Evelyn skims the morning’s featured obituaries. Pure white-bread fare. Only one phrase grabs her attention: “in his kind and gentle way.” It’s simple but disarming, and it stirs a pang of empathy in her gut. She jots it down. Evelyn shakes her head at the grainy photos. When she reaches an advanced age, she’ll have a professional headshot taken just for this purpose. She would never entrust her eternally searchable image to an amateur.
Evelyn slides her chair up to her prized nineteenth-century ladies writing desk, purchased for a song at a yard sale in Chestnut Hill. She submits the final version of today’s piece, which she penned about a departed chemist named Friedrich “Fritz” Schroeder, and envisions her words zipping through the air and landing in the recipient’s inbox. She would give anything to be a fly on the wall as clients reviewed her work, practiced reading aloud, and the penultimate satisfaction, delivered her healing words to a rapt audience. In fact, Evelyn plans to become just such a fly. If she plays her cards well today at lunch, her absolute favorite colleague, Mark Gibbons, will copilot her metamorphosis.
Evelyn pats herself on the back—she’s worked her magic again. In her six-year tenure at Traditions LLC, which began immediately after college, she has maintained the lowest rewrite percentage of the entire Comforting Words team. Her fellow staff writers bristle when the Executive Editor, Phil Perry, gives her yet another shout-out at their monthly meeting, but Evelyn inhales the envy. She has developed her own brand of eulogy alchemy. When she speaks to a Designated Family Contact, or DFC, she discerns the elephant in the room—the unspoken grudges fermenting in survivors’ bellies. And then Evelyn hits them head on. She spins them. Reframes them. Mourners leave with new perspectives to ponder about the deceased. Case in point: Evelyn’s Big Picture Lesson has transformed the humorless, no-one’s-ever-good-enough Mr. Schroeder into the protective patriarch toughening his family in case war upended their lives the way it had five-year-old Fritz’s.
She suits up for lunch in a swingy skirt with pineapple appliqués she’d ordered online. Pleased with her updated Pretty in Pink vibe, Evelyn meets Mark at their favorite soup and salad place. Evelyn senses the substance girding his receding hairline and craggy acne-scarred cheeks. Mark is a real journalist who freelances serious pieces for major outlets. He only took the Traditions gig to obtain health insurance for his wife and daughter, whom Evelyn considers his only negative attributes.
The pair order and pay separately, then carry their trays to a booth in the back corner. “Evelyn, I was impressed by your piece on that breast cancer survivor. Well, you know, former survivor. Perry certainly talked it up at the monthly.”
“Thanks. Does it ever bug you that kudos from Perry is the only feedback we get? Most clients seem grateful, but we never hear anything after they present our words.”
“I hear you. We just push ‘submit’ and our work disappears into the ether.”
“Exactly. Like if my eulogy falls in the forest and I never hear it delivered, did I do anything valuable for humanity at all?”
Mark groans and then grins. Evelyn holds up her index finger while she crunches a potato chip. “I just did a eulogy for a stodgy old German guy whose family doesn’t have warm fuzzy feelings toward him. The funeral is at a church in Ambler this Saturday at eleven. It’s Catholic—five-minute eulogy limit, right at the beginning of the Mass, in and out. We could do our own version of Wedding Crashers, minus hitting on people. What do you think?”
“Dead serious. Sorry, occupational hazard.”
Evelyn digs her nails into her palms while Mark considers her proposition. His face tightens in concentration, then visibly relaxes. “There’s a women-only baby shower at my house on Saturday, but I don’t know. Would we say we’re from Traditions or would we invent fake personas?”
“I thought we’d just sit in the back. If anyone asked, we could say one of our parents worked with him ages ago or something.”
Mark smiles broadly. “I can’t believe I’m saying this—let’s do it! But make sure you park far away so you don’t get trapped in the cemetery caravan.”
On Saturday Evelyn and Mark meet in the church parking lot at 10:50 a.m. exactly and enter the narthex. Evelyn glances at the guest registry book and then at Mark. He nods. Evelyn scrawls “Mr. and Mrs. Johann Schmidt.” Her body sprouts goosebumps as she stretches up to Mark’s ear and whispers, “I went with the German version of Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. I hope that wasn’t too presumptuous of me, Herr Schmidt.”
The corner of Mark’s mouth rises. An usher approaches them with printed funeral booklets. “Sir, Ma’am, would you kindly take a seat? They’re about to start the Mass.”
Mark dips his fingers into a font of holy water and crosses himself. Evelyn speaks in low tones. “I take it you’re Catholic?”
“Lapsed. And you?”
“Agnostic. But don’t worry—I’ve been to so many Catholic weddings I know all the moves.”
As they take their seats, Mark murmurs, “I couldn’t chance wearing a suit and tie. It looked suspicious enough that I ironed a shirt just to write at Starbucks.”
