‘Letter to a Funeral Parlour’ by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is empress of deadpan flash fiction, and I say that with admiration as someone who generally despises the concept of the monarchy. She constructs her stories with a kind of stately assurance, using simple language to convey a point, a truthful observation about a failure of a company, or flawed mechanism of modern day life. In this story the grief of losing a father is placed within a framework of a letter of complaint to the funeral parlour. The funeral parlour in question coming under critique for the use of a portmanteau word, ‘cremains’, to describe the father’s ashes. ‘Cremains’, the narrator holds, sounds like a milk substitute for coffee and has, like other portmanteau words, a dash of comedy to it, which she feels is inappropriate. Such attentiveness to a single word, placing the weight of emotion up against other snigger-worthy brand-name terms like ‘portapotty’ and ‘pooper-scooper’ then rendered by authoritative presentation in a letter serves to draw out the absurdist humour inherent in breezy, dehumanising industry lingo and in our social and commercial constructions around death. All this achieved without a hint of effort in under two minutes.

(Published in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Hear it read online here)

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