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Lloyd Waters: The undertaker and pennies of the poor

February 10, 2013

Not so long ago, I found myself attending the funeral of a  friend. After the service, I was leaving the church when I encountered the undertaker, who was organizing the vehicle convoy to the cemetery.

“Pete, I really enjoy reading your columns, but I don’t always agree with your positions,” the undertaker said.

I smiled and thought to myself for a moment: “I come to many of your funerals, and I don’t like any of them. Too much sadness, so I guess that must make us even.”

For the record, I don’t really sit up at night putting words together so that anyone might agree with my opinions. As a matter of fact, it pleases me more abundantly that some actually disagree with my thoughts.

John Adams best defined “conversation” as a good argument.

Mark Twain was not very fond of funerals, either.

I remember back in the days of my youth, my grandmother Gen would always faithfully pay the family’s life insurance policies by putting back a few pennies here and there.

She had a limited income after my grandfather died. When the life insurance agent came by, she would pay her premiums with the money she was able to set aside.

In the event a loved one left for the hereafter, it was important that funds were available so the family would not have to go into debt to pay for a funeral.

The insurance agent was a nice enough fellow. He would often have some coffee and share some stories.

I’ve seen families spend a lot of money on funerals out of deep grief or feelings of guilt at a time when these folks could least afford to pay the bill.

I know life insurance policies are important, but I know, too, a lot of people back in those days, and even now, have difficulty paying their premiums.

Funerals are not cheap, either. That was one of the problems  Twain wrote about during his days of writing for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nev.

When Twain’s beloved niece, Jennie Clemens, the only child of his brother Orion and Molly Clemens, died at the age of 8 from spotted fever in nearby Carson City, Nev., her death broke his heart.

It was also the beginning of a tenacious relationship between Twain and the undertaker who he believed made a profit and living at the most sorrowful and difficult time for a family.

Samuel C. Wright was the only undertaker in Carson City in 1884. Four days after Jennie’s death, Mark Twain wrote a scathing letter to the Carson City newspaper complaining about this keeper of the graves.

In his letter, Twain used the following words to describe his anguish. “This undertaker charges a hundred and fifty dollars for a pine coffin that cost him twenty or thirty, and fifty dollars for a grave that did not cost him ten — and this at a time when his ghastly services are required at least seven times a week.”

Twain continued his attacks on other undertakers throughout parts of his life.

We have come a long way since 1884, and perhaps Twain would be more content today with the evolution of funerals and a more courteous and compassionate undertaker who respects the poor. I’m not sure.

One thing for certain is that none of us gets out of here alive. For a good undertaker, that means job security.

And although I am neither a fan of a large amount of life insurance or for costly funerals as described by Twain, I suspect both are remnants of living.

A small price for breathing, I suspect.

As part of my last testament, however, my instruction to my family is to cremate me cheaply in some warm place, return my ashes to the mountain morels and, at your leisure, remember a few of my columns.

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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