By Heidi Beth Sadler
The group of mourners who had gathered around the burial site that morning suspiciously eyed one another. Unlike typical mourners, these four strangers showed no signs of grief. The only sorrowful member of the party appeared to be the yellow lab. Albert—that was the dog’s given name—was casually leashed to a nearby tree. He rested his head on his paws and quietly whimpered.
It was unfortunate for Albert that Sam Prescott hated dogs. Big dogs, little dogs. He disliked all animals, for that matter. Even on this sad occasion, Sam had no sympathy for the distraught creature in front of him.
Finishing the smoldering butt of a cheap cigarette, Sam flicked it much too close to the dog for Bridget Foster. As much as Sam despised animals, Bridget loved them. With an indignant glare, she promptly extinguished the cigarette with her foot and tossed it away from Albert. Squatting down on her thick thighs, Bridget rubbed the dog’s drooping ears, and for a moment, Albert forgot his grief.
Sam rolled his eyes at Bridget and checked his watch. The invitation had said the service started at ten. By now, it was a quarter past, and with no sign of the minister, Sam was irritated. Not that he had anywhere to be, of course, but he was irritated, nonetheless.
Elsa Hernandez, who was desperately trying to quit smoking, raised an eyebrow as Sam lit another cigarette. Even in her chain-smoking days, she had enough sense to know you didn’t smoke at a grave site. Catching a whiff of the scent, she shoved another piece of nicotine gum in her mouth and ferociously chomped.
As the east wind cut through Elsa’s leather jacket, she pulled it tighter. Being such a thin girl, she was always cold, and yet she never quite thought to bundle up. The heels of her stilettos stuck in the wet grass, and she chided herself for wearing them. Like Sam, she, too, was watching the clock; a co-worker was covering for her, and she was anxious to get back.
Felix Carson was the final member of the little gathering. Felix faced the constant challenge of observing people without staring. He often found himself lingering for too long on a particular subject; when caught staring, he would quickly look away and feign interest in something else.
While the dog and the other three characters did intrigue him, Felix was more interested in the clandestine nature of the event in general. An invitation via courier, a red wax seal, no return address. This was the stuff of great literature and film, the kind of story he longed to write but didn’t.
When the invitation had arrived, Felix had carefully opened the envelope with a butter knife. Over the past week, he had read the hand-written contents a hundred times: “Your presence is requested at the passing of a close companion.”
This message, along with the time and location, had been the only information provided to the invitees. Like the others, Felix had debated his attendance. Curiosity, however, had worked its magic and drawn all of them there that morning.
As they waited, it was Elsa’s nervous confession that relaxed the other three. “Excuse me, but could someone tell me who died? I was told a friend was being buried here today, but I’m not sure who it is.”
“Did you get one of those strange invitations?” Felix asked. The others nodded and recounted the same story.
“If this is some kind of a joke, somebody’s in for it,” Sam threatened. He wasn’t quite sure what they were in for, but he would certainly think of something.
“Do you know how long this is going to take?” Bridget asked. She had overslept and only had enough time to gobble down a muffin. She was ready for something more substantial to eat.
A gentle yip from Albert interrupted the mourners’ conversation. The dog stood up and looked to the bottom of the hill. They noted a tall, balding man casually walking in their direction. It wasn’t that he appeared incapable of moving faster; he genuinely seemed like the type who was never in much of a hurry.
“It’s about time,” Sam muttered under his breath and assumed this was the minister. He finished off his cigarette and vowed to abstain until the service was over.
As the balding man arrived, Albert licked his lips. The man produced a dog treat and quietly unleashed him. Without hesitation, Albert faithfully moved to stand by his side, and the whimpering ceased. After caring for the dog, the man turned his attention to the group. His lips silently counted to four, and he nodded, pleased.
“It seems we’re all here,” he informed them and retrieved a tan piece of paper from his pocket. Felix noted that this was the same type of paper on which his invitation had been written. The man cleared his throat and closed his eyes. This signaled the others to follow suit. Sam, who was adamantly non-religious, expected a prayer and refused to close his eyes.
