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The spirit-rapping undertakers

by Jim Heath
First published in Tomorrow,
(ISSN 1072-4990) Feb 1995.
Copyright. All rights reserved.
Not to be mirrored on other websites.

THE LAST HOME CHAPEL stands among subdued trees on Shadow Valley Drive. For thirty-two years, the rigid but dignified bodies of thousands of better-class people have been conveyed discretely into the rear door. They have found themselves in good hands. Harmonia Streeter, proprietor of the Last Home Chapel, will assure you she still does everything herself. She means the sensitive things, the complex procedures with chemicals and cosmetics -- not the heavy carrying work.

One glance and you trust her: that grey hair done up in a formal blob, those wrinkles of character around her eyes, and especially her hands -- they might be the hands of a higher being, so benign and sympathetic. You could trust her with the remains of your beloved horse or dog (except she doesn't handle pets). You could trust her to provide a sensitive, traditional funeral that would be a tribute to the recently departed. She'd do a real nice job.

"She is so serene," her clients say. "She gave me strength." And so it was. Harmonia Streeter was usually pretty serene. One lobe of her brain knew she was in a reliable cash-flow business, more or less recession-proof (though last winter had been disappointing, despite a strong flu season). But the rest of her brain dropped velvet curtains around these commercial realities and absorbed itself in harmonising everything else it could. Her work was valuable, this creatively harmonising brain murmured to her. She brought peace -- and a good send-off -- to her clients.

Harmony, yes indeed. She organised her life and her mind so that it might persist. Personal entanglements rarely gripped her. Even her memories were under good control. (Though she was still capable of losing her balance when she thought about an unhappy episode with Lambert Ramford. He'd moved on to become someone important in golf resorts, and had married. All years ago, but it still rankled.) Her one close relative, her brother Lincoln, was on the Town Council and was mentally attuned to Harmonia's high standards: he would examine the licensing applications for undertakers who wanted to set up establishments in Harmonia's part of town. If their services seemed unable to reach the standards set by the Last Home Chapel, then Lincoln would use his influence on the Town Council. This was not favouritism -- just a high moral vigilance. It meant that for the good of the town, Harmonia's services remained unique in the better-class section. If someone didn't care for Harmonia Streeter's service, or considered it too expensive -- well, there were alternatives. But it saddened her to think of them, and she would sigh and point heavily and vaguely toward the centre of town: "You might try Simplicity Funerals, or that Chinese place."

The years moved past as serenely as a procession of hearses. All was quiet and dignified at the Last Home Chapel. Now and then, there would be a little alarm when medical science announced a new disease. Some of these new causes of death called for caution. But Harmonia got used to wrapping herself up carefully in plastic before she started any messy jobs. Anyway, this had always been true to some extent. Even in the old days there were things like Hep-B to ponder, as you watched the dearly departed go whiter and whiter, and listened to the little pump working. Yet none of this ruffled Harmonia Streeter. Her plastic mask made it hard for her to hum while she worked. Otherwise she would have.

She actually was humming one evening, arranging flowers in the Room of Peace, when someone jammed a finger on her doorbell button and left it there. Of course it was not an ordinary doorbell: it was an electronic system that made a series of chimes, like some celestial spirit practising scales on a Hammond Organ, while from a more distant sphere, a lot of determined sopranos sung out soothing chords. That's what it sounded like. Soothing, uplifting. Nevertheless, it got on your nerves if someone kept it going too long.

"How may I help you?" asked Harmonia, in her best manner -- dignified, bravely bearing the sadness of the world, yet shining and ready to offer her best professional support.

A boy stood there. He looked scruffy and in a hurry. An instinct made Harmonia adjust her face to a less open and humanitarian expression.

She was handed what appeared to be an advertising leaflet. "What?!" she said. Hawkers! In Shadow Valley Drive! Never in thirty-two years had anyone been so crass. Even Jehovah's Witnesses had left her alone.

She shut the door with an aggressive thump. The gesture was unnecessary, because the boy was already down the street and running.

"Who are these people?!" muttered Harmonia, apparently speaking to the advertising leaflet. Her voice jarred the Room of Peace, and reached all the way to the dead in the back room.

The gaudy leaflet said that a rival funeral service was starting up, just four blocks away. (Impressions became a little clearer when her first panic dropped away.) No, the place wasn't there yet. She had misread that. It was coming "next month" -- it said that at the bottom of the sheet, right by the strange logo and that contradictory name: "Afterlife Funerals."

