Ibis and Jacquel was a small, family-owned funeral home: one of the last truly independent funeral homes in the area, or so Mr. Ibis maintained. “Most fields of human merchandising value nationwide brand identities,” he said. Mr. Ibis spoke in explanations: a gentle, earnest lecturing that put Shadow in mind of a college professor who used to work out at the Muscle Farm and who could not talk, could only discourse, expound, explain. Shadow had figured out within the first few minutes of meeting Mr. Ibis that his expected part in any conversation with the funeral director was to say as little as possible. “This, I believe, is because people like to know what they are getting ahead of time. Thus, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, F. W. Woolworth (of blessed memory): store brands maintained and visible across the entire country. Wherever you go, you will get something that is, with small regional variations, the same.”
“In the field of funeral homes, however, things are, perforce, different. You need to feel that you are getting small-town personal service from someone who has a calling to the profession. You want personal attention to you and your loved one in a time of great loss. You wish to know that your grief is happening on a local level, not on a national one. But in all branches of industry-and death is an industry, my young friend, make no mistake about that-one makes ones money from operating in bulk, from buying in quantity, from centralizing one’s operations. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Trouble is, no one wants to know that their loved ones are traveling in a cooler-van to some big old converted warehouse where they may have twenty, fifty, a hundred cadavers on the go. No, sir. Folks want to think they’re going to a family concern, somewhere they’ll be treated with respect by someone who’ll tip his hat to them if he sees them in the street.”
Mr. Ibis wore a hat. It was a sober brown hat that matched his sober brown blazer and his sober brown face. Small gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. In Shadow’s memory Mr. Ibis was a short man; whenever he would stand beside him, Shadow would rediscover that Mr. Ibis was well over six feet in height, with a cranelike stoop. Sitting opposite him now, across the shiny red table, Shadow found himself staring into the man’s face.
“So when the big companies come in they buy the name of the company, they pay the funeral directors to stay on, they create the apparency of diversity. But that is merely the tip of the gravestone. In reality, they are as local as Burger King. Now, for our own reasons, we are truly an independent. We do all our own embalming, and it’s the finest embalming in the country, although nobody knows it but us. We don’t do cremations, though. We could make more money if we had our own crematorium, but it goes against what we’re good at. What my business partner says is, if the Lord gives you a talent or a skill, you have an obligation to use it as best you can. Don’t you agree?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Shadow.
“The Lord gave my business partner dominion over the dead, just as he gave me skill with words. Fine things, words. I write books of tales, you know. Nothing literary. Just for my own amusement. Accounts of lives.” He paused. By the time Shadow realized that he should have asked if he might be allowed to read one, the moment had passed. “Anyway, what we give them here is continuity: there’s been an Ibis and Jacquel in business here for almost two hundred years. We weren’t always funeral directors, though. We used to be morticians, and before that, undertakers.”
“And before that?”
“Well,” said Mr. Ibis, smiling just a little smugly, “we go back a very long way…”
Egyptian embalming compound: beeswax and fir resin, myrrh, natron salt, cassia, palm wine, lichen, henna, and camphor.
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