From Bieber to Embalming and Back Again

“Night Thoughts,” an essay by Matthew Vollmer

From Bieber to Embalming and Back Again

According to a DJ on K92, Justin Bieber — a Canadian pop star and heartthrob who’s afraid of elevators and clowns and who once got an F in school but changed it to a B so he wouldn’t get in trouble — is taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, where he’ll stay at The Water Falling Estate: a mansion that sits at the edge of a promontory overlooking the Pacific. For $10,000 a night, you too can enjoy the amenities of The Water Falling Estate, which includes a rooftop helipad, a central Daytona 52-inch round pneumatic air-compression elevator that allows access to all floors of the main house, a basketball slash tennis court with stadium style seating for 450 spectators, and a trail leading to a naturally-occurring, three-tiered waterfall. According to Pinnacle List, which markets luxury real estate to affluent buyers and is likely correct in assuming that its potential customers prefer residences that “evoke an unforgettable experience of living life beyond the limits of ordinary luxury expectations,” the Water Falling Estate is available for purchase at the cost of 18.9 million dollars. I know this because — using the World Wide Web — I looked inside of it. Its interior appears to be made of mahogany and marble and looks a little as if it had originally been designed as the World’s Largest Funeral Home. Nothing about the phrase “Service Corporation International” suggests that it is — and it is — the world’s largest funeral home and cemetery conglomerate, which may be the reason it operates under the name “Dignity Memorial.” According to an article titled “Ten Companies that Control the Death Industry,” death in America generates over 15 billion dollars in revenue a year for companies that supply bereaved humans with flowers, stones, plaques, caskets, urns, crypts, and funeral home equipment. Though you may be familiar with the concept of “embalming a corpse,” did you know that the fluids drained from bodies are likely to enter your local public sewage systems? Grief management pioneer Erich Lindemann argued that bereavement can become complicated for those who never had the opportunity to view the body of a dead person they loved; this may have something to do with our country’s longstanding, if highly invasive, insistence on corpse preservation. As effective as modern-day embalming practices are in ensuring that cadavers remain “life-like,” bodies filled with formaldehyde will — like those preserved by ancient Egyptians, who believed souls would return to adequately preserved bodies — eventually deteriorate. The best and most environmentally responsible option for the disposal of dead bodies might involve alkaline hydrosis, during which the deceased is placed into a chamber of water and lye, and heated at a high pressure to 160 degrees — a process that results in green-brown liquid and porous, easily crushable bone fragments. The fluid is then discarded, and the remains pulverized using a Cremulator, a machine invented by a company called DFW Europe, one that separates ferro and non-ferro metals (that is, metals that contain appreciable amounts of iron and those that do not) while automatically filling an urn with the resultant “ash.” The home page of DFW Europe — which, as you might guess, has nothing to do with David Foster Wallace, the bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing author of intellectually challenging literary fiction, who committed suicide by hanging himself from a patio rafter — features a photo of a series of three cremation furnaces: chunky, symmetrical, stylized blocks that look as if they might’ve been designed by avant-garde German architects; into one of these furnace chambers, an ivory casket appears to be in the process of entering the red-hot mouth of an incinerator. Humans are rarely pictured on DFW’s site, and when they do appear they look friendly and pleasantly engaged, as do the people on the company’s “Training/Course” page, who are wearing all black and enjoying tea while learning about the theory and practice of operating a cremation furnace, during which time the presenters will explore “the question of what is exactly meant by a calamity and how to deal with it responsibly.” I can’t be the only person on earth who hears the word “calamity” and thinks immediately of Calamity Jane, the American frontierswoman whose vices, according to one of her friends, “were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country — the sort that never carried a hurt.” Jane may not have been quite as daring as she claimed, and her exploits likely did not include the shooting of Indians; nonetheless, she made appearances in so-called “dime museums” across the United States. In 1892, Kohl and Middleton’s Globe Dime Museum, in which Calamity Jane was once featured, ran an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune that announced: FIRST TIME ON PUBLIC EXHIBITION, 6 PEOPLE TURNING TO STONE, LIVING PETRIFIED, FAMILY FROM IDAHO, THE GRANDFATHER OF THIS REMARKABLE FAMILY IS A SOLID MAN TURNED TO ROCK, HE HAS NOT BREATHED FOR 20 YEARS, SLUMBERING WITH THE GREAT MAJORITY. This beguiling caption was accompanied by a somewhat primitive cartoon of a group of smiling figures who appeared to be unable to bend their knees or elbows. If “slumbering with the great majority” rings at all familiar to your ears, it may have something to do with a section of a nine-part poem by Edward Young titled “Night-Thoughts,” which includes the following observation: “Life is the desert, life the solitude, death joins us to the great majority.” Such words might prove comforting to those who fear the unknown: everyone who has ever lived has emerged from it; to it everyone will return. Most of us, however, will remain, as ever, somewhat troubled — if not downright afraid — by the thought of our eventual demise, and because we will continue to seek solace where we can find it, we will be grateful when we turn on our radios and hear one of our country’s beloved pop stars crooning his most current hit, a tune that came to him on one of those nights when, after taking a single hit from a water pipe — a lungful of Jack Flash his bodyguard scored at a Denver marijuana dispensary, and which The Cannabist had described as “astounding in every way… flavor, yield and mind-body potency are virtually unparalleled” — the young man swam to the edge of the Water Falling Estate’s 25-meter Olympic-size infinity pool, noted the sound of distant waves crashing on the rocks below and the moonlight glimmering like a thousand knife blades upon the Pacific, said a prayer for all the blessings of his improbable — if admittedly ephemeral — existence, and began — without thinking too much or even at all about where he was going — to sing.

My Name Is Moonbeam McSwine

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction — Gateway to Paradise and Future Missionaries of America — as well as a collection of essays , inscriptions for headstones. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts, and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. He teaches at Virginia Tech.

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