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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

“It’ll be fun,” I said to my skeptical husband. As a newly minted Master of Music, I was heavy on pianistic ability, light on cash and quickly wearying of teaching.

“Funeral playing though?” he questioned, shaking his head.

“11 a.m. on a weekday, sight-readable music, in and out in an hour – funerals will be easy money.”

Or so I thought.

After applying for gigs at my local funeral homes, I only had to wait a week for the phone to ring.

“Is this Amy, the funeral pianist?”

“Our regular pianist caught the flu. Can you step in tomorrow morning, 11 a.m.?”

“Right! 11 … yes,” I agreed, rifling for a pen to take down the address. “Has the family requested any specific pieces?”

“We’re still waiting, but whip up Amazing Grace on spec.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll be ready with a prelude and the typical hymns, Abide with Me, The Lord is My Shepherd.....”

“Hmmm,” he murmured, unconvincingly. “You never really know, dear.”

Earl, the funeral home director, called back an hour later. “Are you sitting down?” he asked cryptically.

“It seems the deceased had eclectic tastes in entertainment – sci-fi, Johnny Cash, westerns from the ‘60s. That sort of thing. And the family wants the music to reflect that.”

I was suddenly worried. My pat collection of hymn arrangements – pretty things with legato left-hand accompaniment figures, contemplative tempi and simple harmonization – might not see me through. Besides, the funeral was the next day. There wasn’t much time to learn new music.

“The casket will be wheeled in with the theme from Star Trek playing. You know the one?” Earl broke into the iconic theme in a warbling tenor.

“Right …” I was suddenly worried about what I had gotten myself into.

“And then, before the eulogy, they’d like the theme from Bonanza.”

“Da-digga-dum-dum-digga-digga-dum-Bo-NAN-ZA!” we sang at each other, roughly in time and perhaps even in the same key.

“And the last one …” Earl broke off. “This last request you can’t make up because no one would believe it. The family asked for the casket to be wheeled out to The Ring of Fire.”

I was silent, processing all the theological implications.

“You know?” Earl pressed. “The Johnny Cash tune?”

“Unorthodox, wouldn’t you say?”

“Play softly,” was Earl’s advice. “Maybe no one will notice.”

The next morning, I arrived at the funeral home with a binder of hastily downloaded sheet music under my arm. At the columned staircase at the front entrance, an elegant hearse, sparkling in the winter sun, was parked precisely in the middle of the U-shaped drive.

I took a deep breath, not sure what I should expect. Would the family be weeping softly? Weeping loudly? Would the body be on display? Hidden away?

The lobby was quiet, pleasingly decorated in the beiges and greens of mid-1990s hotel interiors. I predicted a floral wallpaper border in the bathroom and, in due course, was not disappointed.

An usher approached. “Welcome,” she said in soothing tones. “Who have you joined us to remember today?”

I suddenly realized that I didn’t know the deceased’s name. I had no idea whose life I would be memorializing. “I’m not sure,” I replied rather clumsily. “Earl asked me to play for an 11 o’clock.”

She stretched an arm towards a dimly lit chapel. “Make yourself at home.” And so I did, with a prelude of old hymns.

An older man with wispy hair approached the piano. I was playing a modern setting of In the Garden, all seventh chords and suspensions. He wandered past floral arrangements in urns and on pedestals, fresh flower sprays hooked on various wire apparatus, their colours and designs a mishmash of many florists’ efforts. He wore a yellow and maroon plaid jacket last aired in the early 1980s by the looks of it and held a glass of punch. “Say!” he said, as I rounded off the tune. “Do you take requests?”

“I’m sorry?” I gaped, wondering if the man had mistaken the funeral with an all-request evening at the local pub.

“How about a little Manilow? Can’t Smile Without You? That’d be nice.”

I glanced at the clock at the back of the chapel. It was 11 sharp.

“I’m sorry!” I whispered. “It’s actually time for Star Trek.”

During the service that followed, I sat on the piano bench and listened to the stories, the funny anecdotes that make their way into eulogies; recited the Lord’s Prayer alongside the siblings, nieces and nephews; and prayed with the minister, a subcontracted clergyman of no particular denomination, earning a quick buck like me.

I knew I was at a funeral but it wasn’t until those final words were spoken – ”Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust” – that reality hit.

A man was gone and he wasn’t coming back. I thought of the cheque, left on the piano for me. I had stuffed it into my bag without looking at the amount. Was it enough? Enough to salve this terrible sadness, this dreadful gnawing? I blinked away tears, focusing on the notes on the page. I just needed to get through the service without breaking down.

“You got us out of a pickle on this one!” Earl was chatty once the service was over, jovial even.

“My pleasure.” I nodded, still feeling a little numb.

Earl smoothed down his suit jacket, slightly rumpled from moving floral sprays into the hearse. “I’ll keep you on the roster. Does that suit?”

I started to protest – no, please don’t ever call me again. I don’t want to sit here and watch a life ushered out. I don’t want to be a part of any of this. Nothing you could pay me would make me want to come back again. But then I thought of my mortgage and my grocery bill. I thought of how lucky I was to play for the bereaved. People swayed when I played the well-known hymns. I even heard a bit of humming.

I grew up ever so slightly and heard myself say, “Any time, Earl. Any time.”

Amy Boyes lives in Ottawa.

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