The Unwanted: Death and Decay in the Americas

Goldie Goldbloom

A Long Day at the End of the World: A Story of Desecration and Revelation in the Deep South. By Brent Hendricks. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 208 pages. $14.00.

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab. By Christine Montross. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2007. 320 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

Ten years after my mother died, I was told that she had never been buried, and I jumped the next plane to Australia to bury whatever remained of her. On the way, I spent time meditating on the way bodies are treated in the modern world, and our dislike and fear of death and decay in general. Truthfully, I meditated on my fear of death and decay. I was afraid of what I would have to face in Australia. Like Brent Hendricks in his memoir A Long Day at the End of the World, I wondered about my mother’s “deadly state—[her] rate of molder and decay . . . was [she] mummified or mostly bones. And was [her] face still recognizable, the face that so strongly resembled my own?”

Brent Hendricks’s father’s body was forgotten in the Georgia woods. His was the first of three hundred thirty-nine bodies to be so abandoned by the operator of the Tri-State Crematory, in what became the largest mass desecration of human remains in the United States. Hendricks is a poet, and in this memoir he used his long drive to the Tri-State Crematory after the revelation of the desecration to analyze his fraught relationship with his father. As he passed through the scarred Southern landscape, he contemplated the nature of unwantedness and his own sense of abandonment.

Hendricks writes that his father was transferred from an earlier gravesite and relocated to Tri-State to be cremated, but instead ended up decomposing in the woods in his own custom made cowboy boots for the next five years due to the negligence of the mortuary operator, who seemingly was “overwhelmed” or “didn’t care” what happened to the bodies he was supposed to cremate. When Hendricks made this discovery, he experienced conflicting emotions about how to mourn someone who had been dead for years: “We had no guidelines for such strangeness, no cultural markers for dealing with my father’s second death. It was a disorienting time, in which we all had to construct a new way to mourn.” I connected with this strangeness, the challenge of re-mourning someone you have already grieved for, and the revival of the many familial issues with a deceased parent.

Throughout A Long Day at the End of the World, Hendricks struggles to stay connected to this second death, but ends up discussing, at length, a series of distractions instead: the disrupted landscape, Baptists, the history of the Deep South, the Shit Fairy, the Apocalypse, suburban decay and Hernando de Soto. Ultimately, for him, “a body was just a body was just a body. . . . It was a conviction that entitled me to a limited reaction to the desecration—perhaps confusion, anger, and some feeling of violation, but not much more. Within the confines of my unadorned belief system, there just didn’t seem to be room for a greater disturbance.” There is a palpable sense of avoidance throughout the work, a wish that Hendricks did not have to cope, again, with the loss of his father, and even more so, his decomposing body.

When Hendricks imagines what death is like—“I imagined snakes crawling over and mice skittering through, coyotes gliding by and bees buzzing around. Stirring of body bags and murmur of lake, especially at night, with a little wind”—he isn’t describing death, exactly, but the experience of the body abandoned in the woods. Though he claims he has no “supernatural belief,” he also acknowledges “somewhere in the teeming backwoods of my imagination—a body was not a body was not just bones.”

Seemingly, no one knows better than a doctor if a body is more than just bones. Christine Montross’s extraordinarily moving memoir Body of Work details her first year as a medical student with her assigned cadaver, Eve (so named because of her lack of an umbilicus). She too examines her relationship with death. Montross, like Hendricks, is a poet, and it shows in the rhythms and language of her prose work, as well as in her quiet reflection on death: “I wonder if this is what death is like. A nighttime motorcycle ride, a glance at evening’s light on the water. A desire to stay to take in the beauty of the world with all its imperfections and a bell that sounds to say the hour has come beyond which we cannot possibly stay.”

Montross navigates between a reverence and respect for her cadaver and revealing the sometimes-macabre goings-on in Brown University’s gross anatomy laboratory. When she has to tell a patient’s family that their patriarch is dying, and she cries, we wonder if someone as compassionate as Montross will make it through medical school. When she gets home after sawing through Eve’s cranium in the final days of her semester, “I take a scalding shower. I scrub my hair, brush my teeth twice, inhale water in my nose until I choke to try to rid it of the smell of the bone dust.”

Montross does not shelter the reader from the emotional challenges of working with the dead. We see her progression from being repelled by the cadavers, to being curious, to being able to incorporate the knowledge learned from dissection into her understanding of the living body. “When I listen to any patient’s heartbeat or lungs, or feel someone’s liver or pulse, or find tendons or tap with my hammer in order to test reflexes, the structures I picture hidden beneath the skin are all—all of them—Eve’s.” She points out that, in general, American society avoids contact with or reference to the dead. “Modern death rituals . . . center on a body embalmed and made up to prevent any whiff of decay” and that the body is not seen as a “great teacher” but as refuse, something to be gotten rid of.

Though she never knew Eve in life, Montross manages to express her relationship with this body and all the possible lives it lived. While Hendricks is an inspired and lyric writer who attempts to connect to the challenging emotions raised by the desecration at Tri-State Crematory, by the conclusion of his memoir, I am frustrated by the lack of cohesiveness. Though avoidance is a valid coping mechanism for grief, I am left wishing I understood more about Hendricks’s own relationship with his father, in the way that Montross is able to shed light onto her relationship with Eve and with death itself. “My dreams at night are full of Eve,” Montross writes. “I am Persephone, somewhere between the living and the dead.”

Ray Brent Marsh, the owner-operator of Tri-State Crematory, had none of this reverence for the dead, no sense of them as “great teachers,” and failed even in the simple task of cremating the bodies. Hendricks tries to illuminate the loss of his father by investigating this second death and its lack of resolution, but his own obsession with the physical horror of it all gets in the way of expressing the emotional ties to his father.

The process of burying my mother ten years after she died was an undeniably challenging one. I was forced my to confront my own inability to keep her alive, my wish that I had been present when she died and my shame that she had not been buried all this time and that I hadn’t known. I was terrified about the state of her body and entranced, in equal measure, by the possibility of life after death. Where was my mother now? Surely not in these chastened remains, but instead, in some endlessness of which I knew nothing.

Shortly after burying my mother, I began to wish that I could read a book in which those who prepare bodies for burial wrote about their experiences with the newly dead. I yearned for confirmation that, for a while at least, the liveliness of the dead clung to them; the soul, if you will, hanging around to see what happened next. Neither Montross’s or Hendricks’s work answered this need, as both address the long dead, but I still found them to be comforting in their echo of my own experience and in their acknowledgement of the mysterious chasm between the living and the dead.

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