May 26, 2018


The weather followed us for the entire trip to the crematorium.  While we wove in and out of weeping together, telling Chester stories, laughing, yelling at a fellow traveler for a dangerous move in traffic, weeping alone, and changing the subject altogether, the patches of dark and restless sky released torrential downpour, drizzle, steady rain, rain so heavy that traffic slowed, and the occasional brief, incongruous patch of blue-tinged shine.  The weather followed our hearts.

On the way back home, we wondered aloud during a patch of drizzle ... how do morticians do it?  Not dealing with dead people in general; corpses do not bother either of us in the least.  There is nothing creepy about a dead body.  Unless you're talking about one that rises from the dead after a couple of days and goes around showing off the holes and did you see the size of that spear? look what that guy did to me and "appears" to people, probably jumping out from behind bushes.  That's creepy.

But, no.  It's dealing with the heart-cords that baffles us.

In a city, someone running a crematorium or preparing a corpse for viewing and subsequent interment would be relatively divorced from the grief-stricken faces and the backstory and all that we do about death so that we can do something, something.  It would be a job, bodies and visages and using photos as a reference (Can You Draw Tippy the Turtle?) and knowing you were providing a kindly service to the people who loved what those bodies said and did when hearts still pumped and blood still flowed.

But what about the rural areas, the small places where one person would be the mortician and funeral director and maybe minister and possibly the one who hired a couple of his strapping cousins to dig the grave?  What about the ones who nearly always knew the person or his mother or his sister's husband?  What about the ones who played with that corpse when they were kids, when young eyes were open and taking in the world and the bodies ran barefoot in the rain, laughing until it made them out of breath?  How do they reconcile the life force and the return of each of us to the earth that in great complexity brought us forth?

I ask Therapist Gumby sometimes how he can sit for hours and listen to others' pain and keep from taking it home with him at the end of the day, how he can take all that on without hardening his heart.  He says he has spent years building nigh-impermeable boundaries, ones that allow him to keep standing so that it is safe for others to fall in his presence and then pick themselves back up.  He says he takes good care of himself, and that yes, it took a very long time to learn to do it well.

He says that life is messy.

Maybe the rural mortician doesn't have to harden his heart.  Maybe when he puts someone's remains in a box or an urn, they stay there, and he has learned to take good care of himself, even though death, too, is messy.

Today we learned that the lady who cremated Chester cries for every single pet in her charge.  Every time.  She still goes home and comes back the next day and does it again.  Every single one.  She said she's unable to wall it off or make it just a job.

They keep trying to find good help but people leave after a week or two because their hearts simply cannot bear what is involved.  The ones who believe they are strong leave sooner.  The ones who allow themselves to feel last a little longer.  And in between having staff to help, she works with the chambers and bags of ashes and bereaved owners herself.

And she has dogs of her own.

If you live in the same city, you've probably seen her in Target and had no idea you were in the presence of a god-damned superhero because she doesn't wear a cape.  But while you scanned your Tide Pods and AA batteries and those new skinny jeans in the self-checkout line, you were standing beside someone who sees through all of our plastic and pavement and is grounded in the earth that makes us and takes us back.  She is a mortician and she faces the truth six days a week and if it shone on the outside, her courage would make you avert your eyes.  She is not afraid of the weather, or the earth.  She is not afraid of the messy mud.

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