Ohhhhhh! Why hadn't her brother told her? Why hadn't he been on the ball?

She stuffed a peppermint in her mouth and glared at the leaflet. What it said was simply terrible! No dignity or funereal compassion or any of the other high virtues that the Undertakers Association worked so hard to promote. Also, it had baffling aspects. She tried reading it again:

At last -- return-trip funerals!

Another chance to say goodbye to your loved ones! That's right! While we can't promise 100% success, we do our best. We've got an experienced contact person, our own Rita. Of course there's a slight extra charge for this contact service, but if we fail, we refund that part of our fees. You can't get fairer than that! What can you lose?

We handle the whole works, embalming (ask about our Amenhotep system), everlasting coffins in polycarbonate, shrouds that sparkle with symbols and colour to lift the whole atmosphere, soul-lifting ornaments and tombs (don't let him or her get lost in the crowd), and mantra-boosted chanting -- either on tape, or live at modest extra cost.

Don't let the dead down! Be incisive! We've studied death right down the ages and know all about it. Get us on your side! You'll be glad.

At the bottom, in large rust-coloured letters, stood the name "Afterlife Funerals." The letters were distorted and strangely formed. If you didn't look at them too closely, you might have thought someone had struggled to write hieroglyphics. There was also an address, in the same distorted style, but you could still manage to read it: "373 Shadow Valley Drive." Finally, in purple capital letters, the promise (or threat) that the service would be "Starting next month!"

The logo was certainly a puzzle. It was green, bright as new grass, and was a jumble of peculiar symbols. Near the top was a spiral, making three turns. This balanced on top of a distastefully distorted cross -- one with a loop at the top. Right through the middle were waves, probably. They gave Harmonia an uneasy feeling, as if something electronic or ultramodern were intruding into the picture. And to hold all this together, there was a horrid elliptical border formed of grapes, or peas, or maybe small green jade beads.

Harmonia looked as giddy as if she'd actually eaten the logo. Unsteadily, she lifted the phone to ring her brother. Then she remembered. Lincoln had left for Nigeria and wouldn't be back until the new year. Trust him to take a holiday in a place like that when you needed him.

Groggily, feeling in need of fortification, she pushed through two doors that led to her working area. A stockbroker lay on one table. His face showed patience. On another table lay a famous television personality. Harmonia preferred not to look at him: his forceful and distorted features reminded her of Lambert. She reached behind bottles of embalming fluid and found a certain flask. It looked like the others. By and by her mind took on a steadier edge. She felt the velvet curtains in her mind part, and her expression took on a hard commercial look.

Four blocks away, two sisters were also becoming intoxicated. Back and forth went the joint. But while Harmonia's feelings were taking on dark shades of fury and gloom, the feelings of the two sisters were bright, more like a rainbow. They were keen to enter the death industry. They considered they were movers and shakers, even if raising a lot of kids had so far cramped their style. Life had much more to offer them than they'd seen. They felt sure of this. They also felt confident that they'd inherited their father's business instincts.

So Rita and Nadia speculated on cash flow, and market share, interest rates and other matters that were never played up much in those prissy newsletters from the Undertakers Association. They felt convinced of their sound instincts, even as their seven clear-eye children distributed marketing leaflets across a few square kilometres of suburban housing. Nadia summed things up well: "As they say in Russia -- Who knows? It might work!"

In the following weeks, the signs looked good. Soon people were showing a surprising amount of interest. Every day, one or two prospects would show up for a consultation, even before the two sisters had managed to complete the legal formalities with the Town Council. Rita was bringing back the dead for a chat before Afterlife Funerals had even buried anyone. "I mean, it is all so interesting," their prospects would say, and demand to see how it worked. They didn't appear to care what astral spirit they talked to -- any definitely dead person was OK.

The sisters' auras expanded into huge rainbows of expectation. Even their kids picked up the vibes and for once didn't complain about their brown rice and mung beans. But into this rainbow universe dropped Mr Stone from the Town Council. Were they aware, he enquired, that advertising funeral services without a license was against provisions in the Criminal Code? It was possible that the Town Council would grant them a license, though all due consideration would have to be placed on the fact that there was already an established undertaker just four blocks away. Unofficially, Mr Stone advised them that the Council felt that their advertising leaflet might not have helped their case in the Council. It was a somewhat unorthodox approach that Afterlife Funerals wished to offer, perhaps they realised that? In any event, the long and the short of it was that further advertising must cease until the Council had time to formally deliberate their application for a license.

