Monday, June 7, 2010

Death and Burger King Fries

Back in 2006, I was photographing in some Baltimore cemeteries with my good friend John. John has been involved with cemeteries long before he began photographing them. In fact, I have him to thank for telling me about this statue of the little girl in the rocker that I subsequently photographed in a Washington D.C. cemetery. Creepy, huh? Anyway, John worked his summers as a grave mover while in high school and college.  We used to call him "Deadman" at Penn State.

John had great cemetery stories like the one about him and another guy carrying an old wooden coffin across the cemetery to be reinterred elsewhere--and the bottom fell out! I'll save that one for another time. As I was walking around with John this one summer day in Baltimore, he told me one I'd never heard.

Once he and a work crew were tasked to dig a new grave for a burial to occur later that day. The guy operating the backhoe misjudged the location of the concrete vault to one side of the new hole and cracked the lower corner off it. This was only 5 feet below ground, the vault belonging to the spouse of the person they were going to bury that afternoon!). Fluid poured out of the vault into the freshly dug hole. Not a good thing. Here's why:

This is a photo of what vaults look like--each is a big rectangular concrete box that holds a casket . Why use a vault? Several reasons. The main one being to "preserve" the fancy casket and remains. Why would you want to do this? I'm sure funeral directors make it a big selling point, but the only practical reason for having one is to prevent the ground from collapsing as the coffin disintegrates (forming a "sunken" grave, or a depression in the ground). Another reason is to keep the casket from exploding from the gases released by the decomposing body (see Mitford's book above if you don't believe this can happen!).

Now think about this--the body rots and turns to juice, or noxious effluvia as it was referred to in the Victorian era. It seeps out of the casket (usually not waterproof) into the concrete vault, where anerobic bacteria thrive in it. Nowhere for this liquid to go until...the corner is broken off the vault!

So, John tells me the crew goes to get the boss who is furious because the burial is planned for that afternoon. He tells the guys they have to get down in the unbearably putrid "mud" with hydrostatic cement and patch up the broken vault. Then they have to dig further down and backfill the hole to cover the mud. John and a veteran gravedigger draw the short straws--they get down in the hole.

Hours pass and they get the job done in time. John and his co-worker are across the street about to eat lunch at Burger King. Sitting across from each other, John takes a ravenous bite out of his Whopper, then realizes his fingers smell like the goo from the grave. He says, "Omigod! I didn't wash my hands!" The veteran gravedigger across from him says without batting an eye, "I never wash mine. Makes the fries taste better." They both went on eating.