon advertisements of doctors endorsing Camel Lights. Ironic or cautionary? Or a blend of both? In a room replete with a suburban sincerity of death, the metaphors permeate like anthrax dust: a 1950s ad in a 1960s room with a contemporary death; a children’s book, You Can’t Get AIDS by Shaking Someone’s Hand—a little reassurance that death isn’t as capricious as you think. It still comes in through the front door most of the time.


Choose a casket with designs that inspire positive memories of the deceased. The caskets may be engraved with the person’s name and symbols or illustrations  connected to the person’s past, and interior panels may contain paintings, photographs, or religious representation to aid you in your commemoration.  Personalized caskets are available in many reasonable price ranges.

His casket is sublime, a bright sun of contrast to the colorless, odorless exhibition room. Old ladies with tubes in their noses are crying. My great-aunt is crying in her wheelchair. “My baby,” she says. “How can this happen to my little baby?”

I ask my cousin how he did in Vegas. He says so-so. “I went out there with a grand and came back with two hundred; a break even trip.” He said the table games were tough. “I put a quarter on the first hand. Nineteen. Dealer pulls a twenty, that cunt.” He’s wearing his glasses still in the exhibition room and with his glasses and suit he looks like Joliet Jake Blues. “Second hand, eleven—eight and a three. Double down. What do you think?”


Include Friends. Having close friends say a few words and share some memories is a valuable personal touch. A special poem, quote, or passage could be read that was important to the person who died.

When Billy died he was living with twenty cats; the inside of his home looked as if it had incurred the fury of a vicious tornado. The adenomatous polyps matured, ran like an acidic river through his lymphatic system—the superhighway—and entered his liver; cells grew, molecules changed, genes were destroyed. He died from this. There is nothing else to say about the man.

Familial polyposis.

Nobody here knows Billy. He had no friends. There’s one old fat guy with a cane, limping over solemnly to the box. I assume this is a friend, a lone friend. I don’t know him. The rest are family; old greaseballs, young men, lined up numerically in rows with black-and-charcoal suits, grey-and-charcoal suits, striped-metal grey-and-alley-cat-black mixed suits, sitting around cracking jokes in the back; jokes about Billy, jokes about the sermon. My other uncle, an old Taylor Street wop of high deference, sufficiently morbid, ironic, perhaps in the throes of some profound psychic attrition, sits back and makes jokes in his daughter’s ear. Irreverence begins to take over the sermon. When the pastor speaks metaphorically of Adam’s rib, my uncle whispers to his daughter, “That didn’t happen,” and then stares with blank contentment back into the space of the room. The old hard-cores suppress their laughter; old timers, on the cusp of the great mitosis themselves, with legs crossed and high, endlessly high, black socks stretching the length of their shins.


You may have some questions…


Does personalization cost more?

Most of the ways you personalize come free. Memory tables, eulogies, special verse, etc., are priceless ways to pay tribute to the dead. There may be additional costs for engraving or special services, but it is minimal compared to the way it enhances the entire service.


Do I have to personalize the service?

The level of personalization you choose is entirely up to you. You can include as much or as little as you wish.

Driving through South Side side street detours, my cousins talk about how much pussy they used to get when Scores used to be Dreamers. I have my pallbearer gloves on still. “What time you think all this is going to be done?” one asks, leaning over toward me from the backseat. “I don’t know,” I say. “It all depends.”

“Let’s get this old fuck in the ground, I’m starving,” he says, as he sits back down. I agree.


Once the ceremony has ended, and you have enriched the service through personalization, celebrate one last time. Devote one final occasion to a life well spent, one final sacrament to a precious life passed.

After we buried him we had lunch at some drab little restaurant on the South Side that has been there since the start of eternity; ties were loosened, coats taken off and slung over the backs of chairs. Along the vast brick walls of the hallway hung the ghosts of the twentieth-century immigrant wave; sullen newcomers in tattered clothing; fat, matronly women with fat, matronly arms, and next to them their little husbands; faded ashy pictures of row upon row of kids with faces gray from industrial soot, standing in front of row upon row of dilapidated, burned-out tenements; one hundred years of the city’s history spread across the wall like a timeline. Some of us stopped and looked at the pictures, but most did not. Most of us sat down quickly and waited for our banquet.

In the vague haze of food and drink, of chatter and noise, a toast is given by my tall, heavy, balding uncle, and then by my short, skinny uncle with the bouffant; a toast not to Billy but to us, a toast to life and health, to food and to joy. It is a short toast, and when finished, with savage alacrity they all sit back down and continue to eat and drink. They laugh loudly and in each others’ faces: screaming, guttural howls; cacophonies of merriment. For the rest of the afternoon and well into the night, Billy’s name is never mentioned again.

The pamphlet, “Personalizing the Service,” was distributed by Comboy’s Funeral Home in Westchester, Illinois; it was produced in 2001 by MKL Marketing, author unknown.