After he delivered this message, Mr Stone asked to have a private word with Rita. Rita sized him up, about as fast as messages can travel from the astral plane. She took him into the King's Tomb. It was the only room that was finished: it was modelled from the dimensions of the inner tomb of Ramses II, painted a pleasant shade of light blue, and decorated with hieroglyphic birds, hands receiving rays from symbolic suns, eyes peeping from the centre of pyramids, sexually attractive profiles of Egyptian men and women, and hybrid animals that never could have existed, even in ancient Egypt.

Mr Stone banged his head when he entered the archway. The ceiling was low, in the style of ancient Egypt. (Rita had double-checked the dimensions. "Those guys must have been really short," she'd kept saying to the carpenters as they winced and sawed plywood.)

Rita touched Mr Stone's arm and led him consolingly to a soft chair. This solicitude was wise, because Mr Stone was muttering that a ceiling that low was against Council regulations. Rita hadn't asked him what he wanted to see her about. But she had already estimated what astral spirit might have the most beneficial message for him, everything considered.

They were in the King's Tomb for 45 minutes. Nadia knew from experience that the air got stuffy after half an hour, so she was glad to see them come out. But Mr Stone didn't complain (though rooms without windows were not allowed by the Council either). And he didn't say anything about the low ceiling. Instead, he was telling Rita not to worry. "I have a lot of influence with the Council," he stressed. "A lot." He even emphasised the word 'lot' -- a vigorous word that was not usually found in his vocabulary.

After he'd left, Rita and Nadia had a war conference. They now knew they had a twisted and spiteful foe. Harmonia Streeter! -- a name their father used to spit out. ("I wouldn't let Harmonia Streeter bury me if she paid me!" he used to say with a sneer.) Somewhere in Rita and Nadia's DNA, a tribal-feud gene went into red alert. Oh, the bitch! Their father was right! Imagine, going to the Council and complaining like that! What a low creature. No sense of fair play. Well, Harmonia Streeter --you'll see!

"We pasted her one on that Council thing," Rita said to Nadia. "Mr Stone promised me -- also, he promised Isaac Newton, who gave him some good advice. But look: we've got to clobber that bitch! No point waiting for the next blow."

Rita and Nadia rolled a special cigarette. They had to think.

Harmonia Streeter, meanwhile, had regained a sense of calm. No more advertising literature had arrived. She had phoned her brother, and he had immediately called Mr Stone all the way from Club Med in Nigeria. That had been sweet of Lincoln, and she was sure the Council would now take the right attitude. And when she drove by that looming house at 373 Shadow Valley Drive, there were no signs that it was turning into a competitor. Bicycles and other juvenile objects were scattered about the front lawn. The hedge needed cutting and the gate needed repair. Just an ordinary family, you would have guessed -- or maybe a couple of families, judging from the number of kids around.

Harmonia had only four days of happiness. Then a lawyer was on the phone: a Mr Sylvester Clyne, who spoke in a weary but determined tone. His firm was acting for a wealthy client -- he was not permitted to say who it was. This client was in an agitated state because some other firm of lawyers had failed to carry out the exact terms in someone's Will. (Harmonia blinked, losing the thread.) Sylvester Clyne added that there was a big wooden chest that needed to be burned, and an urn of ashes that required a proper, dignified burial. Could the Last Home Chapel help straighten matters out?

"Look, Mr Clyne, we're a respectable funeral service," said Harmonia, squeezing the phone hard. "We do traditional funerals, that's all. What did you say about a wooden chest? Are you saying there's a deceased person in it? I don't like the sound of that. As for cremations, we only cater for the type of departure recommended by our pastor, and that includes traditional oak coffins, normal internment, and a meaningful and sensitive service. That's also what the better class of people request these days. Perhaps you wouldn't mind repeating what you just told me, a bit more slowly?"

Sylvester Clyne obliged. Things became clearer. A rich man had died, leaving his executors with a complex Will and "several hundred million" to dispose of according to intricate provisions. This had already taken several years. Even so, the executors hadn't done things exactly right. There were clauses and subclauses, and they had missed a few points. This had infuriated one of the beneficiaries. This gentleman, wealthy in his own right, a prominent business figure, had taken matters into his own hands. He had used Clause 77.3.b to remove the executors and install his own people. What had irked this distinguished beneficiary most was the shabby way the urn of ashes had been treated. Also, nothing had been done to carry out the deceased's wishes about the wooden chest.