After several minutes of awkward silence, the others slowly opened their eyes. It was unclear if he was meditating or had fallen asleep standing up. They shrugged at one another and waited for some type of instruction. Eventually, the man opened his eyes and and began to read.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s not how you begin your life. It’s how you finish it.” After this proclamation, he motioned for them to move in closer, which they begrudgingly did. “That’s better. Now for the introductions.”
The strangers exchanged a confused look with one another. None of them could recall a funeral with introductions.
“Let’s start with Mr. Carson,” the balding man said and directed them to Felix. All eyes turned to the surprised man, who was suddenly uncomfortable by this scrutiny.
“Me?” Felix coughed out.
“You are Felix Carson?” the man asked and referred to his notes.
Felix nodded and kicked at the ground.
“Very well, then. Felix Carson, you are a computer programmer who sits at home in his parents’ basement. You dream up stories that you never actually write. Fear of failure keeps you from ever trying to publish anything. Last month, you were admitted to the E.R. for a panic attack. Meet the rest of the group.”
As embarrassment washed over his face, the two women gave Felix sympathetic looks. Sam, on the other hand, wasn’t so delicate.
“You live with your parents?” Sam mocked. Without retort, Felix hung his head and continued to kick at the ground.
“Thank you for volunteering to go next, Mr. Prescott,” the balding man said. “Sam Prescott, you are one of the best guitar players to have graced the world, but due to the alcoholism that pours shame down your throat, you spend your life in a filthy apartment where your music is lost on the rats. Rather than swallow your pride and ask for help, you’ve become incapable of bonding with your family and friends. Two months ago, you were taken to the hospital by a neighbor who found you passed out in the alley. Meet the group.”
At this public caricature, Sam cussed at the balding man and turned aside to light another cigarette. The rage that was growing inside prevented his shaky hand from successfully igniting the lighter, which brought forth another flood of profanity.
As he prepared to storm away, the bald man stopped him with, “If you leave now, you won’t know why you were invited.”
Eyes blazing, Sam whipped around and sneered. “What’s this all about, preacher? I thought we were here for a funeral, not a meet and greet.”
Ignoring Sam, the balding man turned to the skinny woman, who immediately tensed up. Noticing her stress, he smiled, and that made her feel better.
“Elsa Hernandez, your incredible gift of dance has been seen by few.”
“A dancer, eh?” Sam piped up with a sleazy smirk.
“Not that kind of dancer,” Elsa snapped at him. At least not anymore, she thought to herself. The handsome looks of the thirty-something stranger were quickly fading as the ugliness of his temperament become apparent.
“I don’t judge,” Sam shrugged,
The balding man ignored Sam and continued.
“Punishing yourself for the dark escapades of your past, you hide your talent behind menus and coffee cups. Recently, you were hospitalized for attempted suicide. Elsa, meet the group.” Elsa’s eyes quickly filled with tears, which she immediately brushed aside. She would not cry in front of these strangers.
The sound of Bridget’s growling stomach brought the balding man to the last member of the group. Before he could open his mouth, the plump girl burst into tears. Albert moved to comfort her, and Elsa fished in her pockets for a tissue. Unsuccessful, she awkwardly patted the other woman’s shoulder.
“Bridget Foster, although you possess the voice of an angel, anxiety causes you to eat your worries away. You keep your talent locked up in your townhouse where you self-medicate. Three weeks ago, you took too many sleeping pills and had to have your stomach pumped. Meet the group.”
With the formal introductions out of the way, a question emerged from the group. “Say, mister, who the hell are you, anyways?” Naturally, the question was from Sam, who was ready to retreat. Undeterred, the balding man locked eyes with Sam.
“The better question is, ‘Who are you?’ Are you all I said you are, or is there more to you than that? More than a blank page?”
Having no response, Sam cursed and took a few steps away. Bridget, on the other hand, had stopped her crying and felt strangely relieved.
