“A Long Day at the End of the World”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$14, 194 pgs.
Brent Hendricks reads and signs “A Long Day at the End of the World,” 7 p.m. April 2 at the Jimmy Carter Library, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. Presented by A Cappella Books. 404-681-5128, www.acappellabooks.com.
I first learned about the Tri-State Crematory when I glanced up at the television to see emergency workers in north Georgia rummaging through the thick brush surrounding a rural area. At the time — February 2002 — I was living in Portland, Ore., and I distinctly remember a helicopter on-screen, beating overhead, filming the workers from above at night, the spotlight causing their green jackets to flicker on and off against dark trees. Apparently, the workers had uncovered a few dozen decomposed corpses sprawled about the crematory grounds. The news report explained there would be more bodies to come.
Eventually — after a series of gothic events, blackly fantastic — the full extent of the desecration was revealed. In all, authorities recovered 339 decomposing bodies, making the Tri-State Crematory incident the largest mass desecration in modern American history.
And the details of the incident were gruesome, to say the least. More than 30 of the bodies were discovered in the main crematory building and two storage sheds, either lying on the floor or piled high in metal vaults. The remaining 300-plus bodies were distributed throughout the dense brush and woods of the crematory grounds. Of this larger group, the majority were dumped into eight burial pits of varying depth, which were then covered with dirt, trash, and, in one instance, an old pool table. Body parts were found sticking out of the pits, like grisly plantings in a neglected garden.
The skeletal remains of other bodies were strewn haphazardly through the brush on cardboard and plywood burn pallets. Still others were discovered in discarded body bags beneath the pines. Finally, a small group still lay in their caskets, and the rats had found their way into those enclosures, shuffling the bones.
My father’s bones were among those found at Tri-State, where he lay abandoned for five years.
2. A modern-day Lazarus
On the third day of the Tri-State Crematory incident — as the reports told of more bodies piled up in pits, more bodies scattered in the brush, possibly many more locked in metal vaults beneath a lake — I knew only that my father’s corpse had been sent to a crematory in the area five years before.
On the far end of the phone I heard the same news account blare back at me from my mother’s den in Santa Fe, the same helicopter hovering above. She didn’t know if the body had been sent to Tri-State. But from her tone I could tell she felt particularly anxious about the potential bad news, though not only because her husband’s corpse might be involved. There was more. Her anxiety arose from an event that occurred five years before Tri-State, which began with a phone call saying she was going to “dig Daddy up.”
Such an odd phrase, heavy and hard. But at the time I immediately understood it — her burial phobia had gotten the best of her. In her haste and disorientation at my father’s abrupt death, my mother had purchased two plots in the small cemetery of their north Georgia resort community.
For seven years it appeared she had subsumed her long-standing fear of being buried, of “sleeping with worms,” as she often said. Suddenly, however, in 1997, she announced she wanted to exhume my father, have him cremated and then shipped out to New Mexico, where she now lived. That way, she calmly stated, she could avoid the worms and have my father nearby. And when she died she would also be cremated, their ashes scattered together over the New Mexico mountains.
Did we — my sister and I — want to come to his exhumation party?
My sister, Kim, who lived in Houston, and I were stunned. We all knew my mother was eccentric, but all this talk about Daddy’s party was a bit alarming. Yet after a flurry of conversations and emails we decided it was all my mother’s show. If she wanted to go through with this bizarre idea, it was really her right to do so. We would not try to dissuade her, though we did not want to participate either. So it was that my father reentered this plane as a modern-day Lazarus, torn from the earth by a backhoe.
For my mother, this unburying proved helpful. She placed [what she believed to be his cremated] remains in a black box that she kept in a special nook for family memorabilia. Now she was freed from her fate of worms and at the same time felt less alone in the world. In fact, she talked to the box throughout the day — sad though it may be — and her interaction with him was somehow therapeutic.
So when my mother spoke to me on that day in February 2002 — before we knew that my father’s body had been sent to the Tri-State Crematory — there was an edge to her voice. My God, had she dug up her husband for a psychological reason, to assuage her own burial phobia, only to facilitate his arrival at Tri-State? Had he been lying for five years in the woods, in a deep pit, in a stuffed vault sunk beneath that awful lake? Had she made some terrible mistake?
The first step, of course, was to find out whether my father had actually been sent to the Tri-State hell camp. In the meantime, “honor thy mother” must have been ingrained in my brain because I didn’t mention anything about the exhumation during our conversation. And, as she later explained, she got off the phone and didn’t say a word to that black box — the one she’d talked to for five years — the box now filled with God knows what and God knows who.
3. 12 years earlier, a father falls ill
My mother rang the West Coast and said I needed to get back to Atlanta fast — he might not last the weekend.
From 30,000 miles up I watched the land turn from brown to green, worrying obsessively that he might not recognize me.
