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The Pallbearer





 The Pallbearer
 
            Carl stood solemnly facing the casket as it was pulled from the back of the hearse. He would be the last pallbearer of three on his side. When his handle was within reach, he grabbed it with his left hand, turned face forward, feeling the weight of the casket resting in his hand. As the processional reached the steps of the church, the bearers turned, faced the casket and grasped their handle with two hands. They climbed the steps in a synchronized step and wait, step and wait. At the top, they placed the casket on a cart and wheeled it through the church doors to the front of the sanctuary. With the casket in place for the funeral ceremony, the bearers filed around to the end of the seated congregation where they took their seats. Carl would sit silently, respectfully through the service waiting to reverse the process to get the casket back to the hearse. Carl would not cry. He would not display any emotion. He did not know the deceased, not even the first name. He only knew that this was the Brookston funeral. Carl was a professional pallbearer. This was his third funeral this week.

            It was an unusual job that Carl got by reading the postings on his university’s employment website. As a freshman, despite his financial aid package, he needed to earn money for books and personal expenses. That was two years ago. Now Carl scheduled afternoon classes so he would always be free in the mornings when funerals usually took place. The funerals that needed to hire pallbearers were usually for old folks or, as he learned the politically correct description, senior citizens. Many attendees were themselves too old or frail to act as pallbearers. There might be younger relatives for the duties but not enough.

Carl had never been to a funeral before he took the job. It had been all new. The sadness of the ceremony and the weeping, subdued or aloud, did not affect him or his mood. He had no experience with the personal grief that accompanies death. Some of his friends had lost a grandparent during his two years at college but his were still alive. Funerals were just part of his day. He kept two black suits in his closet, always ready for the next job. He was so immune and insensitive to the grief which surrounded him in his work that if asked about his job, he would callously reply: “I deliver packages.

He had served at many funerals of different faiths and ceremony. Sometimes the coffin was opened for part of the service. The veterans of military service would have an American flag draping the coffin along with an honor guard which always seemed comprised of old veterans in ill-fitting uniforms. One Asian funeral hired all the pallbearers as it was their custom that outsiders carry the deceased. He did a Jewish funeral wearing a yarmulke. The coffin remained closed. Sometimes he would be invited to the reception after the services. He did attend once but could not relate to the mixture of grief and laughter that he observed.

The next morning, Carl once again delivered the “package” to the front of the church and took his place at the back of the congregation. He was a little fidgety. It was going to be a long morning and the whole thing started late. When he got to the funeral home, he found the proceedings were being delayed while waiting for some out of town relatives to arrive. He passed the time by wandering out of the pallbearers’ waiting room and walking around the building. He had found the photo tribute to the old man he would be carrying. There was a young couple in a wedding photo, photos of youth and activity, and family photos. He glanced at them with only passing curiosity.  

            After the eulogy, something unexpected happened. The minister offered the congregation a final goodbye, which led to a processional past the open coffin. In a line, mourners approached the coffin where they lingered with a look. Some mouthed words, perhaps a prayer or maybe a sentiment given directly to the deceased. As the deacon approached Carl’s pew, the other pallbearers rose to take their place in the processional. Carl did not know what to do. Yes, those ushers would join the procession, but they were family; he was not. Should he go or remain in his seat? He decided that remaining seated might be viewed as a sign of disrespect by those that were unaware of his mercenary status.

            Carl was the last one in line. He was now being viewed by all in attendance. He slowly stepped in front of the coffin and looked in. The occupant was an elderly man in a new black suit, a white shirt and a black/grey striped tie. His face was worn. His thin gray hair was combed over to the side.  As Carl looked into that face, it began to morph into a young face. It was the face of the man in the wedding picture. Now Carl was frozen in place, staring at the face that morphed again into the old face. While Carl was trying to return his mind from confusion, the face morphed again to a young face. Carl recognized the young face this time too. It was his face, his face on an old dead man!

            The corpse with Carl’s face turned and lifted his head slightly and looked directly at Carl. He spoke and said, “I am not a package.” Collapsing back onto the satin pillow, his face returned to that of the old man.

Carl returned to his pew. For the first time, he cried.

 

Frank Kozusko

 

Frank Kozusko is a retired US Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer. After the Navy, he spent 20 years as a university math professor. A few years back, he started writing poetry. He has self-published several collections. In full retirement, he is exploring all his artistic talents: painting in acrylics, sculpting and expanding his writing into short stories. He doesn’t consider himself retired: just in a third career as a non-starving artist. He is just starting to work on submissions and hoping to publish soon.

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1 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your story. Like your protagonist, the reader is drawn in from a casual observer of the business of death to one intimately aware of its hold over his life.

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