“Who’s in the casket?” she nervously asked as she rummaged in her purse for a candy bar.
“Ah, the question you’ve all been wondering. Whose funeral is it? Why are you here?” The man turned around to face the wooden coffin. With loving hands, he rubbed his hands across the smooth surface; he appeared to be saying goodbye.
In a sudden movement, the man grabbed the lid of the casket and flung it open. Both women shrieked. Bridget covered her eyes, while the men peered forward.
“It’s okay,” Felix said and gently tapped her on the shoulder. “Open your eyes.”
“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” Bridget moaned behind her hands.
“It’s empty,” Felix reassured her.
Bridget peeked through her puffy fingers until she could see that the casket was, indeed, empty. With powerful steps, the balding man began to circle the coffin. Pointing at each of the mourners, he shouted, “It’s your funeral day!”
“He’s crazy,” Felix muttered to his new comrades.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sam said with authority.
“Leaving so soon, Sam?” the balding man called to him. “Are you so eager to return to your past? To the hole you live in?”
“Who do you think you are?” Sam shouted at him. “You think you know us? Think you know me? Well, you don’t. You don’t know anything about me.”
Calmly, the balding man folded his hands. “Then tell me, Sam. Who are you?” At the question, Sam cursed again, which made Albert yip. “I know you have a choice, Sam. You all have a choice.”
“What’s he talking about?” Bridget whispered to Elsa. Overhearing her, the balding man came back to stand in front of them.
“Up until now, your lives have been a series of rough drafts. Today, you have the choice to start again. To rewrite your story.”
“What do you want us to do?” Elsa ventured.
“Your fear of being known has already happened. Now everyone here knows you.”
At this point, Felix spoke up. “How do you know us? We don’t know you.”
“None of you recognize me?” the man asked, and they all shook their heads.
“Are you one of those creeps who spies on people then blackmails them?” Elsa asked. Her past sins had taught her to beware of such a thing.
“I’m a man who looks for hidden beauty. I’ve seen it in each of you.”
“Alright, mister. We give up. You got us. Great joke,” Sam said and began to clap.
“It’s not a joke, Sam. In fact, I seem to recall you talking about your dreams as you lay in that lonely hospital bed.”
“I thought you didn’t know him,” Elsa snapped at Sam.
“I don’t know him,” Sam countered as he searched the other man’s face for recognition.
“And you, Elsa. Attempted suicide is a vulnerable time for a young woman. When people are in pain, they share their secrets with strangers. In the hospital, I spend my life with the sick and the dying. When I see the living waste their talent, it’s more than I can bear. None of you can start truly living until your old life is put to death, which brings us to why you are here today.”
“To kill us?” Bridget timidly asked.
At this, the balding man roared in amusement. “Kill you? I want to release you. That’s why I arrange funerals for people’s old lives.”
“You’re kidding,” Felix said.
“Not kidding, Felix,” the balding man responded. “On that hospital bed, I heard you admit to spending your life dreaming rather than living. I couldn’t let you go on like that, Felix.”
“How do you expect we do that, mister?” Bridget timidly asked. “Live, I mean?”
“You’ll never know what beauty you’re capable of unless you risk failure and rejection. None of you have taken that risk.”
Sticking his hand out, the man looked up to the sky and felt for rain. His work here was done. With a concluding look, he spoke out, “Singer, Dancer, Musician, Writer. Those are your new names. If you’ll receive them, that is, if you will steward them.”
“You’re just going to leave us here?” Elsa asked as the man moved to go.
“You’re not alone anymore,” the man said and motioned to the others. He tossed the paper into the empty coffin and slowly descended the hill.
In silence, the mourners lingered at the grave site, each pondering the balding man’s words. In the distance, they heard a bark and watched as Albert loyally bounded after his master in the lightly falling rain.
Heidi Beth Sadler is the 2015 Faith & Culture Writing Contest Fiction Runner-Up Winner for her work, “The Funeral Arranger.” Find her writing at Heidi Beth Sadler website