Years ago, I worked at a crematorium. We contracted out the use of our crematory to a busy funeral home in town that didn’t have their own. Their busy-ness meant that some bodies sat around longer than others. Much longer.
Sometimes I’d peek inside the pine boxes before sliding them into the fryer. The boxes’ insides stank in a way that interrupted rational thought for hours.
The reason I mention it is that it is of the class of truth that most interests me. The truth of witness, of being trapped inside a moment and being unable to impose yourself out of it via rationality.
The painful air, the heat of the oven, the discoloration of the whole world turning their in the flames. They all sort of spoke in tongues, made you delirious.
If you ever feel yourself falling in love with the creation of God, just take a look at two flies screwing. Okay, fine, making love. However you want to put it.
A fly’s life is entirely filth. He and all nature’s other decomposers are there to remove out of sight what you can’t bear to look at. They’re a lot like funeral directors, in that way.
A pair of flies started screwing/making love right in front of me while I sat on my porch today. If roosters tear feathers and female mantises bite off heads, I can only imagine what flies do when they reach coitus.
Imagine working this picture into someone’s Sunday school coloring book. Noah’s boat full of smiling animals (drowned pagans redacted), followed by Joseph and his colorful coat (murderous family redacted), and then two of God’s glorious, winged creatures in papery caress, proboscis erect, giant eyes bulging.
The funeral director who taught me how to cremate had embalmed her own mother. She mentioned it multiple times, unbidden, and seemed to be trying not to regret it.
“You want something done right, you do it your goddamn self,” she told me.
Back when I worked there I had a lot of pretty ideas for how death and grieving should or could work. I’ve met a lot of other similarly romantic people, some who are against cremation or even embalming because it’s a desecration of the body or of nature. I used to muse about what would happen at the resurrection, as the bones and box ash and blood iron chunked away in the bone grinder, how God might pull it all together. I decided then that cremation would be a bad idea.
But why, exactly? Wasn’t I just fast-tracking the process that nature herself was more than happy to do, slowly, as if she were savoring every morsel?
We once picked up the body of a man who died inside his car of a heart attack in the heat of summer. Also one so stiff and twisted that we had to work his limbs around like pipe cleaners to get him in the bag.
I can tell you from my limited experience that nature needs no particular assistance in the desecration of a dead body. Dead is dead. Open up the box, take a whiff.
For every beautiful and singing creature that you want to praise God for, there’s another that’s being eaten by a malignant bacteria. And I’m not just talking birds here either.
That’s why there’s a problem of pleasure just as much as there is a problem of pain. The problem of pleasure is that some things are so beautiful that they make you believe that experience can really feel like that, though it rarely does. It gives you hope, and hope is the beginning of a rare sort of torture.
The important thing to remember about the glory of maggots and flies is that it protects us from having to confront too quickly the ugliness of nature. Well, I should be fair here and mention the carcass-eaters higher up the chain, but to be honest I don’t understand the ecology of death that thoroughly.
What I do know is that some of the most nauseating things about the world have been the least acknowledged in the neighborhoods I’ve occupied, the churches and classrooms I’ve sat for hours in.
Still life eventually has you peek into that pine box, ready or not, so you may as well open the box yourself.