In this slim debut memoir, the Southern Gothic tradition enters even darker territory, as poet Brent Hendricks investigates the “largest mass desecration in modern American history.” Far from a straightforward journalistic treatment, however, Hendricks’s book is deeply personal: His father’s body was one of the desecrated, and possibly one of the first in this series of “blackly fantastic” events.
In 1997, Hendricks’s mother chose to disinter her late husband in order to cremate him and have his ashes spread alongside hers when she died. But five years later, mother and son received shocking news from rural Georgia: Officials had found more than 300 decaying bodies on the grounds of Tri-State Crematory, and Hendricks’s father was likely to be among them. Leaving his home at the time, the author traveled across the country on a pilgrimage to unearth the truth, grappling with his complicated father-son relationship in the process.
The author interweaves the chronicle of his journey with memories of his family, as well as ruminations on other historical tragedies in the South.
While there was no doubt that the crematory’s owner, Brent Marsh, committed heinous acts — he “acted with premeditation in his meticulous development and deployment of fake cremains, and, quite clearly and inexcusably, he exhibited a real cold-bloodedness in his disregard of hundreds of bodies” — no plausible explanation for his actions arrived, not even after he was convicted of, among other charges, 122 counts of burial fraud and 179 counts of abuse of a dead body.
Though he had never formed a significant bond with his father, Hendricks’s emotions are palpable on the page, often expressed poetically in primal terms: “A howl and then a moan and then a wail. Not a grief-stricken letting-go — not a release born from love — but a voice that tore out of me like an animal . . . Like a thing that was not me.”
Recalling previous descriptions of his complex relationship with his father, Hendricks notes that his lack of spirituality put a limit on his reactions and emotions: “A body was just a body was just a body. . . . It was a conviction that entitled me to a limited reaction to the desecration — perhaps confusion, anger, and some feeling of violation, but not much more. Within the confines of my unadorned belief system, there just didn’t seem to be room for a greater disturbance.”
As in many chronicles of travels in the South, local color and a specific place’s ties to the historical events that took place there are paramount. Hendricks’s South is rife with echoes of racism, not only in the case of plantation slavery but also in the much earlier expeditions of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who swept across the South in the mid-1500s, decimating the native Indian populations. Hendricks draws connections between de Soto’s travels and his own journey, evoking the seemingly incomprehensible horror of his discovery. The transitions between the author’s historical lessons and modern journey aren’t always smooth — and Hendricks occasionally shoehorns in other historical and literary allusions that detract from the de Soto comparisons — but the emotional power is effective.
In fact, much of the narrative derives its resonance from the accumulated emotion and haunting imagery that the author builds throughout, reflected in the lingering notes of racism and other ills plaguing the South for generations. “We had no guidelines for such strangeness, no cultural markers for dealing with my father’s second death,” he writes. “It was a disorienting time, in which we all had to construct a new way to mourn.”
Ultimately, we’re not sure whether Hendricks has finally figured out how to mourn such baffling and soul-trying events, but it’s clear that his journey has at least steered him closer to some kind of satisfying closure.