The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

“Later, I think. We’ll come to it. Go on now about the funeral.”

“Very well. Beesty took over the job of seeing the people from the papers, but it was snatched from him by Denyse, who had prepared a handout with biographical details. Silly, of course, because the papers had that already. But she achieved one thing by it that made me furious: the only mention of my mother in the whole obituary was a reference to ‘an earlier marriage to Leola Crookshanks, who died in 1942.’ Her name was Cruikshank, not Crookshanks, and she had been my father’s wife since 1924 and the mother of his children, and a dear, sad, unhappy woman. Denyse knew that perfectly well, and nothing will convince me that the mistake wasn’t the result of spite. And of course she dragged in a reference to her own wretched daughter, Lorene, who has nothing to do with the Staunton family — nothing at all.

“When was the funeral to be? That was the great question. I was for getting it over as quickly as possible, but the police did not release the body until late on Monday — and that took some arranging, I can assure you. Denyse wanted as much time as possible to arrange her semi-State funeral and assemble all the grandees she could bully, so it was decided to have it on Thursday.

“Where was he to be buried? Certainly not in Deptford, where he was born, though his parents had providently bought a six-holer in the cemetery there years ago, and were themselves the only occupants. But Deptford wouldn’t do for Denyse, so a grave had to be bought in Toronto.

“Have you ever bought a grave? It’s not unlike buying a house. First of all they show you the poor part of the cemetery, and you look at all the foreign tombstones with photographs imbedded in them under plastic covers, and the inscriptions in strange languages and queer alphabets, and burnt-out candles lying on the grass, and your heart sinks. You wonder, can this be death? How sordid! Because you aren’t your best self, you know; you’re a stinking snob; funerals bring out that sort of thing dreadfully. You’ve told yourself for years that it doesn’t matter what happens to a corpse, and when cocktail parties become drunken-serious you’ve said that the Jews have the right idea, and the quickest, cheapest funeral is the best and philosophically the most decent. But when you get into the cemetery, it’s quite different. And the cemetery people know it. So you move out of the working-class and ethnic district into the area of suburban confines, but the gravestones are really rather close together and the inscriptions are in bad prose, and you almost expect to see jocular inscriptions like ‘Take-It-Aisy’ and ‘Dunroamin’ on the stones along with ‘Till the Day Breaks’ and ‘In the Everlasting Arms.’ Then things begin to brighten; bigger plots, no crowding, an altogether classier type of headstone and — best of all — the names of families you know. On the Resurrection Morn, after all, one doesn’t want to jostle up to the Throne with a pack of strangers. And that’s where the deal is settled.

“Did you know, by the way, that somebody has to own a grave? Somebody, that is, other than the occupant. I own my father’s grave. A strange thought.”

“Who owns your mother’s grave? And why was your father not buried near her?”

“I own her grave, because I inherited it as part of my father’s estate. The only bit of real estate he left me, as a matter of fact. And because she died during the war, when my father was abroad, the funeral had to be arranged by a family friend, and he just bought one grave. A good one, but single. She lies in the same desirable area as my father, but not near. As in life.

“By Tuesday night the undertakers had finished their work, and the coffin was back in his house, at the end of the drawing-room, and we were all invited in to take a look. Difficult business, of course, because an undertaker — or at any rate his embalmer — is an artist of a kind, and when someone has died by violence it’s a challenge to see how well they can make him look. I must say in justice they had done well by Father, for though it would be stupid to say he looked like himself, he didn’t look as though he had been drowned. But you know how it is; an extremely vital, mercurial man, who has always had a play of expression and even of colour, doesn’t look like himself with a mat complexion and that inflexible calm they produce for these occasions. I have had to see a lot of people in their coffins, and they always look to me as if they were under a malign enchantment and could hear what was said and would speak if the enchantment could be broken. But there it was, and somebody had to say a kind word or two to the undertakers, and it was Beesty who did it. I was always being amazed at the things he could do in this situation, because my father and I had never thought he could do anything except manage his damned bond business. The rest of us looked with formal solemnity, just as a few years before we had gathered to look at Caroline’s wedding cake with formal pleasure; on both occasions we were doing it chiefly to give satisfaction to the people who had created the exhibit.

“That night people began to call. Paying their respects is the old-fashioned phrase for it. Beesty and Caroline and I hung around in the drawing-room and chatted with the visitors in subdued voices. ‘So good of you to come. . . . Yes, a very great shock. . . . It’s extremely kind of you to say so. . . .’ Lots of that sort of thing. Top people from my father’s business, the Alpha Corporation, doing the polite. Lesser people from the Alpha Corporation, seeing that everybody who came signed a book; a secretary specially detailed to keep track of telegrams and cables, and another to keep a list of the flowers.

“Oh, the flowers! Or, as just about everybody insisted on calling them, the ‘floral tributes.’ Being November, the florists were pretty well down to chrysanthemums, and there were forests of them. But of course the really rich had to express their regret with roses because they were particularly expensive at the time. The rich are always up against it, you see; they have to send the best, however much they may hate the costly flower of the moment, or somebody is sure to say they’ve been cheap. Denyse had heard somewhere of a coffin being covered with a blanket of roses, and she wanted one as her own special offering. It was Caroline who persuaded her to hold herself down to a decent bunch of white flowers. Or really, persuaded isn’t the word; Caroline told me she was finally driven to saying, ‘Are you trying to make us look like the Medici?’ and that did it, because Denyse had never heard any good spoken of the Medici.

“This grisly business went on all day Wednesday. I was on duty in the morning, and received and made myself pleasant to the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief, a man from the Hydro-Electric Power Commission, and quite a crowd of dignitaries of one sort and another. There was a representative of the Bar Association, which called to mind the almost forgotten fact that my father’s professional training had been as a lawyer; I knew this man quite well because he was a frequent associate of my own, but the others were people I knew only by name or from their pictures in the newspapers. There were bank presidents, naturally.

“Denyse, of course, did none of the receiving. It wouldn’t have suited the role for which she had cast herself. Officially, she was too desolated to be on view, and only special people were taken to an upstairs room where she held state. I don’t quarrel with that. Funerals are among the few ceremonial occasions left to us, and we assume our roles almost without thinking. I was the Only Son, who was bearing up splendidly, but who was also known not to be, and to have no expectation of ever being, the man his father was. Beesty was That Decent Fellow Bastable, who was doing everything he could under difficult circumstances. Caroline was the Only Daughter, stricken with grief, but of course not so catastrophically stricken as Denyse, who was the Widow and assumed to be prostrate under her affliction. Well — all right. That’s the pattern, and we break patterns at our peril. After all, they become patterns because they conform to realities. I have been in favour of ceremonial and patterns all my life, and I have no desire to break the funeral pattern. But there was too much real feeling behind the pattern for me to be anything other than wretchedly overwrought, and the edicts Denyse issued from her chamber of affliction were the worst things I had to bear.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson