HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Here's an incredibly morbid story of something that happened to me one day in the summer of 1997. Enjoy! Or not, as it's fairly graphic. The smell invading my senses is unquestionably a dead human being, even if I'm not entirely sure what a dead human being is supposed to smell like. It is, without question, a rotting corpse that I smell. It's pungent. It's revolting. It's strangely transfixing. And it's only about to get worse.
This is the true story of how it came to be that I was face to face with a decades-old wilting dead body.
As I've pointed out to loyal readers of my blogs, death and the business of death has surrounded my family in various ways for most of my childhood adolescence. Without going into a laborious rehashing of how, you can read my blog about THE CATACOMBS OF PARIS. In it, you'll find a more thorough account of those aspects of my upbringing.
Regardless, let's get to the body.
In the late 90's, I worked two summers at my uncle's Memorial Park. To be clear, memorial parks are the cemeteries where no headstones exist. In their place, carefully crafted bronze and marble plaques are utilized to honor the deceased. My uncle was in charge of the grounds crew, and as such, he even lived many years on the actual grounds. He was so close that even Rick Ankiel in his wild later pitching years could hit a plot from his backyard porch.
Like any other ill-advised college kid from the Midwest, I needed a summer job. But not just any summer job would do. I wanted weekends and evenings free, thus allowing me ample time to binge-drink and relentlessly search for girls to possibly make out with. I also played softball. A lot. Because nothing says how cool you are at the age of 21 like playing a lot of beer-league softball. Least to say, I felt entitled to a job that perfectly suited my needs.
Exacerbating my scheduling complications was the arrival of Matt Mclemore, my best friend who had decided to stay that summer at my Mother's home. We both needed jobs, and they obviously had to coincide with each other's social lives. Bros dude. Bros.
Enter my uncle.
He offered us jobs at his cemetery, mostly pulling weeds and planting flowers. It was a large, expensive cemetery with over 10 sections. My Grandfather was buried there, and I imagine one day it's possible more of my relatives will eternally reside there.
Regardless, the job seemed ideal. Five days a week. Done by four o'clock. Little interference by my uncle. And even the slimmest of chances I'd get a tan. We took it.
This seemed quite normal to me, and the idea of driving a Mule (a sorta pseudo mini Jeep Wrangler) over uneven grass on account of the burials didn't exactly deter me. It was just another part of the job. If you took a bump too hard, you often just looked down below and apologized to whomever you happened to disturb. "Sorry Earl Thompkins, I didn't mean to jump that grassy divot so hard, but it's difficult not being able to open these babies up to full throttle all day long. I'm sure you understand." The cemetery was actually quite innocent.
The bulk of our time we spent in the tool shed, where I monotonously adhered memorials to their marble stones. If it sounds boring, it was. You essentially screw in a long thread, attach memorial, then clip the excess off. Mark usually had worse jobs, many of which included digging various ditches. Occasionally we were given odd jobs that thankfully took up long hours, such as the time we painted parking places near the mausoleum cul-de-sac. It was during this time that we infamously busted out laughing at a particular amusing interview on Howard Stern (I believe it was Ringo Star, but I could be wrong). Our infantile and immature sense of humor usually seemed harmless, until we realized on that fateful day that a funeral was commencing only a few hundred feet from where our cackling hyena mouths were in full effect. If you think you know shame, you don't. Laughing while grieving bystanders can barely keep it together brings on a whole new onslaught of humiliation. I'm still not sure they ever heard us, but the threat was enough for me to start listening to all sports talk radio from that day forward.
On to the body.
It was a particularly humid day, that much I remember. Sweat seemed to form the minute you moved in any direction, even in the early morning hours, where the slightest sheen of dew glistened on the grass. My uncle strided up in his golf cart, an unusually odd expression on his face. His presence almost always meant a discussion on fashion dos and don'ts, as my uncle was nothing if not vain. He liked that we could offer him advice, as I'm quite sure it made him feel younger. But on this day, he didn't care about the necessity in matching your belt to your shoes. He needed to tell us what was happening in section eight.
"Look, guys. There's something going on today. It doesn't happen very often, and I wanted you to hear it from me first. If you're curious, it's okay if you watch while it's going on."
Watch what, exactly?
Curiosity peaked, he went on to explain.
Apparently, every so often, a body needs to be exhumed and transported. See, sometimes, loved ones move. When they do, they sometimes want the remains of the past taken with them. It's not terribly common, but it does happen. For example, perhaps you live in Chicago. You live there and your (God forbid) significant other passes away. Years later, you decide to move to North Dakota. In that case, you may want to bring the body of your deceased love with you.
Obviously, this is an expensive process and not done with high regularity. There are also health and logistical issues to deal with. But it is done.
In this exact case, I believe the body was being taken to Florida (as I recall). I'm not sure. What I can say for certain was that the body had been sitting in the moist soil of the Chicagoland suburbs for over twenty years, as I distinctly remember it having a deceased date in the 1970's.
Mark and I looked at each other, both unsure if this was something we wanted to witness. We didn't, but we quickly realized we needed to. This was a once in a lifetime moment that was too compelling to turn away. I remember having some apprehensions, especially ones revolving around God and spirits. I might have been a frat boy filled with buffoonery, but I also respected God and the delicate nature of death.
Nonetheless, I went.
We pulled up to section eight, where a flurry of activity was already taking place. Our co-worker, the eccentric and slightly creepy Ronald was halfway through digging the trench needed to reach the casket. Ronald was almost always in charge of the digging tractor that was used to construct perfect channels into the earth, and so being in charge of the reverse action came as no surprise.
Near him were several of our workers, openly staring at what was taking place in front of us. We positioned ourselves approximately twenty to thirty yards away, up on a small high ridge of grass which offered us a bird's eye-view of the proceedings.
Now, it should be noted that in my experience, cemetery workers are weird people. This probably isn't a shock, but it wholeheartedly remains true. They're just a little... off. A regular midday lunch essentially dropped you square in the middle of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, you never were sure who was going to lose a Walrus-man arm at any given moment.
I bring this up because the outside contractors hired to transport the body being exhumed were even odder, to say the least.
For one, they showed up in a standard white van. What was most interesting was their casual, consistently comical behavior. If I had any misgivings about how God would look at me for viewing this moment, they were lost the minute these two Statler and Waldorf morons arrived. They cracked jokes at every turn, which made the scene all the more bizarre, as they were doing this in what can only be described as E.T.-like government spacesuits.
Seriously, you remember the costumes the government agency workers wore near the end of E.T.? The ones that were almost metallic in nature, and seemingly designed to protect them from any alien viruses? That's what these guys wore, minus the helmets.
Next to them was a slim, shiny, silver box. It wasn't very large, and it took me more than a minute to decipher what it was.
Unbeknownst to me, when you transport a body, you don't take the actual crypt or casket. That would be insanely expensive.
No, you actually remove the body and place it into a moving box, as if were something easily moved, like a set of Ikea night stands or small collection of comic books.
After being treated like a T-shaped Tetris puzzle piece by Ronald, the casket/crypt was now on level ground. It sat there, covered in dirt. Even before the off-color wood was cracked open, the smell was obvious.
You may have never smelled a dead body before. I certainly hadn't. But make no mistake, you absolutely know what you're smelling. It is immediate. It is instant. And it is atrocious.
The opening of the casket began.
Now, remember, we are twenty yards away. All I can tell you is that the minute that casket opened and gave way to fresh oxygen, my head and nose instinctively swiveled to the side in horror. If the smell was bad before, it now became toxic. In my life, I have had to hold a hand to my face only a few times, but nothing compared to this. I remember almost throwing up.
Letting the melted soft tissue wash over me, I returned to see what lay inside.
To be honest, it looked like one of those dummy corpses you buy for Halloween. It didn't look real. The specifics were entirely interesting, only because it wasn't what I expected. There was no skeleton. Instead, in what can only be seen as a monumental achievement for embalming enthusiasts everywhere, most of the body remained intact. There were no eyes, and the skin wasn't exactly taught. But a body was there, no question. Wisps of hair quickly retreated with the touch of air, and the body had almost no weight to it.
One of the E.T. technicians got behind the body, near the shoulders, and attempted to remove it. Well, despite the deterioration and decidedly lack of weight, the body didn't exactly give.
I've had back problems my whole adult life. The cracking and popping that occurs after a long day playing baseball is plentiful. That was nothing compared to the echoing sound of cracks that emanated from the coffin as the tech tried once again to remove the body.
And that's when it happened.
Technician two came over to assist his Crispen Glover-esque buddy in removing the body. He grabbed the legs, while the other now enveloped his arms underneath the armpits and around the shoulders of the man who once roamed this earth.
Each with a side, they went for the removal.
And as they did, a moment that seared its image forever into my mind by sheer force occurred. There had been much I didn't expect to see that day, but nothing prepared my idyllic John Lennon-inspired brain for this.
The body ripped in half.
Right at the torso.
To be specific, it wasn't a complete tear. Probably about two-thirds.
Whatever shred of spine or skeleton remained kept the body somewhat together.
But not enough to shutter my eyes closed for fear of what would come next.
The tear was instant, like wet paper towels finally giving in to the pressure applied to them by mounting water. The one leg had flipped over, making the torn carcass obvious to all those around it.
The E.T. Techs made another poor joke, finally placing what remained of a man into the carrying case.
Ronald chuckled, almost giddy at what his life and profession had given him that day.
The E.T. techs departed, not entirely alone as the silver box resided just behind them in their van. People drove next to them on the highway, having no idea what was just a few feet from them.
Mark and I worked the rest of the day in silence.
Working at the cemetery wasn't so innocent anymore.
Kurt Edward Larson just published his first book, Finding the Super-Hero Within, which contains many chapters similar in tone to this one. Although it doesn't contain many of the stories he accumulated while working at his uncle's cemetery, it does have what many consider the possible death of his acting career.