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Would you like to see her, asked Francis the
funeral director.

The casket was on some sort of hospital gurney with a
dutch-door arrangement where you could open the top
half or the bottom.

Yes, I would like to see her, I said.

I hadn’t visited her in five years, and it made sense to at
least see what she looked like at the end.

Francis opened the casket.

Didn’t they do a good job? she asked.

My older sister crowded me close against the half-open
casket—only the top half exposed—when Francis lifted
the lid.

She looks beautiful, my sister said.

I didn’t recognize my dead aunt. She’d never looked as
good as the preserved husk lying in the box before me,
made up like a wealthy matron in pearls and a white
satin gown. Auntie had never worn make-up and never
swept her hair back the way it was now.

I wondered if she really wanted to look this way for the
rest of eternity.

I wondered why Francis didn’t offer to open the bottom
half of the casket.

The casket reminded me of a magic act I saw in Vegas.

There was a box just like my aunt’s with the same
delineation down the middle, but with openings at the
top and bottom. A woman’s head and feet poked out of
either end as a caped man sawed her in half.

I always wondered how they did that.

The conclusion I’d drawn was that there were two
midgets lying in either end of the box so when the two
halves were pulled apart the head still nodded and feet
kept kicking.

My aunt was keeping still today, which she never did in
life. She’d always been occupied with the business of
existence: shopping, cooking, eating, dishwasher,
laundry, bathroom, dispensing platitudes.

She disapproved of me.

I played the slots in Vegas hoping to get rich, but it
never happened. When I did win something I blew it on
a stupid show like the magic act, which wasn’t even a
good magic act but a seedy matinee. I sat in the cheap
seats, way back in the empty lounge.

At Auntie’s funeral, I had VIP seating, right up front by
the casket, because immediate family get the best seats.
The closer the relation, the better seat you get. It’s
tradition, like so many other useless things connected
with funerals.

I would’ve gotten a good seat anyway, because Auntie
had the smallest group of mourners I’d ever seen. There
were seven of us: my sister and her husband, their four
grandchildren, and me. We sat up front in a room full of
empty chairs.

There was no minister or priest presiding because my
sister was an agnostic who liked to impose her beliefs, or
lack of them, on others.

Acting as MC, Francis stood next to the casket and
kicked off the memorial service with a brief summary of
Auntie’s life:

Born 1913, died 2015.

She lived 102 years.

She never married. Never had children.

An unfortunate consequence of living so long, Francis
said, is that so few remain behind to mourn your
passing. (Auntie outlived both my parents and all of her
friends. Even her two surviving nieces—my sister and I—
were getting old.)

What Francis didn’t say—the unspoken truth—is that a
woman without children cannot expect to have much of
a funeral.

There wasn’t a damp eye in the house.

More biography: Auntie served in the United States
Army from 1943 until 1967, retired on a pension for
nearly fifty years, in good health all that time except the
last five years when she was incapacitated by a broken
hip. Her oldest niece (my sister) took care of her after
that.

What Francis didn’t say is that at least twice a year,
during the past five years, my sister emailed me saying
our aunt was close to dying, that it wouldn’t be long now
so I’d better come and say goodbye . . . but I never
came. It seemed pointless for me to visit an aunt who
kept telling me that I was wasting my life.

* * *

Three Army soldiers produced an American flag,
unfolded it, and draped it over Auntie’s casket to honor
their fallen comrade.

It was cold in the room, I suppose to keep my aunt
fresh. The single, sparse floral arrangement beside the
casket was odorless and lackluster.

Looking out the window, I saw a line of soldiers outside
holding rifles on the mortuary lawn. It looked like a firing
squad, come to visit justice on the niece who didn’t visit.

I squirmed in my folding chair.

Francis stood up, urging us to our feet.

We have to go outdoors, she said, for the twenty-one
gun salute.

We wandered out of the cold room and into the sunshine
to watch the soldiers fire their guns into the air. Dummy
bullets. Blanks, I assume.

Crack! crack! I flinched with every round.

Ironic, all this show of male firepower, since my aunt
served the in Army when WACs were really secretaries.
The most hazardous thing she faced in the line of duty
was a paper cut, and I don’t think they gave Purple
Hearts for that. I pictured her sitting before a clunky
typewriter (no computers then) wrestling carbon paper
between blank sheets of paper rolled into a machine so
everything could be filed in triplicate, triplicate, triplicate.

Crack! The final round exploded. The soldiers rested their
guns on the grass, seven of them having fired three
times to equal twenty-one.

Behind the firing squad, an Army bugler fussed with his
horn for a moment before putting the instrument to his
lips. I felt tears come when I heard the first searing
notes of Taps.

