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Disturbing the Dead

Brent Hendricks went on a daytrip to reflect on the horror of what happened to his father, post-mortem



So what can you get if you confront a Harvard Law graduate-turned poet with the real-life desecration of his father's dead body? Material, lord knows. Boatloads of material for writing. In the case of this memoir, you get an unflinchingly interrogated, mythic, epic, biblical and fantastic boatload of material.

In 2002, the family of Brent Hendricks was one of 339 to learn that the bodies of family members sent to a crematorium in Noble, Ga., had in fact not been cremated, but left scattered around its grounds. Over a period of five years, bodies had been put to stew in vaults, pitched into pits, chucked one over another (until they decomposed into a single mass) on the floors of buildings, left with trash to be scavenged by animals and lapped by lake waters where the crematorium owner celebrated his wedding.

Unspeakable. The three members of Hendricks' family reacted differently to the news of his father's treatment. His sister took a dark-comedic approach: Dead is dead and she, herself, wouldn't mind decomposing in the woods somewhere. His mother was mortified: She was phobic about worms and burial and had actually exhumed her husband's body for cremation to avoid them. And Hendricks, who'd had a rocky relationship with his father ... well, chose to try to experience his father's death with him. And then there's this book.

Brent Hendricks, a University of Arizona graduate who now lives in Tucson, frames this expansive, speculative memoir by describing a single day's drive through rural Alabama and Georgia to the by-then-razed grounds of the Tri-State Crematory.

Out of that day trip explode riffs and musings on themes as varied as disturbed-area flowers, the South, Spanish exploration, the effects of materialism and consumerism, seismic movement, racism, end times, beer label symbolism, land and species destruction, the nature of Shit Fairy luck, and the apocalypse. There's a lot of apocalypse. Promoted as "a story of desecration and revelation in the Deep South," A Long Day at the End of the World chronicles Hendricks's search for understanding—of the crematory event itself; of what it says about American culture; about what it could reveal about himself and his relationship with his father.

With that in mind, Hendricks sees significance throughout. His father, born into poverty during the Depression, lived on a farm that the Army Corps of Engineers would eventually flood to build a dam. As a child, that "flood" had already assumed biblical proportions to Hendricks; it's a natural step to incorporate it into his father's narrative. He was hired by prestigious IMB and attained monetary success. He then challenged his ambitions through his smart, athletic son, who unfortunately came to resent the efforts.

But Ronald Hendricks died prematurely. He was buried but exhumed; brought back a bit like Lazarus. But unlike Lazarus, or Polynices, or Hector, he ends up in some unconsecrated space, face to the sky, with no Jesus, Antigone or Achilles to show mercy and release his soul.

As he drives, Hendricks thinks about the Old South and his adolescence in the Atlanta suburbs, the evolving South; he takes shots at vestiges of the area unreformed—the stranglehold of fundamentalist Protestantism, particularly Southern Baptist, created to secure slavery; the continuing celebration of the Confederacy, in which he suspects that the white guys he passes cavorting in trailers surrounded by Confederate flags would not welcome the questions of a Saab-driving Yankee with his father's memorial American flag buckled into the passenger seat.

Most of all, with increasing speed and intensity as he approaches the crematorium, Hendricks evokes the apocalypse. To some degree he enters his apocalypse. Through the prism of a secularist's imaginative thinking, he focuses on devastation wrought by humans—Hernando de Soto's 16th-century pillaging of the region in search of gold; Americans' genocide of native peoples; the institution of slavery; the destruction of species; consumerism and materialism; the franchise-ation of America; and the fundamentally unnatural desecration of human bodies at the Tri-State Crematory—as manifestations of a kind of "tribulation" in an apocalyptic scenario.

Fear not. You won't find Brent Hendricks actually attempting to persuade you that these are the "end times" (unless you're in a bar with him) or trying to rope you into a Rapture wait. What he gives us is a window into his unique vision of human responsibility; a spiritual journey; and an attempt to render into manageable, relatable, metaphoric terms personal experience that does, in the end, grant grace.

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