“You blend in perfectly. The only men wearing suits and ties are up front—probably family members. And those creepy Stepford funeral guys.” Evelyn imagines the funeral directors standing in front of their closets each morning, surveying a neat row of identical black suits and white shirts. Evelyn glances around to make sure their conversation isn’t drawing attention. She and Mark are comfortably anonymous.
Mark takes the lead and opens a hymnal to share. Evelyn sings, painfully aware she is off-key, but Mark’s voice is solid. Singing “On Eagle’s Wings” with Mark reaches Evelyn’s core—they are literally on the same page, their lips and tongues forming identical shapes. Evelyn’s voice grows louder, desperately seeking harmony. The song ends, and she buzzes with nervous anticipation when Gus Schroeder takes his place at the lectern and clears his throat.
As Gus speaks, Evelyn peeks at Mark to gauge his reaction. He stares straight ahead, sharply focused. Gus nails it. He follows Evelyn’s stage directions perfectly, pausing for the exact right amount of time where she’d indicated. Gus subtly acknowledges the smattering of laughter at the reference to his grandfather’s odd breakfast routine, which releases some steam from the emotional pressure cooker, only to bring the congregation to a raw reflective moment as he concludes with the Big Picture Lesson. It appears from Evelyn’s distant vantage point that Gus himself, the bitter grandson who struggled to come up with a single positive anecdote about the deceased, has choked up. Stray tissues and hankies appear in the pews. Success!
And then Evelyn turns her head toward Mark. His eyelids are closed, and his mouth looks funny. He swallows with a gulp, and when he opens his eyes, they have a glassy sheen. Mark crafts eulogies for a living, and Mr. Schroeder is a stranger, but Evelyn has moved him, nonetheless. Mark spoons her hand with his own warm hand, firing electrical impulses up her left arm. She freezes for the tiniest fraction of a moment, but before her synapses reach the last station to form a completed thought, she reaches over with her right hand to sandwich Mark’s hand between her own. A wave of contented elation washes over Evelyn. She finally understands how heavenly it is to be heard.
The priest’s voluminous sleeve bumps the microphone, and the sharp feedback obliterates Evelyn’s bliss. Mark jerks his hand away and the pair sit rigidly. Anxiety bubbles in Evelyn’s stomach, but this is not her imagination running wild. He touched her hand first.
Mark speaks quietly. “We should sneak out while people are going up for the Eucharist.”
As they trot down the brick steps into the church parking lot, Evelyn tests the water. “Hey, Mark, if the baby shower’s still going, maybe we could grab a quickie lunch to debrief?”
“Evelyn, I really wish I could. But, you know, they’ll be expecting me at home. I don’t think anyone would believe I drank that much coffee at Starbucks.”
“I totally get it. I’m not that hungry anyway.”
“But hey there, kiddo, you really do write a good eulogy.” Mark says, “If I didn’t know better, I would guess Mr. Schroeder was a beloved old grandpa who will be sorely missed.”
Evelyn twitches, certain she felt the prick of a sharp metal instrument in her belly button. “Thanks, Mark. It means a lot coming from you.” Evelyn stares at her kitten-heeled shoes, which have conjured blisters on both heels. “I guess we pulled it off. Not as comedic as Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson, but not too shabby for our first time. We’re keeping this in the vault, right?”
“Of course. It stays in the circle of trust.” Mark draws a circle in the air with his finger. “Well, with just two people, maybe it’s more like the line of trust.”
“I think that would technically be the line segment of trust.”
“Good one. Take care, Evelyn.”
When Evelyn gets home, she logs into her Traditions account and chooses between two posted assignments for freshly deceased persons. The first is an elderly woman from Pittsburgh named Pearl Blood, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. Although Pearl’s earthy name catches her ear, Evelyn passes. Her Alzheimer’s eulogies have become a bit formulaic, and Pittsburgh is too long a drive. Instead, she clicks on a twenty-four-year-old man named Josh Kessler who died “suddenly.” That used to be code for a car accident or a heart attack, but now often points to drugs or suicide. This challenging assignment lifts Evelyn’s spirits. She sends the standard introductory email to Josh’s DFC, a sister named Lila Kessler.
Lila calls almost immediately. She reports that Josh had been having trouble sleeping. He mixed some pain pills with a couple of beers, and his heart rate dropped so low he never woke up. His girlfriend didn’t even realize he was gone until the next morning. Lila is firm. “He didn’t want to die. It was just a terrible accident, like a tornado or a meteor hitting your car. Who can really say why?” She rambles. “Please just remember to say how much he loved his cat Sammy and his cockatiel Lucy. He was training them to do this little act together. It was crazy—he was sure he could teach them to coexist peacefully. He would hold Lucy’s feet as she perched on his finger, so she couldn’t get away, and then pet Sammy right next to her. Sammy took some swipes at her, but Josh would give him a treat and talk to him real sweet whenever he stayed still. Josh loved those animals like they were his kids or something.”
