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REQUIESCAT IN PACE
by Howard Goldsmith

On the day of Henry Hathaway's Golden Anniversary, he remarked to his wife Emily that silence is golden, and passed away shortly afterwards.

When Emily arrived at the cemetery, she withdrew a ticket from her purse. It bore the section and number of Henry's burial plot. She walked over to the office to inquire about its location.

The funeral director took her ticket with an air of formal solemnity. He was a sallow-complexioned man with hollow cheek bones, tight, thin lips, and a faint tinge of green over his eyelids. Emily wondered if he wore make-up for effect.

"I take it you are the deceased's widow?" he said.

Emily nodded.

"Will there be any other mourners?" he asked.

"No," said Emily shortly.

"Then you will surely want to hire professional mourners. Please step this way--"

"No," said Emily. "I consider grief a private affair."

"Tsk, tsk." The director clucked his tongue. He stroked his chin with thin, nervous fingers. "I'm afraid this contravenes established procedures. We have contractual arrangements with the Mourners Guild. Labor relations would suffer if the Articles of Mourning were violated."

"I have no wish to create any problems," said Emily, her hand fluttering up to her face.

"Now we are being sensible--"

"But the fact is..." She blushed. "I'm poor, and--"

"Oh, I quite understand," said the director, his face clearing. "But we have experience in such cases. You may pay for mourning services on our convenient installment plan. If you will just sign this form, an automatic deduction will be made from your husband's life insurance benefits. You may trust that I will handle the matter with utmost discretion."

"I'm sorry," said Emily, her voice growing firm. "I must insist on my privacy." She had mustered reserves of strength which she had forgotten she possessed.

The manager's face hardened. He rose stiffly. "I will have to confer with the steward of The Mourners Guild," he said coldly. "If you will wait here a few moments..."

He stepped into an adjoining office.

Emily quickly studied a wall chart giving the layout of the cemetery. She located the section of her husband's plot. She turned and left the office.

She walked down a flagged path toward Section J. She had not progressed far when she heard a gabble of angry voices behind her.

Four men carrying large placards bore down upon her. UNFAIR TO LABOR, the signs read.

The men waved the signs in the air.

"Mrs. Hathaway," bellowed the largest of the men. His face was rough and florid, and his neck the thickness of a stovepipe. "I understand you're a union-breaker." His mouth bisected his face with a slash of hatred. A shock of unruly hair fell across his eyes.

"But no..." Emily protested feebly.

"I'm the local steward," said the man, expanding his chest importantly. "Don't you realize we're social benefactors? We've taken over the mourning function abdicated by the family. No one gives a rap anymore when someone dies."

"Society is overpopulated as it is," put in a sniveling little man whose eyebrows rose in red exclamation marks. He was a professional wailer.

The steward stuck his chin out proudly. "Don't you know that pros like us have replaced relatives and friends? It's less bother for all concerned. We're dependable. We guarantee a smooth, professional job. Now if you'll just cooperate and leave things to us..."

"Go away and leave me alone," said Emily in a flat, toneless voice.

The steward would not be put off that easily. "Give her a demonstration, Mike."

Mike was a specialist in breast-beating. He fell to his knees, rolled his eyes to the sky, and smote his chest with resounding thumps. He drummed his fists on the ground for emphasis. He looked up at Emily hopefully.

Emily stared at him with unconcealed contempt.

"Frank, do your stuff," commanded the steward, with mounting frustration.

Frank was a professional hair puller. Long, black locks mantled his brow. He threw his hands to his head and, in a frenzy of mock despair, tore out large tufts of hair. "Oww! Oww!" he screamed with pain.

"You don't know what Frank has to go through to pull off a stunt like that," said the steward. "He requires monthly hair grafts."

"You wouldn't deprive us of our livelihood, would you, lady?" demanded Frank, whose performance had gone unappreciated.

"It's not a question of that," said Emily, standing her ground. "Just go away."

"We have families to support!" screamed the breast-beater.

"You're a fink!" cried the wailer.

The four men thumbed their noses and jeered.

"G'won home, you old hag!" shouted the hair puller, baring long, yellow incisors.

Alarmed, Emily scurried up the path. "Oh, Henry!" she whimpered. Her knees buckled. She ran blindly, her legs wobbling underneath her. Tears stung her eyes.

The men raced after her, hooting and hissing.

At last Emily reached the site of Henry's grave. Henry's casket had already been lowered inside.

A priest stood nearby, waiting to give a benediction. Emily flung herself into his arms.

"My dear lady," said the priest, with a dry cough. "We must have courage. God in his infinite wisdom--"

"Yah, yah!" jeered the men, charging up to them.

"You old scab!" shrilled the wailer.

"What is it? What's going on here?" demanded the priest.

His question brought a chorus of catcalls.

"Why do you profane this solemn occasion? Have you no respect for the dead?"

"Look, father," said the steward, poking him in the chest. "Butt out. This doesn't concern you. Union rules say we have to picket uncooperative mourners. We're just doing our job the same as you."

"Yeah!" shrieked the hair puller.

Emily fell to her knees by the graveside. She cupped her face in her hands. "Henry, Henry," she sobbed.

The picketers marched around her in a circle.

"Down with union-busters!"

"You're taking the bread out of our babies' mouths!"

"You old crow!"

The priest deafened his ears to the shouts. Clasping his Bible firmly he intoned the exequies for Henry Hathaway.

Emily continued to weep.

The breast-beater, vexed to uncontrollable fury, shoved his sign at Emily. It grazed her chin. Her eyes suddenly glazed. She slumped forward and fell into the grave. Her head made a dull thud as it collided with the casket. Her neck went slack.

The priest bent over to help her. He placed his hands under her shoulders and slowly drew out out of the grave. Her unfocused eyes sought his for a moment, then rolled up in their sockets. She gave a long, shuddering sigh and fell limp in his arms.

The priest put his ear to her chest. He straightened up with a strangled expression. Emily's delicately sculpted face was already turning a pale Dresden blue.

The priest closed Emily's eyelids. Tenderly he removed a wisp of hair from her forehead. A tear floated down upon her face.

A hush fell over the picketers as they clustered round the pair.

At length the steward broke the silence: "At least that's one person's death we won't mourn."

--HOWARD GOLDSMITH

 

 
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