When my father cashed in his chips on April 26, 1969 the responsibilities for the proper conduct of his obsequies fell upon my dead brother Tom (MP 56, Fordham 67), who was very much alive at the time, and my humble self. And so, the next day we appeared at Williams Funeral Home, not too far from Joe’s Fish Market, and just across Broadway from the RKO Marble Hill accompanied by our grieving mother and sister to learn what could be done to honor a devoted letter carrier.
The funeral director, whose name I never can remember, but whose manner I shall not forget, sat behind his desk, which seemed about the size of a carrier’s flight deck. It was the most slick and shiny piece of furniture there has ever been and was empty of everything except a black phone, his folded arms, long fingers knitted together so as to make me think of a bed of snakes, just below the inverted reflection of his face in the highly polished wood; that face a practiced and professional mask of compassionate sympathy, welcoming us in a properly consoling manner; both in reflection and in fact.
“We accept cash or check,” were what I remember most his consolations. That and the soothing words, “Payment is due within ten days, or late charges go into effect,” did much to ease the pain of loss.
My mother, stoically silent, merely nodded, opened the purse she held on her lap, produced a pile of bills and counted out the full amount. “We would like to see the coffin,” my brother said, standing. “You have a showroom, of course?”
With no more than the merest gentle smile, your man rose and gestured that we follow him, from his carpeted office through the door and down the carpeted corridor to a doubled door opening into a large room filled with beautiful examples of funerary magnificence.
To be sure, I was awed. He gestured in such a manner that gave us to understand any of these was ours for the asking. Thus invited, we strolled among les Objets des Morts, whispering comments and questions until we had narrowed our choices to two. My dear sister spoke for the first time. I know this sounds unusual for those who know her, but nevertheless… She spoke and said, ” Are these the right size? “
For the first of several times during the next few days the, until then, composed, controlled, supremely confident gentleman, our very own Virgil I had come to think, appeared to lose himself in surprise. “No one has ever asked that question,” he answered with the tiniest waver in his voice. My mother, smelling blood, smiled ever so briefly and said,”We are.” I thought I saw him stumble backwards, slightly. My brother was nearest him, now, and said, “Our father was above average in height, though slimmed some by the disease which finally took him from us. He suffered greatly in this life, and we would be grieved to know we were the cause of any further suffering for him on his “Last Journey”.” Turning to me, Tom added, “Peter, here, is closest to our father’s height. We would like to see in which of these Dad would look his best.”
“Of course he’ll take off his shoes.” The gentleman had raised only this objection after a nervous cough and a frantic look around, whether for help or a way out I have never known.
And so, barefooted since I wanted to feel the satin lining on my feet, I climbed in and lay down in the coffins feeling a bit like that little girl in the story. The first one was too small by several inches, and I thought of my poor father spending only God knows how many years awaiting the Parousia with cramped aching feet. But the second was just right, and upon my testimony, we all chose it for Dad. He, or what is left of him, lies there still, waiting comfortably.
There were several details left to be attended to, so we returned to the office. The next matter was the preparation and publication of an obituary for the deceased as our Master of the Rites informed us. In response to Tom’s question he explained just what the charges would be in each of the several papers and offered himself as amanuensis in its production. He removed a blank piece of paper from within one of the desk drawers and, smiling, paused expectantly.
My mother asked if this was included in the fee just paid. Sadly, it was not; a piece of information which caught us short for the merest moment. We were not people of means, and had little set aside for the honors which might have done my father justice. His early death caught us unprepared. Then my brother offered what I think was a brilliant solution. He said, “Why not: Ed Gallaher, dead!”
After he had found himself; only a short while, really, our guide gave us some bad news. “There is a minimum charge.”
It was my sister, then, who suggested a solution. We would approach my father’s favorite barkeep, Angie of The Kingsbridge Tavern on the corner of our block. He was always good. We’ll just add it to Dad’s tab, now in the low four figures. And that was the end of that!
The last matter of business for the afternoon involved the number of cars for mourners, and, of course the hearse and flower car. We would do this all without flowers, my mother said, since it was too early for dandelions she added, soto voce. That left us with the matter of a hearse, and the positioning of cars.
And, here, I spoke up. “My father’s last wish was to have a Mailman’s Funeral.” He had been writing something on piece of paper when I said this, and he slowly put down the pencil. Looking directly at me he spoke, a little tremulously, “What do you mean?”
I guessed he had never heard of such a thing, so I explained that my father’s body would be carried from the funeral home on the day of the Funeral Mass by six pallbearers in full dress Letter Carrier’s uniforms placed in a mail truck and driven to the church. Behind it we would all walk, led by the Mailman’s Marching Band. The Mail Truck, to be driven by my father’s longtime mailman friend and partner, whose name I only remember as Ralphie Boy, would be further decorated with two brand new leather mailbags, one mounted inside out on each each door to signify that inside a dead letter carrier lay. Further, a gold ribbon bearing the word “Cancelled” in black letters would be draped across the hood of the truck
“Really?” He said. ” If they are available,” I answered. “That would be good,” my mother interrupted. “With the money we save on your hearse, we won’t need Angie.”
And so it was. Or could have been. The fellow was kind enough to say he would absorb the obituary costs if we allowed him to take Dad to church in his hearse. Such a deal we couldn’t get in a store as Moe the tailor used to say.
We took it. He couldn’t stand, so we shook his hand and left.
There are other stories to tell about Dad’s wake. But, I’ll save them.