In her second novel, Susan Henderson writes about the realities and dignities of death through the story of a small town, its residents and one shy misfit, the daughter of a mortician. Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize.
In my new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams, I wanted to explore the death of a small town in rural America. And I got it into my head that the best narrator for this story would be a mortician because she could look death in the eye without flinching.
Of course, I knew nothing about the funeral industry. I’d written plenty about death over the years, but always in the context of grief, of trying to absorb and move through the pain. Dealing with the physical body seemed almost contrary to grief. It was a practical matter of lifting and getting hands dirtied and dealing with the grim task—What do we do with this body that has been so precious to us?
And so I began my research. I studied everything I could about embalming, bathing the dead and the decay of the body. My bedside table became stacked with books about death and dying and funeral homes. I talked to morticians. I even turned on YouTube videos of surgeries and autopsies and listened with my eyes closed so I could concentrate on the sounds of the tools and the cutting.
I had to sit a long while with the shock of all I learned. The process of embalming struck me as weird and invasive—steps to make sure the body didn’t leak or foam at the mouth during visiting hours, tools to puncture and then vacuum out the contents of the organs, tiny plastic caps to place over the eyeballs before sewing them shut, so many tricks with Super Glue. The more I learned about embalming, the more I thought, How strange that we do this to people we love!
But Mary Crampton, the narrator who absorbed my research, was quite tender with those who came through her basement workroom. An outcast in this small town, she found it easier to connect with the dead than the living. She understood the vulnerability of the naked body—the girth, the long-raised scar, the damaged liver, the bedsores. She was not blind to the flaws of her neighbors—in fact, some had shunned her. And still she cared for them. There’s a scene between Mary and a high school peer, a former cheerleader, who arrives in her workroom beneath the white sheet. And finally they have this girl time together, with Mary styling her hair and painting her nails crimson, their school’s colors—ways she couldn’t interact with a person when they were alive.
It was Mary’s tenderness with the dead and her deep respect for her profession that helped me know how to tell the complex story of this dying town. I opened my eyes to all that was before me—to a community that was strong, proud, insular, inflexible, beautiful, punishing and grieving. I began to see the rage of the unemployed as a last struggle against an inevitable death. This was a town that had little room for difference or for people like Mary. And yet she wanted the town to die with dignity.
Photo credit Taylor Hooper Photography