Generic Death

The Balcony, Edouard Manet  1868   Oil on Canvas

A few weeks ago my boss emerged from his office with his hair combed, wearing a suit and tie.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I told you,” he said, “A funeral.”

It wasn’t on his calendar but I remembered him texting me the night before, saying that he’d be gone briefly to attend a funeral but to keep the meetings he had in the afternoon.

“I won’t be long,” he said, and walked out.

It was lunch and as I sat, eating at my desk, my computer pinged again and again as my boss checked email at the funeral. I imagined him sitting impatiently behind a row of sobbing women and stoic men, shaking his leg (even though I have never seen him do this), and scrolling through his Blackberry. Who’s funeral was it? Whomever lay in the casket wasn’t close enough to elicit any show of feeling from my boss other than a sense of obligation to be present. I wondered if he was thinking about his mortality – it’s hard not to, is my experience, when there is a casket right before you, but my mailbox pinged once again and I put down my fork (and the thought) to answer his emails.

When he returned a few hours later, he had already loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top collar in the car.

“Everything fine?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, then awkwardly and a little too brightly, “How was the uh, funeral?”

He shrugged, “It was one of my parents’ friends.”

“Old age?”

“I guess,” he shrugged again, indicating he hadn’t given it much thought and then asked,

“So my afternoon meetings still on?”

I nodded – the funeral was already a faint memory to him. There was work to be done.

Perspective II: Manet’s Balcony,   Rene Magritte    1950    Oil on Canvas

Some days later, an email floated my way from the business planning team. The subject line simply said, “Sad News,” and when I opened it, the news was indeed sad.

The wife of one of our suppliers had passed away from cancer, the email said, would the company send flowers? Being attached on the email I assumed the responsibility fell to me, and I wrote back, “Yes, I’ll take care of it.”

I stared at the email for a minute, wondering if I should include a note of sympathy, but the supplier himself was not on the email, and if he had been, I’m not sure I would have said anything. It was strange to think that I had never met the man; only heard his name on occasion or seen it in emails – and yet – I clicked on the attachment – I was now staring at the invitation to his wife’s memorial service and pondering what florist to use.

Whomever had designed the invitation misspelled two words: Honor and Chapel. I pictured the supplier sobbing onto his keyboard, his eyes too blurred with tears to see the squiggly red line MS Word provides when you misspell something. The lines were set against a white shuttlecock – a strange image to have on a memorial notice, but I had heard somewhere that the supplier and his wife were avid badminton players.

I used Google maps. I typed in the name of the cemetery and clicked “search nearby,” and links to a half dozen local florists popped up. Eerily, they all connected to the same-looking websites, just with different phone numbers. The prices were the same too – and I wondered if I had stumbled upon some Bay Area Florist scam, but the numbers connected me to real women with soft voices and, I assumed, a way with stems and blossoms. Arrangements were categorized thus: “Birthday” “Romantic” “Get Well” “Sympathy” and “Arrangements under $35”.

I clicked on “Sympathy” and saw that none of the arrangements looked remotely sympathetic – they were too colorful, too cheerful, and too prettily arranged to communicate death. A few of the sprays seemed more wedding appropriate. There were standing sprays, standing wreaths, and bouquets with vases included, in case you wanted to place them upon an altar. I thought about the hundreds of white lily’s at my grandfather’s funeral and searched for something all white, of which there was only one choice. The supplier was Asian – he’d appreciate the company being culturally aware.

Next came payment information. For nearly fifty dollars more one could upgrade the bouquet to mimic standing floral fireworks. Mindful or perhaps just unaware of the company budget for these types of things, I clicked No, Thanks.

I was allotted four lines for the message, about as many characters as a tweet. A friendly looking question mark stood off to the side of these lines and if you hovered the cursor over it, a message appeared: Need help with your message? Select one of our thoughtful, ready to send messages.

Around me, my coworkers typed away on their keyboards. Someone in accounting laughed. The CFO shouted something about numbers, then stomped around, telling nobody and everybody that he was alive. Below me, the business planning team rushed around from meeting to meeting, with other suppliers whose wives were, hopefully, cancer-free.

I furrowed my brow and thought to compose an original message. I felt the seconds ticking by – the cursor blinked. I blinked. Finally, I clicked on the question mark. I had work to do. My cursor selected Our thoughts are with you during your time of need.


Confirm payment.

A screen popped up to notify me that payment confirmation would be emailed to me. The following message, at the bottom, made me saddest of all:

Thank you for your order! Your satisfaction is guaranteed, but please be aware that on occasion due to demand and seasonal availabilities, your exact arrangement may not be available in which case we will try our best to substitute an arrangement of equal or similar value.

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