The Addams Family Mortuary experience

I’d previously lived in Asheville for nearly two years and so was familiar with the street where this mortuary and crematory were located: a narrow road along the unkempt banks of the Swannanoa River, one of those side alleys locals use to circumnavigate the hordes of tourists on Broadway Street. Under an appropriately glowering late September sky, Mom and I pulled up to a nondescript, white, concrete-block building that looked more like the meat processing plant from my hometown than any funerary facility I’d ever encountered. Where were the white Corinthian columns, the sturdy red brick, the perfectly-clipped shrubbery, the discreet covered drive-through on the side of the building, the men in suits and solemn faces? Why did I feel like I was entering the Twilight Zone as we walked to the heavy unmarked door with the steel kick-guard?

Holding my breath, I opened the door to a small room with a low ceiling and coffin samples lying hither and yon like so many piles of stained lumber. There were indentations in the cheap sheetrock walls, and a couple of curtains draped suspiciously over doorways that looked like they led to Madame Rue’s Palm Reading station. At one end was a window cut-out with a counter, complete with sliding glass window, like the sign-in station at a medical clinic.

There was no one there.

Mom and I looked at each other but said nothing, as if commentary might jolt the creepy-weird factor to an unbearable level. Better to pretend everything’s normal.

At last a young man with 7 o’clock shadow and not-quite-ironed khakis appeared, and after a mildly awkward conversation about who we were and when our appointment was (no standard expression of condolences included), ushered us into a conference room where the director would join us shortly. He motioned us to two sturdy office armchairs, managed a surprisingly agreeable smile, and left.

Mom and I were still committed to the little game of pretend. If we just kept mum, the Twilight Zone might go away. As if the passing of Dad a mere 18 hours ago weren’t surreal enough.

After several minutes a door on the other side opened – there was enough warren of rooms to make M.C. Escher’s head swim – and a tall, suited figure strode in.

“Dear Jesus,” I thought to myself. “We’re at the Addams Family Mortuary.”

He was at least six feet tall (yes, six feet), dressed in a suit that J.R. Ewing would have worn in his startup years, complete with a bolo tie. His dark hair was slick and greying in inconvenient patterns, and combed over to one side as though anticipating the eventual thinning. I glanced around the room expecting to see a half-drunk tumbler of Scotch on a shelf somewhere.

Surely this wasn’t happening. Surely this man was not in charge of the disposal of my father’s earthly body.

In my head I could hear the harpsichord and the snap-snapping of fingers.

Things improved as we discussed the details of Dad’s cremation with the director, who turned out to be a nice man, if a bit lacking in the social graces you’d expect from a mortuary and crematory director. Apparently that certification doesn’t require any coursework in funerary courtliness.

Exhibit A: “Does your husband have a pacemaker or anything similar?”

Mom: “No, nothing.”

Uncle Fester/Director: “Okay that’s good.” Pause. “I have to ask because we don’t want anything unexpected to explode, you know.”

Me, in my head: “You did NOT just say that.” Then, also to myself: “You mean there are some things you EXPECT to explode? What the –?” I glanced at the walls to see if there were any framed things that looked like a degree…a diploma…a certification….a license…Lord help us, anything that indicated some reliable external source had vouched for this outfit.

Exhibit B: “Now, did you want to look at an urn to select?”
Mom: “No, no, we don’t want the…we don’t want anything.” Pause as she collected herself a little to say the next words, hand to her heart in the most heartbreaking earnestness: “I have everything I need right here.”

Even Uncle Fester/Director felt the weight of the moment, the depth and tenderness and pain of it, and simply nodded, said nothing. I was torn between relief and my own momentary fighting of tears.

But it couldn’t possibly last, that tender moment. “Well not everybody wants the remains, I understand that.”

I cringed. Had no one told Mr. Bolo Tie not to refer to the dearly departed as “the remains,” like the potluck leftovers? It got better:

“Now, my wife and me, we got our urns all selected. They up on top of the TV stand, lined up.” He gestured as he explained. “You got her dad here, then the cat here, then a urn for her, then one for me. Yep, all lined up and ready. Everybody gets a turn. ‘Course, it’s kind of a pain, having to move all those containers every time we dust.”

We couldn’t help it. Mom and I glanced at each other. The snap-snapping fingers of the Addams Family theme song notched up a decibel in my head.

“Just out of curiosity,” Mom asked a few minutes later, as Uncle Fester/Director continued filling out his paperwork, “what do you do with the ashes?”

“Oh, well, once we have a few of them – you know, several families who ask us to handle everything and they don’t take the ashes, like you all – we have a place up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we’ve gotten permission from the Parkway people, and that’s where we scatter them. It’s a real pretty place.”

This was a definite improvement, Mom and I agreed. Mom and Dad had always enjoyed drives on that scenic parkway, and in the last year that Dad had been at the nursing home the parkway was their standard excursion. Just a 30-minute drive, out of the nursing home, was a lift to both of their spirits.

Except Mom seemed to get into the creep-o mood of this place and launched into an entertaining tale of some friend of a friend of a friend who took a helicopter ride over the Charleston Harbor to scatter someone’s ashes, and ended up with ash blown into their face thanks to the chopper and ocean winds. We all laughed, because it was a funny story, but also because it was just a relief to laugh. Also it felt better than crying.

Finally we escaped. I mean, left. The snap-snapping fingers in my head stopped, I let out the breath I’d apparently been holding the whole time we were there, Mom and I never really talked about Uncle Fester/Director (too much else to do, as anyone who’s planned a memorial service can tell you), and my wonderful dear Dad – well, his earthly remains are now no doubt scattered into the soil and roots and moss and exquisitely complex and rich compost of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while his soul is, finally, Fully Free.

Published in: on May 2, 2017 at 2:08 am  Leave a Comment