Outside the door was one world: a place I knew — the hospital where I’d come with my cracked wrist after falling drunk from a moving car in 10th grade and where I’d received a few stitches for a knife wound to a finger sustained by my own hand, the other hand, while doing a stupid “Huckleberry Finn” diorama in 11th grade.
Inside there was another world: the place where I’d see my father for the last time. When I’d left a few weeks before, he still looked pretty good — a too-thin man on the verge, a goner — but he was still Ron Hendricks; he was still my father. Now his body was not his body — not my father — but a shriveled-up thing on white sheets, his bones curled like a child’s. In that quicker light only his face looked familiar, stretched and smeared across a gray skull with blotches.
Without opening his eyes, he somehow found my hand and held on to it.
“Brent,” he whispered in a far-off voice.
“I’m here,” I said.
I waited as he cleared layers of sediment from his throat.
“You’ve been a good boy.” Then he let go of my hand and curled up tighter, falling back into his death dream.
After my mother and sister went home to rest, I looked out from the fourth floor at the highway’s edge — the same highway, 400, where I’d sat in the backseat of a drag-racing Dodge Charger as it flew across the empty pavement at 120 mph — the lanes now stacked with rush-hour traffic creeping north.
He was only 59: a skeleton and not a man. And though I knew it was self-centered, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d look like him when I died — when I died too young.
Now his breathing seemed a little worse but it didn’t matter. A levee of morphine held back the pain. All life support had been taken off so it was up to him — up to his heart and maybe his brain. Maybe Jesus. My father, it seemed, had gotten a touch of religion over these last few years: not much, not the churchgoing kind, but he’d started reading Scripture again and talking about it. Every now and then I’d see his arm twitch, his legs move a little. He made no sounds except for the breathing.
If I said goodbye, I don’t remember. We thought we still had a couple days to go. So when some friends took over the night shift, I got on that highway and tried to forget — crawling past my old exit, Northridge Road, past the lights of my school, Crestwood High School, past the dead ends lying out there in the clustered bands of suburban and now exurban development, until the traffic finally broke and I revved along back roads to my parents’ new house in Big Canoe.
At the five-bedroom cabin, a house built on stilts, we communicated like people do in these situations — mostly gestures and eyes — and after a while I poured another glass of my father’s top-shelf Evan Williams whiskey and stepped out onto the back porch.
It was glorious out there: In daylight you could see all the way to North Carolina and Tennessee; you could see the water plummet over Amicalola Falls 20 miles away. Turkey vultures zoomed by at eye level. Bears rustled through mountain laurel below. And now at night it was an impossible firmament of stars in which the Milky Way, in its particular brightness, looked very much like the real road to heaven. When we got the call, however, I left that scene and marched straight through the front door and started screaming. A howl and then a moan and then a wail. Not a grief-stricken letting-go — not a release born from love — but a voice that tore out of me like an animal. Like a body. Like a thing that was not me, vanishing where it rose into the dry trees.
4. Scene of the crime
The body of Hendricks’ father was discovered in a coffin in the woods behind the main crematory building. He was still wearing his custom-made cowboy boots with his name written on one heel. In May 2007, five years after the scandal first broke, Hendricks still had not found closure to the ordeal, so he decided to drive from his then-home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to the crematory grounds. For the journey, he took with him his father’s military burial flag in a wooden case, a copy of the “Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States” and a photograph from the Internet of the Tri-State Crematory grounds after the bodies had been removed and the land plowed over.
Human beings are funny things. We go on small pilgrimages without knowing we are on them. We roam around in our daily lives and wish for something significant or special to happen. And then occasionally we embark on big pilgrimages that project an end point — a point that might be religious or spiritual, or in my case a razed and abandoned field in the north Georgia mountains.
But we need a lot of luck and we need to follow the signs. And so it was that during those first days of Tri-State I had made my arrangements. I’d sown the idea of my father, animated and engaged, rising from the unhappy earth. From the beginning, and perhaps hidden from view for his own protection, I’d endowed my father with the power of becoming — a thing that might bloom beautifully into himself. He was just the kind of ghost flower that might appear somewhere along my road.
Already I was looking for him as I passed by Taco Bell, Holiday Inn and KFC, Papa John’s and Wendy’s and AutoZone, Ruby Tuesday and CVS and Kmart and Walmart. In general I knew this was not the best habitat for real wildflowers, even of the disturbed variety, but maybe ghost flowers appeared anywhere.
I didn’t think about what I’d planned as I drove the last hour. Instead, driving over Lookout Mountain into the last valley of the Tri-State Crematory, where my father once lounged in his casket of mud, I left a tape recorder switched on next to the flag case reflecting bright angles in the late afternoon light. And soon I was just talking — talking to my recorder and then talking to air, talking to the South outside my window that really was not the South anymore.
When I turned onto Center Point Road and passed the Center Point Baptist Church, the voice simply said I was there.
Through what I guessed was Brent Marsh’s backyard, I glimpsed a black lake that quickly disappeared into leaves. A few hundred feet ahead lay the long crematory driveway. I snapped off my recorder and pulled over.
