8. Harry’s Wake
A modern wake is a richly choreographed ritual of comings, goings, greetings, remembrances and condolences. Depending on your relation to the deceased, it is important to show up at the right time, say all the right things to the survivors, not make a spectacle or a scene and leave discretely. Harry G.B. Mueller’s funeral was no exception, but it was made additionally difficult for many of those present, by Harry’s loathsome reputation in life and their genuine affection for the widow Rosemary. Not yet the last stop at the cemetery but with all the finality of death hovering in the room nevertheless. Harry Mueller had left general instructions about his funeral, noting in particular; just that his wife was not to put herself out and that she was definitely not to attempt to justify, explain or apologize for him in any way.
“People wouldn’t believe you anyway, Rose,” he told her on numerous occasions in his final years. “Let them go on thinking I was a terrible scoundrel. It will help Justin and the staff make it through the transition with a minimum of disturbances to the business.” Justin Bielk had been Harry’s deputy for more than 20 years, and clearly had felt the mantle fall on his narrow shoulders since Harry’s death. He was currently surrounded by the very capable staff that Harry had assembled over his career and together they would see to the business. Rosemary was confident of that. She had always thought of Justin more as a son than as an employee of the firm.
“I feel like Harry is going to walk through that door at any moment and give us all a good swift kick in the butt!” Justin said to his long-time assistant Harvey H. Flinders as he observed all of the people gathered at the wake. “Harry is here today in spirit, disapproving of all of us wasting our time remembering him.”
“Do we have to continue with that?” Harvey said archly, “You and I both know that’s a load of bull. Harry was one of the nicest guys I ever knew in my entire life and I already miss him awfully. We both do, and you know it!” As he said this, he reached for his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.
“Quiet!” Justin whispered. “If you’re not careful someone will hear you, and you know what Harry would have thought about an effort to blow his myth. I saw Jason Browning come in before. He’s probably even more responsible than Harry himself for Harry’s image as the arch curmudgeon of this town. I don’t think he talked to anyone other than Rosemary and Madeline and I think he’s already gone. As far as we’re concerned we go on as usual with Harry’s cover story until we hear otherwise from Rosemary.”
“As far as this town is concerned, we’re saying goodbye to one of the world’s great scoundrels today.”
While this conversation was going on, across the room, two brokers from a local brokerage office — Advantage Capital or some such meaningless name — were talking. “I can’t believe the number of people who showed up for this . . . this . . . whatever this is” one of them said. The other nodded and said, “I guess it’s a tribute to the power of money.”
“I never actually met Harry Mueller,” said the first. “But I sure heard a lot about him. Did you?”
“No” said the other. “I once did some incidental work for him on his IBM investments. Mostly research, but the entire time I only dealt with Edward Graham. I was always glad for that. I heard Harry could be a real nasty piece of shit.”
“Yeah. Me too. I mean that’s what I heard.”
Just behind them, June Averill and Linda Sue were standing close, facing away but listening intently. As Linda Sue appeared to start toward this pair, clearly intent to set them straight, or perhaps lecture them on their manners at a wake, June grabbed her arm firmly and shook her head. After a few minutes, Linda Sue had settled down and they moved away and as they did, Linda Sue said, “Did you hear that? That’s dreadful to talk like that about someone at his funeral. What ever happened to not speaking ill of the dead? Uncle Harry wasn’t like that at all!”
“Wasn’t he?” June replied, as much to herself as to her companion. ”That’s exactly the way I remember him.” With this she walked towards Rosemary intending to relieve Madeline, who was definitely showing signs of exhaustion after the last three days.
Throughout the two hours scheduled for receiving guests at the wake, Rosemary remained seated facing the open casket, with Linda Sue, June and Madeline taking turns sitting beside her as people drifted in, lined up to offer their condolences to Rosemary and Justin Burns, a nephew of Harry’s, who was seated on the other side of Rosemary. After each mourner spoke briefly with her, they would walk toward the casket, take a brief look at Harry’s corpse laid out in a plain, black business suit and tie and drift away into one of the many conversations taking place around the room. After what each individual or small group deemed to be a suitable time offering respect, or when they ran out of appropriate conversations, they would drift slowly toward the exit and leave, replaced by other, similar individuals and group well-wishers following the same course.
When it was over, Rosemary spent many minutes by herself in front of the casket speaking quietly to Harry’s remains, as Linda Sue, June, Madeline, Jerry Eliot and his wife, Doris, and three representatives of the funeral home staff talked quietly near the exit, not wishing to rush or disturb her. Finally, she turned away from the casket and said in an unsteady voice, “I’m ready to go back.” Without saying anything, the group broke into two, with the staff busying themselves with various minor tasks while the others, minus Jerry, reaching out to include Rosemary as they walked toward the door. Madeline had made arrangements to rent a large, comfortable limousine for the trip to and from Rosemary’s house and when Rosemary announced she was ready to leave, Jerry had headed for the exit to retrieve the car for the short trip back to the house.
There was no conversation in the car on the short trip back. Everyone already knew that there would be a private burial of Harry’s body in a secluded plot at Hilyard Cemetery tomorrow morning which only those in the limo, plus Edward and John Graham, their wives, Justin, and Harvey and a few others from the office were invited to attend. Rosemary’s instructions to Madeline and June had been very explicit. There was not much else that anyone thought it important to say. At one point, Doris riding in the front passenger seat asked if anyone needed to stop at the Kroger’s they were just passing to get anything. No one replied and finally Rosemary said, “No, thank you, dear. We’ve got everything we will need for now.”
When they arrived back at the house, everyone thanked Jerry for driving them, and they all got out of the limo and made their way into the house, alone with their thoughts. After they had gone, Jerry said to Doris, “I’ll drop you by the house. I need to gas up this buggy for tomorrow.” Doris didn’t say anything at all as they drove down the long driveway.