Tom and I were watching the news on TV the other night. A cemetery somewhere had been opening old graves and moving bones to a communal pit so they could resell the plots. A woman whose grandfather’s grassy space now held Someone Who Is Not Grandpa was furious, screaming and crying. Turns out she wasn’t close to the old guy, in fact, had never even met him, but she hollered on and on about the indignity he had suffered and that his holy resting place had been desecrated. I said something to Tom like, “The con the cemetery pulled is awful, selling the same thing to two – or even more – sad and grieving people, but I just don’t see the desecration bit. I mean, the guy’s dead. Even if you believe in a spirit, that’s not there either. What difference does it make?” Tom said quickly, “A lot of difference.” He won’t say when I ask him (since he’s pretty sure he’s never going to die), but I’m guessing he isn’t going to opt for cremation. We see death, each of us, from a different hilltop.
When Dad died, I went to the mortuary and signed for what was left of him after the cremation: a cardboard box, both larger and heavier than I expected, wrapped in sturdy paper and sealed with strong tape, far too large, we discovered, to be shoved out the stingy window opening of a private plane. Remember when you opened the package to divide it into smaller containers and spilled some of Dad on the tarmac? You scooped it up with your hands and told me later it felt like grit from a shell beach, sharp shards and little kernels of baked bone, not like ash at all. You’ve decided that’s where you’re going too, into the oven, then a box, to be emptied at Lake Powell without fanfare later this summer. Fine choice, you loved the place. I’ll raise a glass from over here on the west edge when they crack the tape.
There’s an artist named Sally Mann (no relation to us, sad to say), a famous photographer from rural Virginia. One of her exhibits, now a book, is ”What Remains” (photoeye link), a collection of photographs of dead things, whole and in parts. It is fascinating, haunting, beautiful work. When asked if she has plans for her own dead body, she said she didn’t care what happens to it, “just leave it out in the woods and let the little foxes get at it.” That would work for me – drop me outside the snake wall for the coyotes and crows to make short work of and save the $250 for the baked gristle and osseous chunks in the cardboard box. Leave my decomposing old carbon as fertilizer for the Sally Holmes roses. Clip a silver curl off my head, tie it with a turquoise ribbon and put it in the envelope of my baby hair that our mother, in a rare sentimental moment, saved.
None of us from California will be at your official ash-scattering in Utah. Maybe some of your grit will make its way downstream to the mother ocean where single-celled floating bumper cars first waved antennae at each other. Dad’s bits are out there and Marge’s; maybe some of yours will be nearby someday. That would be nice.
You’re going to think this is really strange, but I wish they would give me a bone or two before the rest of you goes into the flames, maybe three or four of those odd bones from one of your wrists. All cleaned and sun-bleached as a desert cow skull, they would sit in my palm like chalky pebbles, clicking softly to each other. But I’m not asking; everybody thinks I’m weird enough and, besides, they’d say no.
All irreverence aside, I wish I were an elephant. Here’s how the story would end if I were a relative of Horton and we lived in Botswana:
You die. Your body rests outside for months in the sun and wind and rain, and the meaty bits feed other creatures (who die and feed other creatures) until only bones remain, your outline on the ground with little grasses pushing up around it: those long femurs, the skull that held your big brain with a triangular jack-o-lantern hole for your big nose (couldn’t resist one last time), your musician’s hands: two thumbs and eight fingers, three long, thin bones each except that right middle finger missing its end (crushed to pulp and cut away years ago though it never slowed down your finger-picking) – your jaw, the spine of your neck, all the cancer cells gone with the feasted flesh, vanquished, irrelevant. And here comes your sister, the old matriarch of the local pachyderm family who throws her weight around when she needs to, plodding slowly, purposefully, to the skeleton of Craig. She has dozens of scars from thorns and fierce battles on her legs and sides, white jagged lines like lightning. Her skin is cross-hatched with wrinkles, it sags below her ears and above her elbows. Dust collects in the folds.
She waves her trunk over the bone pile, sniffing the air, smelling for you. Lowering that big head, she touches your stitched skull, rubs it, and then the birdy shoulder blade, the long arm bones. She pauses, then picks up a vertebra from the curved line and holds it for a moment, shifting her weight from right to left, swaying with the bone in her trunk, her eyes closed. She puts it back – exactly where it was – and picks up another circle of backbone, puts it back, then another and another, all the while quietly rumbling something that might almost be a song. Her head moves from side to side and then stops. She stands finally still and heavy, a mountain of a sister, humming good boy, good boy, goodbye.
I love you more than all the shooting stars.
Your big sister,
Posted in: human beans, letters to craig, my baby brother
Tags: baby curls, bone piles, brothers and sisters, cancer, candace mann, craig, craig mann, cremation, dead bodies, dying, dying young, elephants, no better brother, photographs, sally mann, what remains
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