Already the sun had fallen below the ridge to the west and I heard the distinct hiss of a mockingbird in a tree. I felt the dirt and rocks through the thin soles of my boots and smelled a strong sweetness all around. To the south stretched the field [from my photograph]. A fence hedge of honeysuckle, its white flowers overflowing above my head, forced me to step to the field’s edge for a better view — led me to the exact position where the photographer of my ancient picture had once stood. Nearby a Southern dog wailed wildly in the woods. A clattering truck rolled by too slowly.
The field I stared at now was mostly high grass, Bluestem, I thought, with the two larger trees looming in the center. Gone were the tread marks of the bulldozer, the etched dirt that looked as scarred as the moon. Gone were the black-eyed Susan, Venus’s looking glass and Sweet Everlasting — those first flowers. Gone were the bodies locked in the earth or rotting on the ground. Gone were the bones except the shards of bones. Gone was my father’s body stretched out in his coffin.
For a long time I waited in a low wind, listening to birds.
And once more I didn’t think about what I’d expected to think after all those years. I didn’t think about my father, about Brent Marsh practicing his dark magic, about the bodies accumulating in woods, vaults and pits. In the last light of this particular day, my pilgrimage day, I had the weird idea that the whole place would burst into flowers — the whole expanse of my photograph would fill with leaf buds of every kind, every species from my field guide leaping from the page and blossoming in the half dark. Not fleabane and chickweed and thistle but a rush beyond saying, names beyond naming. They’d bloom and press and tangle inside the four corners of my vision — flowers for the dead and the bones of the dead, flowers for the living, flowers for time piling up on itself. And when that didn’t happen — when the flowers didn’t rise and fall back to earth — I guessed I was done. I guessed my journey was over.
I had to turn the car around, so I followed the dirt road to the left and arrived at what must have been the Marsh family church. There, in the bad light of the tiny graveyard, I could still make out the name of Brent Marsh’s father on a headstone, planted only a quarter of a mile from where my own father had waited above ground in his boots. Again I passed the dark field fallen back to grasses. No moon. I clicked a photograph out my window and drove the short distance to the main road.
It was an undivided four-lane that led to Chattanooga, not much traffic, and I pointed the car northward and pulled to the side. It was finished, I thought. My father had not returned. And then suddenly I was crying and he was there in the car next to me, a shape, a presence, and I could feel him again as I had felt him as a young child. He was a vision — sprung from that flag case and from history, from the End and from the road. That’s all I can say for sure.
He was there for a while and I could feel him, real as a crush of flowers. He was close by and then he was gone.
5. Rest in peace
A host of angels crowded at the base of the arched monument. They looked ceramic, or maybe plastic, although I was too afraid to touch them to make sure. One clasped her upraised palms together, and her blue dress appeared homemade, like a doll’s dress with tiny beads. Another was painted and her hands were outstretched, deep folds flowing through her windblown blonde hair and gown. A third angel, which looked suspiciously like a red Christmas tree ornament, played a dirty violin.
At first glance only the open greenness on all sides suggested that the granite monument marked something other than a single grave site. Sandblasted Gothic letters told the rest of the story.
Garden of Peace
This section of Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park is dedicated to those loved ones who were discovered at Tri-State Crematory on Feb. 15, 2002 and laid to rest in March 2004. May they and their families have everlasting peace and consolation.
On the hillside of the large cemetery, roses and lilies lay bunched and scattered beneath headstones. Carnations and gladiolus glowed upon the graves. And below I could see the unknown dead huddled in the depths where everything was black, including the iron-red dirt. I could see the bodies lined up in a row, bones shifting only occasionally with the tectonic rumblings of the Ridge and Valley.
I sat down on the grass and pulled at the dirt.
I knew I’d never come here again.
And I wanted to give these dead a few roadside flowers as a final offering, a pretty link to their last entry in the historical record. But I’d come empty-handed. Instead I fumbled in my back pocket for a frayed map of Georgia and laid it next to the red angel. Now if Jesus happened to summon these unclaimed dead on a fateful day — blowing the doors off their matching vaults — they’d know the name of the ground they rose from. And if he didn’t, well, at least someone had told them they were still in Georgia, resting on a big hill called Missionary Ridge.
How we got the story
When Brent Hendricks’ book came across my desk, I was attracted to the elegiac cover design. When I discovered it was about the Tri-State Crematory scandal, my interest grew. But when I read Hendricks’ gorgeous prose, I was floored. In addition to telling you stories about extraordinary people, the AJC is dedicated to telling readers about exceptional books by Southern writers. It is a happy coincidence when we can do both at the same time like we do with this exclusive excerpt from “A Long Day at the End of the World” in this week’s Personal Journey.
About the author
Brent Hendricks is the author of a book of poems, “Thaumatrope” (Action Books 2007), and his work has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Conjunctions, The Southern Review and Bomb Magazine. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Next week: The mavericks of the 1963 Georgia Senate altered history.