Life, death and greed. And Dostoevsky.

A couple of weeks ago I took a taxi to the airport early in the morning. To improve my chances of surviving the episode I started talking–it was 3 AM and the driver had greeted me with a drowsy nod. I don’t recall how many subjects I visited until the driver bit and woke up. We ended up talking about greed.

He had very strong opinions about it. He told me he wasn’t greedy at all–if he had money, he used it to live better. He enjoyed traveling with his children, going on vacation somewhere, or indulging a desire for some little luxury. And he despised those who would accumulate their wealth.

He just couldn’t understand why some people would accumulate money. And he said something that, although simple, I hadn’t thought about until that day. “Creen que se van a llevar la plata al cofre!” (“They think they will carry their money to the coffin!”)

He then went on to describe an episode that took place while he was the owner of a long limousine. At least that is how I imagine his car. He said it wasn’t a hearse, but that a coffin fitted inside, so a ‘long limousine’ fits the description. Anyway, being a professional driver and the owner of a white, long car that could be used as a hearse, he sometimes got calls to drive his car as a funeral coach.

Someday he got a gig to pick up a coffin from a funeral parlor and take it to the wake. While waiting outside the funeral home, an employee came with a hearsay report about the deceased: he had been very rich. However, the relative dealing with them had bargained a lot and had brought a very ugly, cheap-looking suit to dress the defunct.

Once at the wake, he was asked to take the coffin to the cemetery. When he entered the church, he only saw two people. There were neither flowers nor any decorations. In fact, the church was empty except for these two women and the coffin. The priest had already left.

He approached the women with an employee from the funeral home, and ask them if they were ready to take the coffin to the cemetery. They answered affirmatively and asked how much it would cost. He answered his price–he told me it was a small amount, definitely not what a hearse would have charged–and the women became uncomfortable. They hassled about the price, and he yielded. With the coffin, the helper from the funeral home and both women inside the car, the went to the cemetery.

He asked them if they would like to stop for a flower arrangement and they answered in the negative, babbling something about the price. Needles to say, there was nobody on the cemetery.

Hearing this anecdote I couldn’t help thinking about The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to recall all those conversations about life and death, and the different opinions the characters had about them. That chapter where the wise elder dies and decomposes within a few hours, leaving a putrid stench. The conversations between the elder and Alyosha. The “tour of debauchery” the father thought life was about.

So today I took some time to leaf through the book looking for a quote on life, death and greed. And I found one:

(…) what can a man do who has become the slave of the innumerable needs and habits he has invented for himself? He lives in his separate little world and does not care about the great world outside. The result of all this is that, today, when more material goods have been accumulated than ever, there is less joy.

It’s been more than 125 years, but Dostoevsky still has something to say.

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