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.
I don't mean to denigrate the impulse to sanctify corpses, but I do wonder at it. If you believe in immortality, as most people apparently do, why worry about an empty vessel that the soul or spirit leaves behind?
"We're Christians and we knew he was with God," another woman whose deceased relative was found on the crematorium grounds remarked. Still, she was unaccountably stricken by the failure to cremate his remains: "Nothing can prepare you for this. We are numb."
The "numbness" of the irreligious is equally irrational. If you believe that all life ends with death, than what's the difference between a rotting corpse and a rusting car? One stinks and the other doesn't.
One was once a human being and the other wasn't, you might add. That's why law -enforcement officers and workers involved in cleaning up the site of the Tri-State Crematory have been sickened by what they've seen and why their nausea seems appropriate. We'd question the empathy of anyone who could confront such awful sights and smells unflinchingly. So much fortitude in the face of so much death -- and so much disregard for the feelings of the living -- would be troubling. I'd rather lose my body or the body of a loved one to the junkyard than be charged with disposing of 300 rotting corpses.
My husband says that I should take him out with the trash when he croaks. My father, who died last month, a week before the gruesome discovery in Georgia, was indifferent to the disposal of his corpse. He cared deeply about the living and not at all about the bodies of the dead, his own included. My father would have been intrigued by the story of the Georgia crematorium. He would have found the dishonesty of the crematory owner and the anguish of his customers almost equally unfathomable. He would have appreciated the folly of it all.
Someday, the pile of bodies in Marsh's backyard will be fodder for satirists. For now, it's fueling proposals to increase oversight of the funeral industry, which is often unregulated. Recent press reports suggest that the horrors of the Tri-State Crematory may be distinguished only by their scale. Crematory and cemetery owners have been caught selling body parts, dumping corpses into mass graves, piling them up in the garage, and exhuming old bodies to make way for new ones.
But even this grim and earnest examination of the body-disposal business has its lighter side: "Corpse Dumping Unlikely in New Jersey," Bergen County's Record blithely proclaimed, inadvertently reminding us that it's still okay to laugh.