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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Long Day at the End of the World: Book Review

Brent Hendricks' story of desecration and revelation in the Appalachian South is a true account, and a pilgrimage, of the horrific discovery in 2002 of 339 decomposing bodies (only 226 of these were identified) at Tri-State Crematory, a place in rural Georgia where Hendricks' father had been sent for cremation.

Brent Marsh, owner of the crematorium had not cremated bodies for more than five years. Instead, he dumped the bodies where he could on his property and filled urns with concrete dust. Is anyone else thinking of Ian McEwan's Cement Garden? [insert chills here]

Long Day at the End of the World is less than 200 pages, but it is not an easy read. Though it certainly could be read in one setting, I found myself lingering on Hendricks' poetic comparisons, in which he uses Rilke poems, ghost flowers, Faulkner's End of Man address, Greek Mythology, the Book of Revelation, a shit fairy and alchemy to try and understand the largest mass desecration in American History. I don't think it's possible to read this book and not see the images Hendricks' words conjure like the fused bodies molded together among Christmas decorations in a shed behind the crematorium or the image of Brent Marsh's wedding, which took place on the Marsh lake where just a short distance away, lay the rotting corpses of those he dumped instead of cremating. This is beyond disturbing on so many levels. It's so sociopathic that I cannot even make a decent joke. Except for maybe this one. Was their wedding song Lynyrd Skynyrd's THAT SMELL? Just morbidly curious.

Marsh first claimed that the cremation oven or "retort" was broken but this proved false. (Clearly a false retort. Sorry, it had to be said.) It was indicated later that Marsh might have been a victim of mercury toxicity due to the faulty ventilation system at the crematorium. This means, it is suspected that Marsh became a hoarder of rotting corpses because he inhaled too many fumes from burnt dental fillings. Maybe these fumes affected the entire family and this is why they couldn't smell decomposing flesh during the wedding festivities? Clearly, it must have affected their sight as well. Okay, enough with the Marsh bashing. Back to the pilgrimage. 

It's obvious that Hendricks had a troubled relationship with his father and that throughout his journey to Noble, Georgia (Noble, really? Oh the irony) and the remains of the Tri-State Crematorium, he struggles for answers. He "measures the future by measuring the past." He continually reflects on the Oklahoma farm where his father lived so many years before it was flooded by the government to become Oologah Lake, a Cherokee word for dark cloud. In his dreams, the flooding becomes biblical like the Great Flood where he envisions his father living in this underwater world of bloated cows and sunken rooms. 
The 2011 movie,  Sahkanaga,  is based on the Tri-State tragedy. Written and directed by John Henry Summerour, the movie's cast consists of locals, many of which had a personal connection to the desecration. You can view details atwww.sahkanaga.com . The movie is on my list to review.

There is sadness, remorse, laughter and irony in A Long Day at the End of the World. It comes specifically in the stories Hendricks relays about his mother who one day announced that she wanted to exhume his father who had at the time been buried after an unexpected death in a cemetery in a north Georgia resort community. She wanted his body cremated and shipped to her in Santa Fe so they could be scattered over the mountains together when the time came. Against the family's wishes (Hendricks and his sister), the mother exhumed the body, which was then taken to Tri-State where it laid stagnant and rotting in a coffin for five years, unbeknownst to anyone but Brent Marsh. 

The mother assumed the box she had received in the mail was her husband and for many years, she talked to a "box of nothing." She often recounted the story of the custom-made cowboy boots he'd bought for $800. His name was carved into the sole. Initially, there had been a fight over the cost of the boots, Mr. Hendricks being newly retired at the time. That these boots obviously gave him some sort of identity was an understatement. Because he had originally been embalmed, Mr. Hendricks was not a candidate for the DNA tracing used to identify the remains found at Tri-State. But, thankfully, he was prepared. The $800 pair of cowboy boots that caused such a problem in his marriage were the only thing not completely deteriorated in the coffin that was tossed on the Marsh's land, and because of this, Mr. Hendricks reclaimed his identity.

I will not forget these images. I will not forget this story. I will buy a pair of cowboy boots and carve my name in the sole. 

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