“So, if you just put your Joan Hancock here, and date it there, you’re all set,” Mr. Neptune said with too little gravitas, and too much impatience. He offered a “Neptune Society Pre-need” pen out of the pocket protector of his short-sleeved business shirt flat in his palm like a small weapon. “Any other questions?”
“Yeah, where’s the robe and the scythe,” I didn’t say. I breathed deep to calm myself. But, the frankincense, and flickering tapers I’d lit to infuse spirituality into the signing of my cremation contract was smoking up my living room (and the word “living” felt ironic) and burning my throat. This contract outlined the terms by which I’d be tidily reduced to ashes, interred in a baggie and box. For the rep, this was a routine he performed several times a day five days a week. For me, this commitment was momentous.
Yes, I had questions, but most I had struggled to answer on my own, like why now?
I’d recently ended a long relationship and decided to go it alone in life. I wanted to stop waiting for love to determine my future and my future gravesite. I wanted to firm up a plan with myself alone. At this halfway point, forty-nine years old, odds were more in death’s favor. Death was definite, reliable—something I could count on, and maybe before love came if it ever came.
Why not go underground like all my elders had? I had answered that, too.
If I got buried in the ground, there was no way of knowing what might happen to the site of me later– quakes, floods, landmines. My father happily chose his free burial plaque, provided by the VA, to be interred under its single grand spreading oak. My father felt this natural monument was one of his first lucky breaks and would make it easier for folks to find him. But the oak got root rot and died a year after he did, and without the landmark, he was mostly lost to us, sad to say. Ashes, at least, were portable, especially if packaged in a unique vessel. I wanted my remains to have a purpose in some form of permanence that could serve a function. I’d asked if Neptune’s staff could divide my remains into small decorative urns. Or, bake me inside paperweights or doorstops to be distributed amongst folks who cared about me–maybe with my picture on them. But he’d firmly reminded me that the early bird, no frills discount to which I was entitled for signing before the age of fifty would go away. And he suggested that my after-life, or after-death, might best be handled by my intimates.
At this moment, I hadn’t any. My sister’s proximity to our parents on the East Coast had already burdened her with the failing health of my father, and the maintenance of my mother. Although I, on the West Coast, was financing a lot of these deteriorations, she might find my leftovers distasteful. I had no significant others into whose care the bone meal of me could be placed. Where would I go? I’d been adamantly opposed to being cast out to sea by Mr. Neptune, as I was an aquaphobe
Mr. Neptune’s assertive eyebrows were assembling in the shape of a question mark. I wanted to ask how the crematorium functioned, if it resembled Auschwitz. But, this ample man, in his short-sleeved button down, tucked unattractively into wool trousers over loafers mid-July, was not Jewish. He might not understand.
Did I have any more questions about my demise that he could answer? Maybe. Would my ashes be as lonely as I was? Or were they oblivious? I had a starvation for love that seemed eternal, that even death would not deter. He was wearing a wedding band—he probably would not understand my midlife, never-married panic. He was not a cleric or a psychiatrist, nor was empathy in his job requirements. What, I might ask, even qualified him to have such power over my fate?
“Sir, say I was to someday fall in love with someone with whom I wish to be interred in a shared plot or box–would Neptune give me my money back?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Your investment covers our costs of keeping your records, making your arrangements, and being sure your initial wishes are carried out as quickly as possible after you pass on.”
The chemical constituents of dread were rising up my esophagus with a glut of more questions. Did I really want to know all the gory details about my aftermath, I asked myself? Like: If I continued my tendency to be this alone, how, specifically, would Neptune be notified to gather me? Was there a special cleaning service that took care of post demise fumigation? Judging from the increasing odor of me this moment, things might get much worse later.
Could I sneak a peek ahead at the epilogue? Would anybody foster a memorial service? Who would speak and what would they say? I wanted to take some time to philosophize with this good Christian gentleman about what lay beyond for a lapsed Jewess, a devout Atheist. My idea of heaven was that all the things I had lost in life—earrings, a ring, socks, a leather skirt, a green hat, books, a ghosted boyfriend, would suddenly be revealed to me in their hiding places. Oh, THAT’S where that went, I could exclaim, as a part of me still searching and mad at myself that precious things had left my life. I swear a piece of my mind has been seeking my old Filofax since the 80’s.
I was diving deep into the insignificance of my death and getting rather maudlin inside myself, when he coughed and wiped his eyes.
“I’m sorry—I have a lunch meeting at some distance. You could mail them in, if you need more time to think things through, but let me say this, off the record.” He looked deeply into my face. “There’s so much you can’t know now—when, where, how. However, were you to meet the love of your life, wouldn’t it be worth a few thousand dollars of loss to surrender your contract if need be? And, if you refer him to Neptune, this future love could get a discount on a matching basic container, or a container to be shared with you.”
Did somebody say discount? If my truest love got a discount, it would be just as good as my getting it.
“So, this is reversible?”
“Of course. No one will cremate you if you de-authorize our contract—you’ll just forfeit this fee. And we could renegotiate again later on.”
If there was any eternal in my future, I would be eternally grateful for Mr. Neptune’s insight, wisdom, mercy and kindness that fateful afternoon. I signed and dated the contract, now hoping against hope to lose the damn fee by falling in forever love. Then, I could share a queen-sized burial plot or get a double-sized ash box from Mr. Neptune to share with my beloved sleep mate-to -come.
Melanie Chartoff is an actor who hails from New Haven, lived in New York City, now resides in Los Angeles. She recently became a first-time wife and stepmother.