Magazine article The American Prospect

Ashes to Concrete. (on the Contrary)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Ashes to Concrete. (on the Contrary)

Article excerpt

PASTOR CHARLES CORNWELL OF CENTER POINT Baptist Church in Noble, Georgia, attributes the macabre dereliction of duty by local crematorium operator Ray Brent Marsh to sin: "Sin blinds us and sin makes us do dumb things." Neglecting to cremate more than 300 corpses and leaving them to rot in your backyard surely is a dumb thing, but I might attribute it to more mundane failings than sin.

Maybe Marsh is just an incorrigible procrastinator, with no good excuses and a streak of dishonesty. His sins--chronic lateness, an inability to meet deadlines, and a tendency to lie--are shared by a large segment of the workforce. Think about building contractors who never, ever get their jobs in on time or abandon them unfinished, auto mechanics who charge for repairs that they didn't perform, or doctors who don't get around to checking their patients' lab reports. Think about students who put off writing their papers until it's time to buy them on the Internet. You might say that the decomposing bodies at Marsh's dysfunctional crematorium present us with a cautionary tale about letting your work pile up.

Of course, it takes more (or less) than a lack of pride in your work to tolerate piles of corpses. It takes extraordinary callousness, not just toward the people who trusted you with the bodies of their loved ones but also toward death itself. The betrayal of trust and the disrespect of grief are despicable--in that betrayal lies sin--but the lack of sentiment about dead bodies doesn't reflect a moral lapse so much as a sentimental one. We're unsettled by the cool rationalism that treats a corpse like landfill instead of like a holy relic.

We fetishize bodies and praise ourselves for doing so. We tell ourselves that the rituals by which we preserve or destroy corpses reflect moral seriousness, the strength to acknowledge death and integrate it into our lives, and respect for the deceased. We presume that the failure to value a dead body implies a failure to value the person who once enlivened it.

"I can only think of my mom, of her lying out in the wind and cold, tossed into the ditch like an old shoe," one woman poignantly lamented. "I feel somehow I have let her down. I loved my mom. She was an old lady and I wanted her death to, be dignified."

"That's not your mom in the ditch," I want to remind her. "She's well beyond indignity. The manner in which her body is treated after death has nothing to do with the manner in which she died."

But if the daughter's response to the discovery of her mother's corpse is sentimental, my response to her lament is naive. Rationalism has little power over grief. …

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