This was the first display of grief I’d been able to muster
all day.

My sister’s husband who plays trombone in a community
band touched my arm when the music ended. He
handed me a tissue and said the bugler hadn’t played a
single note but had instead switched on a recording
concealed in the bell of the horn.

I dried my tears.

We went back inside the mortuary and took our seats.

My sister approached, and handed me a box.

Auntie wanted you to have this, she said.

I could tell by her expression that whatever was inside
the box was something she considered foolish and
worthless, so I decided to open it later . . . not giving
her the satisfaction of witnessing my disappointment.

I placed the unopened box under my chair as the Army
soldiers re-entered the room. One soldier stood at either
end of the casket and picked up an end of the American
flag. With more efficiency than workers in a launderette,
they folded the flag in a tight triangle and shoved it into
a plastic envelope.

One of the soldiers knelt before my sister and gave her
the flag. She accepted it and smoothed the slick plastic
package as if soothing a fretful child.

I was a bit jealous, feeling excluded. Why didn’t they
have two flags, for two nieces? Or maybe they could’ve
sawed this one in half.

Upset, I left the room to visit the facilities.

In the mortuary bathroom I was splashing cold water on
my face when a vision popped into my head, of a
cardboard box. Inside the box was a bag containing my
adult daughter’s ashes.

She wanted to be cremated. My only child. I couldn’t
scatter her ashes to the wind. Instead I paid for an urn
and a niche I never visit.

Another box I remember was the cardboard coffin my
husband was cremated in. I couldn’t afford a mahogany
one, and it was only going to be burned. Cardboard
burns just as well, I thought, and maybe better.
His
ashes I did scatter.

Scatter, scatter, scatter.

After my daughter and husband died, I drifted away like
a balloon trying to escape Earth’s atmosphere.

I went to Vegas because I considered it the absolute end
of the Earth. I rented an apartment and survived on
credit cards and my late husband’s life insurance money.
For something to do, I enrolled in the Las Vegas
Institute of Technology to learn about computers.

I think I tried to learn about them as a form of self-
punishment. It was a terrible ordeal. I was the oldest
student in the course and the others claimed I was
slowing them down by asking too many questions.
Between classes I eased my tension by eating free buffet
food in the casinos. There’s nothing like a free buffet
breakfast served in some nickel and dime joint off the
strip, stinking of last night’s booze. If you stay long
enough you can have lunch and dinner as well.

What a life.

Auntie was right about my wasting it.

Now I’m looking at myself in a mortuary bathroom
mirror and see an overweight loner with gray hair and
pasty complexion. A Vegas vampire. No wonder my
sister’s grandchildren want nothing to do with me.

Someone raps softly on the door.

It’s a kid outside whining, Is somebody in there?

Yes, somebody’s in here, I shout. Use the other
bathroom.

I hear urgent little footsteps scuffing away from the
bathroom door across the mortuary carpet, leaving me in
peace.

Since I’ve become childless other people’s children
annoy me simply by virtue of being alive—even the ones
related to me. My sister’s grandchildren didn’t remember
me and I couldn’t remember their names.

And the stupid reason I came back for this funeral is
that I wanted to belong somewhere for a little while, to
be connected to something before fading away. Sort of
like my sister and I used to view Auntie, a childless
woman doomed to extinction. Now that I was
bivouacked in the same camp I knew how it felt to be
prematurely ghostly . . . shunned and excluded . . .
locked out.

When I tried to leave the bathroom, however, I
discovered that I was actually locked
in.

There was a brand new sliding bolt on the door that I
must’ve rammed shut with a vengeance when I locked
it. Now I couldn’t force it open.

Help! I shouted at my side of the door. I can’t get out!
Help! I’m locked in! Somebody let me out!

When nobody came, I wondered if they’d ever miss me.
I kept yelling and pulling on the bolt until my hand hurt.

The doorknob began to jiggle from the other side, and I
heard Francis’ voice.

From her side of the door, she apologized for the stuck
lock. She told me to lift up on the door handle and jiggle
the bolt.

I tried that. It didn’t work.

Try putting soap on the bolt, she said.

I took the bottle of hand soap from the sink and lathered
the bolt, managing to work the little lever at least out of
its locked position. Finally I took off my shoe and, with
the heel, hammered the bolt back at last. I pulled the
door open and met Francis on the other side. She looked
stricken.

The others are getting ready to leave for the cemetery,
she told me.

I pushed past her into the room where we’d had the
memorial service. The others, and the casket, were gone.

It’s in the hearse, Francis said.

