87. The Morgue Parade

87. The Morgue Parade

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Morgue Parade

In the business world, everyone is paid in two coins: cash and experience.

~Harold Geneen

I was seven years old when I learned that the large house I lived in was also the local funeral home. It didn’t take me long to discover that there was money to be gained from this arrangement.

It was the summer of 1953 in one of the smaller states of New England. My dad, Fred, was the local funeral director. I had just finished the second grade at the new elementary school. I had several close neighborhood friends, and we assembled daily as a tight-knit gang.

I remember this was the year that I became very fascinated by the fact that dead bodies appeared in one of the two front living rooms of my home every now and then. The dead body was the center of attention at my house as many of the townspeople came to visit, but they didn’t come to visit with me. I remember thinking, “What’s up with that? It’s my house, so why don’t they want to see me?”

Well, my curiosity started to get the best of me. I would venture into the parlor, as it was referred to by my father, and stare at the dead body in the casket, wondering where that person came from and how they got in that big box in this house. So, it was time to ask Dad. After hearing all the facts and procedures, I got to see places in our house that I never saw before.

This included the embalming room. One day, I ventured in, and there was a dead body under a sheet. I didn’t know him, so I touched him. Wow, he was cold! Lifting the sheet, I saw that he had on underwear, but no socks. No wonder he was cold.

My dad said, “Don’t ever come in this room alone.”

Never tell that to an inquisitive kid!

Why? I wondered. I wasn’t scared. To me, this place was really cool. I thought, “My friends have got to see this!” But this kind of activity had to be sworn to secrecy, so it had to have value. What could I get for the privilege of letting the gang see the special room and the person in it?

Well, I needed money to buy shooters and cat eyes, I thought. Five cents a peek should be doable. The gang agreed. So, the parading in and out, one by one, with me as tour director and escort, was sealed in the deal.

My trusted friend and best marble accomplice was the son of the local diner proprietor. Soon, he wanted half of the take so we could both buy marbles. Now the ante went up to a dime for a peek and a toe touch! The enticement was that I would lift the sheet, and anyone could touch the toes. Again, the parade was a big success.

By the middle of summer, the secret parade was almost a weekly event. It was then that I realized the value of my new business could go from a dime to a quarter, something I felt the market could bear. But maybe I would need to upgrade the peek show a little. Maybe I could remove the whole sheet. That should do it! So, I put the concept to the gang, and once again the response was, “Yes!”

I couldn’t wait for the next star performer to arrive. Keep in mind that the gang consisted of girls as well as boys. We were all very mature and didn’t scream at all. That was one of the requirements of parade gang membership.

I didn’t anticipate, however, the difficulty my friends would have finding quarters lying around the house in the mid-1950s. One day, one of the girls couldn’t find a quarter, and she went to her mother. “Mom, I need a quarter.”

“Whatever for?”

“Well, Jimmy will let me look at a dead body and touch the toe, and…”

“Stop right there. Does his father know about this?”

It didn’t take long for the secret of the morgue parade to come to light. My father got a call at suppertime that very day from the mother of my fallen gang member.

Immediately, the retribution procedure began.

Dad confronted me regarding my new business endeavors. “Jimmy, this little parade business of yours has to stop right now. Furthermore,” Dad stated, “I hope you have collected enough money for all the marbles you’ll need for the rest of the summer because, after washing all the cars, mowing the lawn, sweeping the driveway, weeding the flower gardens, and watering the lawns, you can start all over again every week. Maybe then you will have earned your marbles.”

I grew up to be a funeral director with my dad. Thinking back on this endeavor, I realized that it was really a business crime I’d committed. I was very lucky I didn’t get my hide sunburned and tanned with that strap Dad had.

In retrospect, I think Dad got a laugh out of the originality of my entrepreneurship, and I learned that creativity did pay off… even if it was short-lived.

~James T. Nelson

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