Vera Wentzl spent the last day of her life driving her fifteen-year-old Chevrolet sedan to and from the grocery store, where she had purchased $43 worth of groceries-- everything, of course, on special-- using $19 in coupons.
She died in her sleep in her one-hundred year old, two-bedroom Cape Cod, wearing a faded polyester nightgown she had owned since 1991.
Charlie Wentzl had chalked up his aunt's frugality to the parsimony characteristic of the Pennsylvania Dutch, as opposed to any actual poverty. Therefore, he wasn't terribly surprised to discover that she had left behind a lot more than a old nightgown and a beat-up car. She had been a careful, hawkish investor, he remembered, closely examining the statements that arrived monthly from her broker with her rheumy, yet sharp, eyes.
When he was appointed executor of her estate, he gathered the statements and reviewed them, startled to find that she had several mutual funds in her name. She had also been receiving the survivor benefit from her late husband's pension; Charlie knew that Uncle Bill had worked for the big corporate employer in town for decades, but he never knew just how high Bill had risen in the ranks. Vera had invested every penny of his significant pension in the markets and had withdrawn most of it before the bottom-out.
He had her Cape Cod appraised and discovered that, while the house itself was worthless, its location was zoned for mixed residential and commercial and close to a major thoroughfare, so the land it sat on (a much larger lot than the house's footprint would lead you to believe) was quite valuable, even in a down market.
Charlie figured Vera was much wealthier than her lifestyle suggested, but even he was breathless when he arrived at the final value for her estate. It was in the millions.
And, under the terms of her will, it was all his.
The only debt he had to settle was her funeral expenses. As her sole surviving relative, heir, and executor, Charlie was responsible for organizing her service and burial. She would often return from a friend's service tut-tuttering about the poor dear's ungrateful children giving the deceased such a cheap, disrespectful send-off. He took pains to ensure that her own service lacked nothing.
He thought it odd, though, that somebody so stingy with money would take issue with minimizing funeral expenses.
"Aunt Vera," he once remarked, "maybe they're just being careful with their money."
"Nonsense," sputtered Vera. "Her son drove up in a new car. Delores hadn't even been buried yet and they're already acting like they're the Rockefellers or something."
"Maybe he bought the car before she died?"
"Mmm. Counting on her money to pay for it!" Vera shook her head disapprovingly. "I'm not saying funerals should be vulgar or anything, but it's one of the last things you do for a person, and everybody should at least have a proper funeral. Poor Delores. The minister rushed through the service and you could tell he had never met her when she was alive, and he said a bunch of meaningless drivel that could apply to anybody."
"Maybe her church just had a change at the top and he's the new guy."
Vera snorted derisively. "The whole thing was just crass. They served heat-and-eat pizza bagels-- pizza bagels! Her son would have held the service in a drive-thru if he could."
Vera had a weird thing about funerals. She would always cluck her tongue sadly while reading the local section of the paper, remarking on the tragedy of the occasional notice where police were searching for a decedent's next-of-kin or trying to identify a body they had found. Her greatest alarm was at a story about what the local coroner's offices did with unclaimed corpses-- one donated them to science, another provided a no-frills burial in an unmrked grave. Her stoic eyes had even betrayed tears at that one, and she shook her head, saying over and over, "I can't imagine, I can't imagine."
He kept both simple, as she would have wanted, but he made sure to choose a good-quality casket with a pretty lining, and ordered sprays of her favorite cream-colored roses, and served her friends a hearty repast in the fire hall where she used to play bingo with them. The one thing she would have disapproved of was her outfit; not wanting to lay her out in one of her fraying old dresses, he purchased her a new suit for her burial. But all else was in order: her longtime pastor, beautiful hymns, heartfelt eulogies by friends, and a final resting place in the cemetary plot next to Uncle Bill, the headstone freshly engraved with her year of death.
The judge's final order and the cashier's check in hand, Charlie deposited his late aunt's assets into his account, his head spinning when the teller handed him a receipt showing his astronomical balance. He celebrated by taking himself out for a pizza dinner, something he rarely did on his own meager salary, remembering to toast his aunt silently with his plastic tumbler of Coke.
Then he returned to his job as a quality-control specialist at a local manufacturing concern, and his life went back to normal. He considered quitting, and living on his inheritance, or using the funds to buy a new car or take an exotic vacation, but he could not in good conscience spend Vera's carefully-cultivated wealth on such extravagances. He didn't want to just let the money sit, unused, however; he had no children or other heirs to leave the wealth to.
Then, one morning, he was reading the paper and spotted a small news brief:
Police are still trying to identify a 62-year-old man they found in Miller Furnace Dam Park early last week. A department spokesman says that no missing persons matching the man's description have been reported, and efforts to match the man with dental and DNA records have been unsuccessful.
He noticed that the dead man had been found in the jurisdiction where unclaimed bodies were donated to science. Remembering Vera's horror at this fate, he suddenly had an idea.
He flipped through the phone book, located the number for that coroner's office, and dialed it.
"Yes," he said when they answered. "I'm calling about the man in Miller Furnace Park?"
"Oh, really?" replied the coroner. "Do you have any information about him?"
"No," said Charlie. "But if you don't find a relative for him, are you going to donate him?"
"It would be a while, but yes, that's our policy if nobody claims him."
"Well, if it gets to that point, I'd like to claim him," said Charlie.
"Um, okay," said the coroner, puzzled. "Can I ask why?"
"Yes," said Charlie. "I'd like to give him a proper funeral. At my expense, of course."