As Evelyn composes Josh’s tribute, she contemplates the Sylvester and Tweety Bird angle, but she cannot bring herself to build the Big Picture Lesson around this idiotic exercise. Didn’t Josh realize that Sammy the cat might access his inner lion and rip precious Lucy into feathered shreds? It would take more than cutesy words and a tasty reward to change the nature of an animal. Evelyn avoids Josh’s games altogether. Instead, she bases the Big Picture Lesson on Lila’s story about Josh’s kindness to another little boy in preschool. That will throw a bone to Josh’s devoutly Christian parents. Never mind Lila’s insistence that Josh hated being dragged to church twice on Sundays and on Wednesday nights too. The parents are footing the bill for the whole Comforting Words Package.
Evelyn hunches at her ladies desk until she has completed a solid draft. She shoots Mark a text. Hey, just completed a tough assignment for twenty-four-year-old ambiguous drug OD. Memorial right across the river in NJ, Sat. 10 am. Any interest? Could be my masterpiece!!
Mark responds quickly. Thx for the offer but my daughter has a hip-hop competition Sat. I’m sure it’s great—maybe Perry will quote it at next mtg!?! Lol.
Evelyn purses her lips. Perhaps she’d misjudged Mark’s gravitas. How could a dancing eight-year-old trump the commemoration of an entire life?
Josh’s memorial service is amateur hour. Evelyn takes a program from a basket near the entry door and plants herself in a rear aisle seat. Josh’s photocopied, bearded face smiles up at her. Evelyn needn’t have worried about navigating the receiving line because there isn’t one. Instead, young, tattooed people mill around in jeans and T-shirts, while a VFW worker sets up more folding chairs. Evelyn picks Lila out right away. She looks just like Josh’s photo, sans beard. She’s wearing solid black from her eyeliner to her Doc Maarten’s, and a clump of guests console her. A hollow-looking young woman stands close to Lila, with Buddy Holly glasses and bleached hair piled high in a messy bun. Evelyn would bet the farm she’s Josh’s girlfriend. Evelyn shudders. She can’t imagine waking up next to a dead body. Waking up next to a live body would be scary enough.
Josh’s parents and three older folks, presumably grandparents, sit glumly in the front row as activity swirls around them. Evelyn finds it shameful they have receded into the background. They’re burying—or more likely scattering—their only son. Everyone says losing a child is the worst human pain imaginable. Thank God Evelyn worked their faith into her eulogy so prominently. They have to understand they haven’t failed—their essential mission as parents had been accomplished despite Josh’s untimely demise. At least Evelyn’s words will afford them some peace.
The funeral director, whose shiny black suit and sensible shoes give her the air of a hostess at The Suburban Diner, directs folks to take their seats. Heads swivel to watch two young men process up the aisle, attempting to keep all four hands on a small hand-painted box. Evelyn finds the notion of pallbearers silly for a cremation when the whole package weighs five or six pounds. She’d rather see the mice from Cinderella hoist the cremains with their tiny paws and scurry up the aisle. At least that would be proportionate.
Evelyn’s knee bounces through one young cousin’s recitation of a rhyming poem and another’s painful violin offering. Finally, Lila walks to the microphone with papers in her hand. She takes a deep breath, and Evelyn finds herself exhaling with her. Evelyn must refrain from mouthing the words as Lila speaks. Lila begins, “Josh was technically my little brother. Although, as you know, he was more like a giant teddy bear to me. From the very beginning, Josh was a loving and caring child…”
Evelyn anticipates her next line, which introduces the preschool story. That anecdote provided an easy segue into Evelyn’s reassurance to Josh’s parents that he’d embodied Jesus’s command to love one another from a young age. But Evelyn hears none of this. Instead, Lila is talking about how when she and Josh were little, they wanted to live in the woods behind the Burger King so they could eat French fries all day.
Evelyn’s heart rate accelerates, but she talks herself down. Ok, Lila has ad-libbed. She’ll get back to my eulogy after she adds her own little anecdotes. But Lila does no such thing. Instead, she rambles about how as a child, Josh drew on his skin with Magic Markers, a precursor to his tattoo fascination. Lila asserts that Josh preferred animals to humans because they never judged him the way people did. And then Lila launches into the stupid stories about Sammy the cat and Lucy the damn bird. Young people in the audience nod and smile with recognition at these stories. But Josh’s parents and elderly relatives sit like stones. Evelyn fumes. Her face burns and tiny droplets of sweat form on her hairline. Thank God Mark didn’t come with her. Lila is wrecking everything.
