My dad, nearing 81 years old, just retired last year from his job for health reasons. He was employed for close to 60 years for a casket company in Florence, Massachusetts.
For as long as I can remember, and before that, he worked in a shop that made caskets. He never talked about it–he never really talked to us kids about anything, really–so I never knew much about it. I never went there, never saw him at work. I just knew he got up every morning (no matter how much he drank the previous evening) and went to work, stayed there all day, and came home around suppertime. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade. I don’t know anything about what happened at this place, the people he worked with, the machinery he ran, the process of making caskets. Nothing. I just knew he worked at some place that made boxes for dead people.
I remember feeling embarrassed about this, ashamed. I’m not sure why; I guess death was a taboo subject, something we never talked about. I don’t remember ever asking my parents about death, in contrast to my 7 year old daughter, who often asks me about death and what happens and where do you go and what’s heaven like? So the fact that my dad did this, that he held some sort of position in the chain of death, was a bit mortifying.
In middle school, I think it was seventh grade, one of my teachers asked the class what their dads did for work (maybe moms, too, at this point-1983?-, but I clearly remember she was asking about dads) and I didn’t want to answer. I stalled, I hesitated, I was silent as I pretended to think, pretended I couldn’t remember. It didn’t occur to me to lie, or say I didn’t have a father. I was bound to the truth, but I was embarrassed at the truth. I hoped the teacher would pass over me, but no, she and the class waited patiently for me to answer, and it seemed like five long minutes, at least.
I finally confessed: he worked for a casket company.
A casket company? the teacher asked, eyes wide with disbelief or shock, as if she’d never heard of such a thing, as if caskets made themselves, as if he were part of some secret pariah class that did such dirty work it could never be spoken of. Her ridiculous reaction plunged me into such mortification; my cheeks burned with embarrassment, I wanted to sink down into the floor and disappear. Did the class titter and whisper? I don’t remember, but I remember feeling that what my father did for a living was dirty, shameful, how could he help make such repositories of death? It seems silly now, of course, but when you’re a kid something like that seems so out of the ordinary, and the last thing I wanted was to be linked with something not ordinary.
I was embarrassed about it then, but now I wonder how my dad felt, all those years, making with his hands something that he himself will someday rest in, indeed, that we all will some day rest in (even if it’s an urn with ashes; same principle). I wonder if he recognized a kind of irony in spending his life working and working and working at something, only to find himself inside it someday, like digging your own grave. I wonder if all those death boxes over the years are starting to haunt him.