May 22, 2011

Snake Oil in the Funeral Parlor


There was a knock on the door shortly before noon on Saturday. I was seated at the kitchen table but didn’t move. There was a good chance it might be the exterminator, and I didn’t want to deal with the exterminator. Then whoever was knocking called my name. It was my upstairs neighbor.

              I opened the door. He owed me some money, so every time he knocked I opened the door in hopes that he was going to settle up. He never did, but I still hoped.

              He didn’t settle up this time either. Instead he told me that the mother of a mutual friend had died three days earlier.

              I knew her. She and her daughter both lived in the neighborhood. She was an elderly woman who spoke virtually no English. We mostly communicated through gestures and nods. A sweet, tough old lady. She used to sing all the time, her voice coarse but soaring, songs I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. Still I loved her singing. She’d been sick for a while (a variety of things) and finally she lost the fight.

              I asked my neighbor if he knew anything about the funeral arrangements, and he told me there was going to be a viewing in two hours.

              “Oh. All right,” I told him. Short notice or not, there was no question about attending. Fortunately the funeral home was only five or six blocks away. I told him I’d be there.

              A few minutes after he left, the phone rang. It was another fellow from the neighborhood, so I told him what happened.

              “Really?” he said, suddenly sounding very excited. “So that means her apartment’s open? Do you know how much they’re asking for it?”

              “Umm . . . that, uh, that hasn’t really come up yet.”

              “Well if it comes up at the funeral, let me know.”

              “Sure thing.”

              Come the appointed time I dug through the closet for a tie and a jacket, then tapped over to the funeral home (praying I hadn’t chosen my skull tie by accident). It was a warm afternoon. Too warm for a dark jacket and tie, but at least the funeral home would be air-conditioned.

              When I reached the place, however, something seemed wrong. There was no hearse out front, no men in dark suits milling around the sidewalk, smoking. And when I finally found the doors and stepped inside, things seemed quiet. Beyond the usual funeral home hush, this place was silent—no quiet voices of mourners, no squeaky shoes on carpeting, no soft burble of the industrial coffee pot. The place was empty.

              I immediately began to wonder if my neighbor—who smoked his share of weed and had some very intriguing notions about his place in the universe—might not have sent me to the wrong address, or given me the wrong time. It was entirely possible the old woman was still alive and singing. Jesus, and I’d fallen for it. I should have known better than to take his muddle-headed word for anything. I’d even put on a damn tie.

              “May I help you?” a young woman asked.

              “Oh. Yes. Sorry. I was wondering . . . is there supposed to be a . . . a viewing right about now?” I gave her the name.

              “Yes,” she said. Well, that was a relief I supposed. I waited a moment for more of the pertinent information, but nothing seemed forthcoming.

              “Ahh,” I said. “And where might I find it?”

              She took my arm and led me down the hall through the silence to a set of double doors.

              Inside, the room was empty except for my friend Caroline and her mother.

              Caroline, who was understandably distraught, grabbed me and led me to the casket at the front of the room.

              As we stood there by her mother in the otherwise empty room she said, “I want to tell you something I haven’t told anyone else about what happened at the end.”

              Oh god no please don’t do that, I thought. I’m no good at funerals. Especially when I’m the only one there.

              We talked for a bit, and when other members of the family started arriving ten minutes later, she led me to a chair off to the side and sat me down.

              Being as I was the only non-Hispanic in the room (not to mention the only blindo) I guess I was easy to pick out, so people started stopping by to chat. As they spoke I began to notice a pattern developing. Most of them were talking about spirits, and auras, and “universal forces.” It seems Caroline—who is as down-to-earth as they come, a very level-headed woman—is part of a large extended family heavily populated with New Age fruitcakes.

              Caroline’s brother Eddie sat down next to me and, noting that I was a writer, told me that he was a composer, a musician, and a singing teacher. That was a relief. Those were things I could talk about without a derisive smirk.

              Before that could go too far however, he switched gears and began telling me all about his newfound interest in nutrition. Nutrition I have little time for, but I suppose it’s still better than all that hoodoo nonsense.

              “I found this rare African herb,” he said. “It has some amazing healing properties.”

              Oh shit, here we go.

              He went on to tell me that he’d been feeding it to his mother in the weeks before she died, and that it significantly reduced the symptoms of both the diabetes and the Alzheimer’s.

              “It cures ADHD and cancer,” he said. “There are documented cases of cancer patients taking this African herbal supplement and passing three-pound tumors harmlessly out of their system.”

              “I see,” I said, deciding it wouldn’t be appropriate at this particular moment to point out that his mother had ultimately died of cancer.

              As dozens of mourners slowly filled the room, he regaled me with yet more tales of the miraculous curative powers of this wonder drug. Why, it could do darn near anything. “The FDA won’t approve it because of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry,” he told me. “It would make most commercially-produced drugs irrelevant.” Then it was on to the evils of those commercial drugs when compared with his all-natural herbal extract.


              I breathed a small sigh of relief when his best friend showed up and sat down with us. Howard was a trucker from Bay Ridge, and I was grateful for the distraction. It didn’t last long, as Howard began talking about the damned herbal supplement, too.

              “I just take a packet every morning and I have energy to keep me going all day without even getting hungry. Time was I’d stop in the middle of the day and eat a big sandwich, some kind of food that was bad for my body. Not any more. Since I started taking this, my diet is healthy and my body is healthy. My attitude is great, and I sleep well at night. You know, I started taking this about a year ago now, and my joint pain has completely vanished. I can clear out a truck—I haul crates of vegetables to grocery stores all over the city—and I can clear these crates out of my truck three times as fast as some of these younger kids. It prevents colds, too. I haven’t been sick in any way in the year since I’ve been taking it.”

              There was a reason it all sounded so much like a commercial. Half an hour later it finally came out that I wasn’t exactly talking to a couple of satisfied customers. They were both telemarketers who worked for the company that sells the shit to suckers and rubes. They give seminars and set up tables at conventions. They get testimonials, and apparently love the drug so much they feel compelled to pitch it at family funerals.

              As it happened, they had a couple of packets on them that very moment, which they were willing to sell to me for the unbelievably low introductory price of just sixty dollars a packet. But wait, there’s more!

              I tried hard to avoid reminding Eddie that the woman who had raised him was posed in a coffin not twenty-five feet away from where we were sitting. I tried hard to avoid saying anything at all. I just nodded and planned my exit.

              I felt bad leaving Caroline without saying goodbye, but there were enough people crowded into the room by then that I knew she’d be occupied. I just had to get away. I needed a smoke. Besides, there were also enough people in the room that I knew Eddie and Harold would easily meet their quota for the day.


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