I glanced under the chair where I’d been sitting and saw
the little box I’d left there—the box Auntie wanted me to
have—had likewise disappeared.

Where’s my box? I asked Francis.

I don’t know, dear, she said. Ask your sister.

* * *

When we arrived at the graveyard, the casket protruded
like a giant pencil box from the rear of the parked
hearse. My sister’s husband stood on one side, ready to
act as pallbearer, and my sister’s son (divorced father of
the grandchildren) made his first appearance of the day,
standing on the other side of the casket, dressed in golf
clothes. He glanced at me without recognition, taking
out his cell phone and giving it his full attention.

My sister thought that she and I could be the other two
pallbearers, but Francis said no. Pallbearer is a gender-
specific role, she told us, and there might be liability
issues.

She spotted two groundskeepers seated in a golf cart
and drafted them into service.

Dressed in work boots and coveralls, first names stitched
over their pockets, these two men agreed to help.
Francis told them to carry the box at heart level, so the
taller groundskeeper hoisted his end higher. We heard a
rattling sound as if something had come loose inside the
casket.

Meanwhile my sister had been interrogating her
grandchildren as to the whereabouts of my missing box.

Kids can’t resist little things like that, she told me, as if I
knew nothing about children.

Francis marched ahead of the casket, guiding the
pallbearers to Auntie’s open grave as the rest of us
followed, stepping over flat gravestones set in the grass.
The grandchildren scampered indiscriminately over them
as if playing hopscotch.

The pallbearers set the casket on top of an accordion
device in the grave to lower the box into the hole.
Francis micromanaged the placement of casket on
accordion, instructing the pallbearers to shift Auntie’s
coffin this way or that. While this was going on, my
sister took me aside and said one of her grandchildren—
acting on a dare—had taken my little box (while I was
locked in the bathroom) and slipped it inside the casket.

What? I asked.

It’s no big deal, she said, trying to brush it off. I half-
expected her to scold me for not looking after my things.

Look, she continued, there wasn’t anything important in
that box. Leave it where it is and don’t disrupt the burial.

But Auntie wanted me to have it, I said.

I looked at the four urchins shuffling their feet on the
other side of the grave, wondering which one had
committed this crime. They looked back, hostile and
unrepentant, Lord of the Flies, apparently, when their
divorced mother wasn’t around.

My sister said, Please don’t make a fuss. You didn’t care
that much about Auntie anyway. You never helped me
take care of her. You never even visited her.

Because I didn’t want to see myself fifty years down the
road, I said.

You won’t live that long, the way you’re going, she said.

Francis interrupted: Ladies, please.

I want to get my box out of the casket, I said.

One of the children giggled.

My sister’s face reddened. She said, Listen, I paid
$2,000 of my own money for this funeral, and I want it
to go smoothly.

Yeah, I said. A real celebration for you because she
finally died.

I took good care of her, she said. Not like you took care
of—

I felt a strong hand on my arm and looked . . . up at the
taller groundskeeper who’d tilted the casket. His name
was Mitch. I know because it was stitched over his
pocket.

I’ll help you find your box, he said.

My sister cast her gaze frantically about for her husband
and son, but they had snuck over to the hearse, where
the driver was listening to the car radio. We heard the
distant banter of sports announcers coming from that
direction.

Mitch raised the top half of the casket lid. There was
Auntie, looking serene as her coffin bounced gently on
top of its accordion base.

Francis started saying something behind me, but I didn’t
listen.

Mitch popped a latch to spring open the lower half of the
casket lid and I gasped.

The bottom half of Auntie’s satin gown was unhemmed
and twisted sideways, revealing her bare bony ankles.
She wore no stockings and cheap paper booties.

Mitch scooped up my little box, which had come to rest
at the far end of the casket.

My sister said, Well I hope you’re happy.

* * *

It’s all an illusion, isn’t it, these crazy rituals designed to
make us feel better?

The only meaning I found that day was nestled in the
box Auntie left me.

Inside was a tarnished Good Conduct medal she’d gotten
from the Army. I pinned it on my chest, satisfied that I’d
behaved more than adequately at the funeral, under the
circumstances.

At least someone in the family had forgiven me.


Dawn Lowe has dual American/Irish citizenship and lives north
of Dublin on the Irish seashore. Her work has been broadcast on
Irish RTE Radio 1 Sunday Miscellany and published in Brilliant
Flash Fiction, Boyne Berries, Penny Shorts, Idler, 50 Over 50
Anthology, and Paragraph Planet. She plays piano and thinks up
stories while walking on the beach.
BOXES
by Dawn Lowe