The urn, explained Mr Clyne, held the ashes of Derwin, a horse. This animal had been a favourite of the deceased. As for the wooden chest -- well, no one knew what was in it. It was nearly as long as a coffin, nailed shut, and padlocked like a pirate's chest. But every man is entitled to his secrets, suggested Sylvester Clyne. If the deceased had wanted the chest burned, well, that's what should have been done. Anyway, the irate beneficiary who had used Clause 77.3.b now had legal possession of both chest and urn, and he wanted justice done.

"It's just your sort of thing," added Sylvester Clyne. "What we're looking at here is the basic dignity of the dead. Right?"

Harmonia could appreciate the force of the argument. She slackened her grip on the phone and thought it over. Where could she bury an urn full of horse ashes? Where could she burn a wooden chest? She expressed these anxieties to Mr Clyne.

He was helpful and practical. The horse had a full pedigree name, he told her: Derwin Reginald Mortlock-Jones. This was almost as good as a full birth certificate. This horse had everything, the works. The damn horse was practically human, legally speaking. Why not just bury the urn in a normal grave? Who would know? Who would care? "Certainly, I don't want to know," said Mr Clyne. "I'll leave it to you. You know, we're talking about a horse here. Let's not make a big deal out of it. And we're willing to pay some big bucks to get this settled."

"Ummm," said Harmonia. It was beginning to seem possible. Why not? After all, no mourners would mope through the graveyard, then suddenly see the headstone and scream, "Derwin Reginald Mortlock-Jones! Hey, that's a horse!" Anyway, there was nothing illegal about it -- or not much. She'd only need to buy a burial plot. Did it matter what kind of ash was in the urn? No. That was getting clear.

But the wooden chest was still a worry. How could it be handled discretely? What if she happened to be in the Room of Peace, surrounded by lilies and delicately guiding some clients through sensitive points of funeral etiquette, when BANG!-BANG! -- in came two guys carrying a crummy looking old chest? "Hey! Where do you want it, lady?" Oh, unbearable. It would ruin the atmosphere.

In the end, she found a way, with some tips and reassurances from Mr Clyne. Harmonia would send around her own limousine to collect the chest. The chest would arrive, covered with a shroud. Everything would be handled by her own staff -- exceptionally reliable people. Whenever she wished, Harmonia could then burn the chest behind the Last Home Chapel. There were high walls all around. She sometimes burned leaves there, so why not? It was just a matter of getting some kindling, or maybe a little kerosene to get the chest going. She couldn't see any snags. So the deal was done.

Harmonia didn't ask herself why Mr Clyne didn't just burn the chest himself. Or why his rich client didn't do it. If she had asked, Mr Clyne would have quoted legal complications in the Will (and crossed his fingers that she would never guess that the urn had been a ploy to get her to take the wooden chest). He was safe enough: years of catering for the wealthy had blocked most of Harmonia's capacity for critical thought. She didn't believe it wise to question her clients taste in flowers, or to point out absurdities and poor rhymes in the verses they had inscribed on tombstones, or indeed to ponder the logic of her whole dignified craft. Logic, she was sure, was not helpful.

She took charge of the urn. In less than a week, the ashy remains of Derwin the horse received a discreet burial. No one attended. For the sake of appearances, Harmonia placed a wreath of flowers against the dashing black headstone (she could afford flowers -- considering the price she was charging for these unorthodox rites).

During the same week, the wooden chest arrived, covered with a dark shroud. It made a good impression on an elderly couple who were out for a walk along Shadow Valley Drive. They paused for a moment and observed the gravity and dignity of the proceedings. They noted the solemn faces of the men who moved the shrouded object through a rear door. It was all as it should be. For a moment, the walkers were struck by the futility and vanity of earthly strivings. How grateful they felt to be reminded of these noble thoughts.

But other matters did not go well for Harmonia that week. Her brother, back from Nigeria, phoned and deposited some intolerable information in her ear: the Town Council had approved the licensing application from Afterlife Funerals. It seemed as if Stone himself had guided the Council towards this inappropriate action. It was a fait accompli. Her brother went on: "The good news is, I found out who's behind all this. I tell you, they won't last. They're a couple of young women with no business experience and a big loan on that property... They're sisters, operating under the business name Ramford Enterprises."

