Sure, I have something else I’d like to talk about too, but yes, the book is called A Long Day at the End of the World, and it’s a personal narrative about the Tri-State Crematory Incident. It’s a very gothic Southern story. In 2002, it was discovered that a crematory operator in rural North Georgia had failed to cremate hundreds of bodies over a five year period. He’d sent the families fake cremains, composed primarily of concrete dust, to cover his crime, and he’d left the rotting corpses strewn all over the crematory grounds. Most of the bodies he’d dumped into eight mass burial pits, which were then covered with trash and, in one instance, an old pool table. As it turns out, my father’s body was one of the first bodies abandoned at the site, in 1997.
Yeah, messed up. So the book is about, among other things, a pilgrimage I took to the crematory site, and the true crime of the mass desecration itself. But I really wanted to talk about the last half of that title, the End of the World part.
Okay, well, maybe we can get to that…
See, as I was driving along on my road-trip pilgrimage from Tuscaloosa to that backwoods crematory site in North Georgia, I started to have this apocalyptic feeling- which is a feeling I’ve had many times before, being somewhat obsessed with the idea of the End Times- but on this occasion I started to feel like I was riding inside apocalypse, you know what I mean?
Umm, actually no, but you mentioned a number of burial pits…
Well, it was very weird, a very physical event. It was as if time sped up as I rode there- inside apocalypse- which is itself a phenomenon described by Giorgio Agamben in teasing out Saint Paul’s typological synthesis of the Old and New Testaments. It was Paul who said, in 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31, “But this I say brethren, time contracted itself . . . For passing away is the figure of this world” (Agamben’s translation). So what I felt was the contraction of time as I rode to the crematory site.
The contraction of time?
Time collapse—time contraction, crunch time—whatever. Paul thought the Second Coming might happen any day. See, according to Paul, as the world approaches an end-point—and I think it’s hard to say in our day that we are not approaching some tipping point of great change, living as we are at the onset of the Anthropocene—time symbolically speeds up and hurtles forward. Agamben describes the felt experience by way of a well known trope: It’s like lying on your death bed, and having your whole life hurtle by.
So your life speeds up?
The symbology of history speeds up. For me, it applies both to personal and cultural history. The significant signs of the past keep accelerating into the present, piling up like a train wreck.
But I don’t see how that has anything to do with…
Exactly! It just happened. Probably it was triggered by the idea of pilgrimage and by the image of all those bodies left decaying and abandoned in the woods, a picture right out of the Tribulation.
And maybe Hernando de Soto, too. I’m thinking he had something to do with it.
Who? You mean the conquistador?
Because I was taking this trip, I’d done a lot of research on Hernando de Soto’s devastating and cataclysmic march through the South in the 16th century. He dragged his army all over the place, marauding and enslaving, lopping off noses and ears, ultimately killing thousands of natives- and he left an indelible mark on the region that really was apocalyptic. The cultural and natural landscape of the South was forever changed by his expedition. I have a lot about de Soto in the book, too. So maybe that history contributed to my apocalyptic imaginings, as I traveled the same land that he traveled through.
That’s interesting, I guess, but how did you father’s body end up at Tri-State?
And that’s another thing, right! I had always thought of his exhumation as a Lazarus type event. You know, the four-day-dead body coming forth from the cave. (Crazy side-story: my mother had my father’s body exhumed after seven years, mostly because she’s afraid of worms and didn’t want to be buried herself, and so it was his exhumed body that ended up at Tri-State, not his freshly dead body.)
But on the trip, get this, I suddenly realize that it’s more like a Rapture type thing. In my father’s particular rapturous example, however, his body only gets resurrected a little ways in the air, fizzles out, and ends up getting dumped at the Tri-State Crematory instead of ascending to heaven. Perfect, huh? The apocalypse angle just kept coming up on the trip . . . like a revelation.
Like a revelation?
Well, apocalypse does mean “revelation” in Greek; it means unveiling. So my apocalyptic inclinations, my A-Gene congenital makeup if you will, in combination with all that other stuff I’ve mentioned above, acted to produce a kind of revelation when I finally reached the crematory site. And the revelation was a felt experience of my father, a time contraction, a symbolic acceleration that made the impossible tangibly possible. A second coming.
Second Coming, uh huh—well on that note, I think we’re about out of time… I really had hoped we could talk more about the book.
Oh, I think we did talk about the book. Quite a lot, actually. And what do you mean by “out of time”- you mean like time contraction “out of time”? Like End of the World “out of time”? Because, and I’d like to go on record about this, I don’t think we’re there yet, not yet. I mean not today.
Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?
Thanks, I am sitting down—that’s a funny one. And I feel fine really. Better. Pretty good.
BRENT HENDRICKS is the author of a book of poems, Thaumatrope, and his work has been published in such places as Poetry, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, The Southern Review, and BOMB magazine. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. His memoir, A Long Day at the End of the World, is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Visit his website at http://www.brenthendricks.com