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Open Features: Petronella. The Priest And The Undertaker

In Marianne Hall's latest Petronella tale the lady is planning for her final event.

“Your funeral policies aren’t worth the paper they are written on,” declared Sannie to her friend Petronella.

“What!” exploded Petronella.”I paid two rand and thirty-three cents for ten years on the first policy and then fifteen rand for the next ten years on a further policy and now you tell me they are worth NOTHING?”

Her voice rose to a scream.

“Yip,” asserted Sannie.

“I also took out another policy with Metlife,” continued Petronella.

“Well, the undertaker told me that no matter which policy you hold, the family will have to pay up front and then wait for a refund from the insurance company.”

Petronella was totally confused. She liked to be organized especially when it came to the hereafter. She mistrusted undertakers. Vultures! No one was robbing her of her benefits. She would demand a budget right down to the very cent and also cut out any unnecessary expenses.

She phoned the local priest.

She introduced herself. “My name is Petronella. I am a member of your church, but I don’t go to your church. Will you conduct the memorial service when I die.”

There was a long silence. “When do you propose to do that?” came a somewhat bemused reply.

“Well, not right away. I don’t quite know yet. Of course, I could have a heart attack or something, who can tell?”

“Who, indeed.”

“What do you charge for a funeral service?”

There was an even longer silence.

“Er….we usually get a donation.”

“How much?” Petronella was determined to get her budget right.

“About two hundred rand.”

“By the way, I don’t want my remains in the church. Any objection to that?”

“It is better psychologically for the family to have the coffin in the church, a sort of saying goodbye to the deceased,” explained Monsignor Kelly.

“Whose funeral is it anyway, mine or the family’s? I decide what happens to my body.” Petronella was getting all heated up.

“O.K.” said the priest resignedly. “Just be clear about your intentions. Put those in your will.”

The next step was the undertaker.

Jo Earthy was in a good mood. He was still glowing from a very satisfactory night with his girlfriend and this porcupine was not going to upset him.

“A biodegradable coffin….. impossible!” He was adamant.

“It’s the cheapest. Why should you burn up a good wooden coffin?” argued Petronella.

“It’s a bit of cardboard lined with polystyrene. It’s so short and narrow you wouldn’t even fit into it. Besides, just imagine what would happen to our ovens, a corpse in a mixture of cardboard and polystyrene.”

Petronella did see. Her body curled up like a caterpillar, slowly being moulded into a plastic ball. She shuddered.

“Well, what about a Jewish coffin?”

“You aren’t Jewish. You must have a certain status to be buried in a Jewish coffin.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Their coffins are made to order and they are not cheap.”

Petronella knew she had no “status”, whatever that meant, so there was no sense in pursuing the matter.

“What’s your cheapest coffin, then?”

“A plain print would cost you six hundred and seventy five rand,'' came the answer.

“Oh, well, that will have to do then. You are going to burn me in it, anyway,” Petronella agreed reluctantly.

She got out her notebook. “Coffin R675,” she wrote down painstakingly. “Now, what else is there?”

It took some effort for Jo Earthy to keep a smile on his dial. On examining her Metlife policy he discovered that the old lady had inadvertently continued paying her premiums and that the policy had doubled from R5000 to R10000. Perhaps he could persuade her to have the funeral service in the chapel he was building at the back of the office. A quick four hundred rand. Together with the program, the coffin spray, the verger’s fee and his share of the minister’s and organist’s fee he could collect a sizeable bit of the insurance. Better be nice to her.

“A cremation would cost you R3431 at today’s price,” went on Earthy. “This includes collecting and storing of the body, mortuary costs, doctor’s examination fees, transfer to the crematorium, cremation fees, collecting and storage of the ashes and documentation fees.”

“Just repeat that, very SLOWLY and LOUDLY,” insisted Petronella.

“No notices in the paper,” she continued, making a note of every item. “The fewer people who come to my funeral service, the better.”

You’ll be lucky if anyone comes, thought Earthy. Stingy old cow!

“By the way, I have a very special song lined up. I’ve already brought the CD.”

Jo Earthy feigned interest. “What is it?” He was busy completing an application form.

Petronella picked up a bag from the floor. It was bulging at the seams. She battled to slide the zip open. She rummaged around in it, then, lifting the bag, emptied the contents on the desk.

An assortment of objects met his eye. A battered old purse, a comb with a few teeth missing, a brush with grey hairs still protruding from it, a toilet roll tied with a piece of elastic, a crumpled up dirty handkerchief, a crochet hook, a pair of multi-coloured mittens, an ID book, a thick woollen scarf, a pair of tweezers, a plastic bag (did he imagine it, or were there a pair of bloomers in it?) a few plasters, a set of keys, some used earbuds, a very short pencil, a thimble, half a dozen pink plastic curlers, a few hairclips, an open tube of Lip Ice and a CD.

“Ah! Here it is!”

She bent over the desk and handed him the CD. Her elbow caught the purse which fell on the floor emptying it’s contents. With a curse she dropped to the floor to retrieve the coins.

Earthy held the CD between two fingers – he did not want to get contaminated – then turned it over. To his surprise he saw a picture of Elvis Presley swinging his guitar. “20 Popular Hits” it read. In his mind’s eye he could see the mourners jiving in the aisles.

He wondered what the devil the woman was doing under his desk. He pushed back his chair to have a look. His belly was in the way, all he could see was a large bottom. He leaned over some more. The next thing the chair toppled over with Jo still embedded in it.

In a daze he heard an indignant voice. “I don’t need your help.”

With as much dignity as he could muster, he finally extricated himself out of the chair, stood up, visibly shaken, and straightened out his tie and jacket. He righted the chair then sat down again.

They glared at each other like lionesses over a kill. The electricity in the air could have sparked off another Chernobyl.

“Twenty songs,” he muttered, looking at the CD.

“NOT TWENTY!” screamed Petronella, “only ONE! STUPID!''

She grabbed the CD from his fingers, then moved over to his side of the desk. A musty smell pervaded his nostrils. On the pretense of blowing his nose, he held his handkerchief to the front of his face He gulped and swallowed his breakfast for the second time. Just as well she had opted for a cremation. Even the worms would seek better pastures!

“Let me see.'' Petronella ran her fingers up and down the titles at the back of the CD. Her mouth drew into a peevish line. She looked over her glasses, and brought the CD closer. She pushed the glasses further up onto her nose.

She pointed to a title.

“There it is,” she said triumphantly. “Jailhouse Cock.”

Jo Earthy gasped. He looked at her in disbelief. He coughed, turned red in the face, then mottled purple, made a strangled sound in his throat, choked and spluttered and appeared to be fighting off the onset of an attack of apoplexy!

“Very ap…ap…. appropriate!” The tears were running down his cheeks.

Petronella looked at him disapprovingly. “I’m not having anyone crying at MY funeral,” she said in disgust.

In all likelihood they would be jumping for joy in the aisles celebrating the fact that Petronella had at last curled up her toes, Earthy thought, dabbing his cheeks with a handkerchief.

Petronella arrived home, very satisfied. She had all the facts and figures in her little book. First she made a call to the priest.

“Monsignor Kelly,” she said. “I have just been to the undertaker. Do you want to hear what he told me?”

“Certainly.”

“Father, you are in the soul business and being ripped off. The standard rate for ministers is R250 PLUS a verger’s fee of R100, making a total of R350.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” came the polite reply.

Petronella felt very happy indeed and so did the priest.

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