Evelyn digs her fingernails into her thigh until she believes she might have broken the skin right through her pants. Lila concludes, “Even though Josh didn’t believe in heaven and angels and all that stuff, I know that wherever he is, he’s watching out for me. Josh, you were the best little brother ever.” Lila’s voice cracks. “Say hi to Moonbeam and Charlie and Mr. Sourpuss and Sniffy and Buster Bunnikins and Jasmine, and any other of our little guys that I’m forgetting. I love you, buddy.”
Evelyn battles the urge to heckle Lila, to call out, “Really? Is that it?” Evelyn’s aorta has migrated north and is now thrumming insistently in her head. The way Lila tells it, Josh’s life was worthless. You can’t just have him come and go like he didn’t mean anything, like he didn’t do anything that would matter after he was gone. What the hell is the Big Picture Lesson???
The funeral hostess retakes the mic and announces, “At this time the family asks that any guests who would like to share a few words about Josh come up to the microphone.”
Evelyn’s hand shoots up instantaneously. Just as if she were back in Mr. Glaser’s six-grade humanities class, Evelyn does not wait for recognition. She rises and marches purposefully up the aisle, ignoring puzzled looks. She needs to fix this mess. She will soothe Josh’s shellshocked parents and prod these useless young guests into aiming higher—to live a life with genuine purpose. Evelyn must give Josh’s life meaning.
“Good morning. I am…I am Grace.” Evelyn defaults to her middle name. “I’ve known Josh for ages, pretty much forever.” Evelyn swallows and speaks firmly. “From the very beginning, Josh was a loving and caring child. His preschool teachers reported to his mom that Josh, in his kind and gentle way, once spent his whole day making a shy new child at school feel welcome. The other kids had been excluding this little boy from the group because he didn’t speak much English, but Josh found ways to connect with him anyway.”
Evelyn catches Lila’s confused stare. “Compassion came naturally to Josh because his mom and dad had taught him from a young age how much Jesus loved him. While Josh’s free spirit resisted formal religious services, he clearly absorbed the message at the heart of it all. Josh always loved his neighbor as himself. In fact, looking back now”—Evelyn pauses in accordance with her own written stage directions to Lila—"I sometimes wish Josh had loved himself as much as he loved his neighbor.” Evelyn counts to four for the extended pause. “Josh invariably put others first, which included God’s most helpless creatures. We all know how many times he brought home stray animals.”
Evelyn loses her train of thought when she sees Lila jostling in her seat, angry recognition radiating from her piercing stare. Lila leans over a chair and whispers into the ears of two people in front of her. Then those two people register dismay and start whispering to the crowd around them. The din grows louder, and Evelyn feels the time closing in on her. She’d better cut to the Big Picture Lesson.
“Josh died too young. We will never know who he would have become, or what good he might have done in the world. Though Josh was in a questioning phase, I am convinced that if he’d lived long enough, he would’ve realized he’d possessed the answer all along. Love one another. Not the empty kind of love that is just words, but the genuine kind of love shown by actions, just as Josh loved the outcast little boy in preschool. Friends, family, that’s what Josh would want us to do now—love one another until we see him again.”
Evelyn looks downward as she returns to her chair. She grabs her purse and quickens her pace, run walking out the door. She refuses to turn her head back, imagining an angry mob trailing her with lit torches. The second her rear end hits the driver’s seat of her aging Chevy Malibu, Evelyn locks the doors and starts the engine. Only then does she dare to glance in the rearview mirror, terrified that Lila will hurl her body onto the windshield like a baboon gone mad at the drive-thru safari. But Evelyn has no followers.
Evelyn’s hands tremble as she dons her oversized sunglasses and doubles back down the road. A red light halts her progression at the intersection next to the funeral home, and Evelyn cannot resist staring sideways at the entrance. A middle-aged couple stands alone on the stoop, looking lost. Josh’s mother leans on the railing and sucks on her cigarette, while Josh’s father rubs his palm up and down her back and stares at the sky. They don’t look comforted at all. Weren’t they listening? Forget Lila’s hope-squelching assertions and the rebellion of youth—Josh’s parents should’ve been convinced he was a Christian at heart and would be waiting for them in heaven. Evelyn couldn’t possibly have missed the mark. An impatient Ford F-150 honks, alerting her to the green light. Evelyn lurches ahead.
Evelyn’s cell buzzes as she pulls into her apartment complex. She holds her breath—Perry has never called her on a Saturday before. Speaking extemporaneously is not Evelyn’s strong suit, so she lets her boss’s call go to voicemail. A text notification from Mark follows almost immediately. Heard something concerning. R u ok to talk? I’m free now.
Evelyn silences her phone. She needs to rest for a while if she’s going to discern a decent Big Picture Lesson from the day’s events. Maybe a Molly Ringwald film will help her put things into perspective. The usual suspects always look right past Molly. It takes almost the entire movie for a special someone to grasp how amazing she really is.