Felix Carroll: A few questions for the mortician

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PITTSFIELD — If you were to set out on foot from the joyful, balloon-festooned rooms of Berkshire Medical Center's maternity ward, it would take about 15 minutes to reach the mourning-worn parlors of Dery Funeral Home on Bradford Street. This surely is a roundabout way of saying that life is short.

From Point A to Point B on this mythic journey, you'll pass a hardware store, pharmacy, grocery store, church, lawyer's office and apartment houses. You'll pass through the commotion of commerce and social interface, the ropes and pulleys that keep this city functioning — up to and including this funeral home, founded in 1937.

And that's a roundabout way of saying that funeral homes, including this one, would prefer to be viewed within the context of normal and necessary civic life. Like, say, a hardware store is. As it stands, we apply to funeral homes the role of public drying rack bearing the sum of society's hang-ups about death.

In all, 151,600 people die each day in the world. In the form of their earthly remains, many dozens make their way each year to this particular Point B on Bradford Street, where the man of the house is Fred Dery.

The portrait hanging on the wall in the lobby is not him. That would be his late grandfather, J. Edward Dery Sr., dapper like the grandson, perpetually peering over his progeny's shoulder as he tends to the needs of the living and the dead. The current man of the house is 56 years old, upbeat, with Hollywood good looks and a laugh that emerges somewhere down deep, maybe the pulp of the spleen.

Dery manages to overturn the archetype of the mortician. But while he's neither the stuffy, enigmatic recluse, he also prefers to stubbornly uphold the industry line of buttoning his lip to the more delicate matters of mortuary life.

For instance, even though you might know for a fact that, years ago, a Dery hearse caught fire somewhere in the swampy borderlands of West Stockbridge or thereabouts — that the driver had to pull out an occupied casket and drag it a safe distance and await a ride — Dery will give you nothing. He'll laugh, sure.

"Actually —" he'll say, then stop himself short.

When you deal day to day in death, the stories are plentiful and colorful, yes. But Dery isn't about to mumble a single one of them.

On a recent morning, new hire Ryan Hassett, a young kid from Housatonic, is polishing any and all wooden surfaces with furniture polish. The place smells like Pledge. There's a pleasant display of pumpkins in the lobby as the place gets spiffed up for a wake.

"So, there are actual dead people in this building right now?"

If you're innocent enough to ask that question, Dery will answer, "Yes, there are." But you may detect in his tone that your question is akin to asking the clerk at the hardware store, "So, there are there actual hammers in this store right now?"

Fair enough, but let's just be clear: Morticians are not like everyone else, simply because everyone else does not deal daily with dead bodies, grief-stricken survivors, the incisions and grim cosmetics, funeral and flower arrangements, and the ultimate unknowns in the echoes of hearts that no longer beat. And to this point, Dery is very well aware.

"We're not exactly the favorite people to have walk into a room," he says.

Meaning, for some in the community, Dery is and will always be a reminder of past and looming losses.

Ugh.

Ugh is right.

Meanwhile, he's just a regular guy, a skier, a hiker, a member of the Rotary Club.

He'd love to get through a single day without someone saying, "Boy, your customers must be dying to see you," or some variation on the theme.

Ugh and double ugh.

Indeed, to whom much death is given, much is expected. Really, what we want from our morticians is something they cannot give us. We want them to sit us down, take our hands in theirs and to tell us definitively that there is a God and that our dearly departed are in Heaven right now awaiting to FaceTime with us whenever we're ready. These funeral arrangements are awkward trifles compared with what we really want.

Turns out, that's too much to ask. And so, short of that, in our discomfort, we make morticians out to be oddballs.

Meanwhile, someone has to do it, and Dery chooses to do it, like his father did and his father's father before him. And anyway, business is good and always will be, because people are always dying. Moreover — and at least equally as important — Dery's vocation has never hurt his love life. He's got a girlfriend. He's rarely been without.

OK, has he ever scattered ashes from an airplane?

"Yes."

Has he ever climbed inside a coffin?

"No."

Is that question more annoying than someone telling him his customers must be dying to see him?

"Actually, no, because I did have a guy here making pre-arrangements for himself, buying a coffin, and he asked, `Do you mind if I try it?' and I said, `Not at all. Take your shoes off.' So he did. But I haven't."

Did he take the family hearse to the prom?

"No."

He pauses. His mind seems to be flipping through a Rolodex of memories.

"Actually —" he says, then stops himself short.

For the record, Dery, who was raised Catholic, says he believes in God. He believes we will be judged and that if we wish fair judgment upon ourselves, we should play fair while we're here on Earth.

Fair enough.

Does he think about his own death?

"No, as crazy as it sounds, I don't."

But he has thought about his own funeral arrangements, of course.

"I want a traditional service, which would entail calling hours and funeral service," he says. "I want people to be in more of a celebratory mood than anything that would be depressing. I want lots of music, and if people aren't going to sing at my funeral, they shouldn't be there."

It's coming upon noon, and Dery has to head out into that world between Points A and B — out where people, hopefully, are living full, rich lives, out where they're being kind to one another and not doing anything they might regret on their deathbeds.

A few fellow travelers on this journey are awaiting him at a Rotary luncheon. You see, Fred Dery is just another businessman keeping this city alive.

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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