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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Gray Expectations : Post-Baby Boom, We're Ready, Perhaps, for a Little More Maturity

January 22, 1989|JACK SMITH

AS A SENIOR citizen, I don't know whether I'm more pleased or dismayed by the increasing numbers of my fellow seniors.

According to a report from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy of the University of Maryland, Americans over age 65 have increased eightfold since the turn of the century. Their proportion of the population has tripled. Those over 85 (the fastest-growing group in the country) are 21 times more numerous than in 1900.

Two facts explain this startling change: (1) A decrease in the number of children. (2) Improved medical care and declining death rates for the elderly. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of people 65 or older grew by 54%.

"America's elderly," the report says, "are now facing a population explosion, demographers warn, greater than that of the population of India."

This alarming phenomenon is given the rather euphemistic title of "The Graying of America." Certainly there does not seem, at first glance, to be any threat in the prospect of a grayer America. Having just survived the Baby Boom, perhaps we are ready for a little more maturity.

However, I can't help thinking of the gloomy side. Since most of these elders will be gone from the workplace, somebody is going to have to pay their bills and, in the end, bury them.

With so many people living to be 85, the undertaker's harvest may be deferred, but in the end he will prosper. If you're over 85 you're probably not going to live 20 years more.

I am reminded of the nonagenarian who was told by his stockbroker that if he were to invest in certain bonds, he would certainly double his savings in a few years. The old gentleman replied that at his age he didn't even buy green bananas.

The funeral business has undoubtedly undergone some reform since Jessica Mitford wrote "The American Way of Death" in 1963. Nevertheless, like everything else these days, dying costs more than it used to.

Lynne Drain of Sierra Madre writes that she was discussing the subject recently with her 89-year-old grandfather. He said that when his father died in 1910, his mother bought a burial plot for all six family members for $125, and he still had the bill.

Drain's grandfather also had the bill for his father's burial. It was made out to Ann Hansberger for the burial of her husband, Constant Hansberger.

The bill totalled $142.15 and was itemized as follows:

Removing remains from St. John's Hospital, $2; embalming, $10; shaving, $2; candles and candelabra, $5; death notice in paper, $1; pedestals and rug, $2; underclothing, 65 cents; black casket, handles and plate, $65; outside box, $5; box taken to cemetery, $1.50; single grave, $15; low Mass, $10; hearse, $8; three coaches, $15.

Drain's grandfather remembers that the hearse and each of the coaches was pulled by two horses, which made it a grand funeral, indeed.

This bill was duly signed to acknowledge payment.

The two items that interest me most are "shaving, $2" and "underclothing, 65 cents." Considering the reasonable cost of all the other items, $2 seems a lot to pay for a shave. Wasn't that old saying, "shave and a haircut, six bits," in vogue at about that time?

As for the underwear, didn't Constant Hansberger's wife furnish the undertaker with some of his own underwear? Or didn't he wear underwear? Some men don't. Clark Gable didn't wear an undershirt in "It Happened One Night," a lapse that outraged the underwear manufacturers of the nation. Evidently, in any case, the undertaker thought it proper that the deceased be clothed in underwear and provided it, at a cost. Certainly, a man whose casket is to ride in a hearse pulled by two horses, followed by three coaches and teams, ought to be wearing underwear.

At today's prices, our Social Security checks are not likely to cover our last rites; so it behooves the elderly to lay away enough money so that their children will be spared that final expense. And we ought to have a set of underwear put aside.

As for that last shave, though, I think it ought to be on the house.

By the way, I eat bananas daily for the potassium; my wife buys them green.

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