Harmonia's heart made a flip-flip-flip sound. Her lips rounded, as if to form the word NO. But no sound came.

"You there?" asked her brother.

She managed to say something like, "Ummmmph." Then she got hold of herself. Maybe it was a coincidence? There must be lots of Ramfords! But her brother was being even more informative, pouring it on: "The whole setup is shaky. Unless they get a lot of cash-flow quickly, they'll never meet those loan payments. Which means they'll be out of business. Their father's in as a guarantor of the loan, so he'd have to pay the outstanding interest and make up any capital deficiency, just to terminate everything."

"What's their father's name?" asked a tense-eyed Harmonia. She squeezed the phone the same way she did when she talked to lawyers. Two seconds later, she squeezed it so tight the plastic squeaked.

So! Lambert was behind it! Those were his daughters at 373 Shadow Valley Drive. That brat with the advertising leaflet had been his grandson! She felt like exterminating Ramfords everywhere. She felt like setting fire to the house at 373 Shadow Valley Drive. It was possible she might do it, she told herself, if she could work out the details. As a substitute, she began dragging the padlocked wooden chest into her back yard. She could at least burn that. It might make her feel better.

It was early evening, so no one was there to help her. It was heavy work -- but she was angry and determined, and felt strong. She dragged the chest until it rested on a charred mound of half-burned sticks and leaves. Then she fussed around looking for materials of ignition.

Four blocks away, Rita and Nadia were out on their front lawn. They spoke quietly, admired the peaceful stars, the dignified and subdued neighbourhood, and spoke confidently of their grand opening. What a day that would be! The launch!

As they discussed their launch, into the night sky something else was launched. It was a skyrocket. From its trajectory of yellow sparks, the sisters estimated that the launch pad must have been the Last Home Chapel. There was a violent burst of green light and a loud report.

"She finally got around to it!" Rita said. Both sisters took up comfortable positions on the front lawn. They knew this would definitely be worth watching.

Two more rockets went up, veering off at flat, dangerous angles, as if they hadn't been securely placed or properly aimed. One exploded over a banker's roof just down the street. There were distant explosions and eerie lights. If you didn't know, you might have thought a Chinese New Year celebration was starting somewhere in the vicinity of the Last Home Chapel.

People began to pour from their houses. The evening meals and TV news could wait. They were under actual attack, or something. There were heavy concussions. Children were thrilled to notice that large picture windows shook. There were staccato sounds, as if machine guns were being used. Others thought it sounded more like strings of firecrackers.

After about five minutes, it all died down. Those who lived close to the Last Home Chapel saw that the detonations, and Roman candle lights, and crazily misfired rockets had all come from the walled-off area at the back. Earnest citizens knocked hard on the door of the establishment. But no answer came.

Later the police tried too, then they had to force the door. Harmonia Streeter was found to have an excuse for not answering: her heart had stopped. She was in the Room of Peace, sitting with alarming dignity in a grey velvet chair. Her eyes were open, her face was resolute but bewildered, and her right hand clutched a white paper bag of peppermint drops.

The police never found out where she'd bought the fireworks. And they never worked out a motive for her bizarre action. No clues were available in the burned-out mound in the back yard. A lot of fireworks had been set off. That's all they could say.

In a few months, the Last Home Chapel closed. Harmonia's brother knew it was right to close the place, selling it for conversion back to a suburban home. He knew, because he was privileged to find out from Harmonia herself. After he had arranged for her funeral at Afterlife Funerals -- they were modern, go-ahead people, he had to admit to himself -- he'd had a session with Rita in the Kings Tomb. He was heartened by the consoling messages that poured from the astral plane. "Buck up, brother," came the deep, fluctuating voice from the lips of Rita Ramford. "I'm OK, you're OK. Today is the first day of the rest of your life." Lots of uplifting stuff like that, things he later wished he'd written down. And of course that strong message to sell the Last Home Chapel. "It has served its purpose." No arguing with that.

Afterlife Funerals prospered. Lambert Ramford continued to prosper, expanding his network of golf resorts. Sylvester Clyne continued to prosper too, in the ups and downs of legal work -- and if he had one more secret to carry... well, he could tell himself he'd never been told what was in the wooden chest. That had been the Ramford's secret.

Even the proud horse Derwin Reginald Mortlock-Jones, if he had ever existed, might have been satisfied with the outcome. His ashes, compounded of burned newspaper, rested in perfect peace in a fine cemetery.

Science Fiction by the same author: Compound Interest