23 July 2009

In the Land of Long Fingernails

I picked up “In the Land of Long Fingernails” for the macabre title and the nice purple cover. I stayed for the jokes, for the gory details, for the sense of reliving the Sixties, stoned, all over again, but this time stoned in a graveyard in Canada.

The book is subtitled “A Gravedigger in the Age of Aquarius,” and it’s a hoot, especially if you’re a coot who lived through the short-lived Age of Aquarius. Aquarius lasted a couple of years, max.

“In the Land of Long Fingernails” is less deep, so to speak, than “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and not as poetic as books by Thomas Lynch, undertaker and poet, author of a number of seriously literary works.

Following his graveyard employment, “Fingernails” author Charles Wilkins went on to publish a dozen books and became a writing teacher. Here he dives back into his memory, perhaps with a bit of fiction thrown in, to recall a long summer he spent forty years ago at what he euphemistically names Willowlawn Everlasting Cemetery.

“To call (the cemetery) by its real name in this era of inquisitional conformity,” he explains, “would be an open invitation to, at best, a law suit, at worst a contract hit – on me.”

Perhaps Wilkins exaggerates, perhaps not. There are issues of union rules and the abuse of these rules. There are employees hailing from southern sections of Italy, graves dug or undug in the night. Who knows, maybe there’s a whole other story of criminal conspiracy hiding under the surface of this tale, but the surface of this story is strange enough.

How strange? For example: Hundreds of “welfare graves” in the oldest section of the graveyard – city burials, no gravestones – are secretly dug up, the plots emptied, cleaned up, resold.

ACTUAL LATE BREAKING NEWS: “A group of Illinois grave diggers were charged Thursday with running a morbid scam in which they exhumed corpses in a black cemetery so they could resell the empty plots, cops said.
Investigators suspect more than 300 bodies were dug up in the suburban Chicago graveyard and discarded in a pit so the ghouls could cash (in).”
Back to our story: Nearby neighbors find femurs and hip joints in their back yards. They are assured they are animal bones, nothing more, and the objects are hastily gathered up and reburied. “The problem, shrugs (one employee) is that ground pressure and frost keep pushing the bones to the surface. And the dogs and coons just keep digging down to get them.”

Then there’s the gravediggers’ strike that took place during a heat wave. Don’t ask.

Those five months during the Canadian summer of 1969 were an education for Wilkins, more or less as wild as the stuff going on every other place in the Western world in those years.

“For those of you who missed it, or have forgotten,” he writes, “1969 was, among other things, a time of flower children, free love, campus protest, the battle for civil rights, the death of God.” That year half a million seekers got themselves back to the garden at Woodstock, and a pair of US astronauts “planted an American flag on the moon... (and) knocked a golf ball around amid the rocks and moon dust.”

On his first day at Willowlawn Everlasting, Wilkins is shown how to bury the “ornate little caskets” containing cremated human remains.

“Luccio dug a knee-deep hole and said, ‘Throw me one of those birdhouses.’ ‘Which one?’ I said, examining them on the ground. ‘Any of them.’ “I looked at him, thinking I had misunderstood.

“‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘They’re all the same.’”

That sets the tone. So does this advice from another gravedigger: “‘There are two things you have to do to survive around here,’ he told me as he twisted a bud of shredded marijuana into a rolling paper. ‘The first is to pay no attention whatever to anybody in any position of authority – that’s crucial. The second is to spend as little time as possible thinking about reality.’”

Still useful advice for some of us. “In the Land of Long Fingernails” finds humor in the rituals of death and entertainment in the earthy details. All probably much more fun to read about than experience first hand.


“In the Land of Long Fingernails, A Gravedigger in the Age of Aquarius” by Charles Wilkins. WW Norton hard cover $24.95. ISBN 9781602397095.

Cover blurb: “I don’t know how Charles Wilkins escaped my notice until now, but I intend to read as many of his books as I can before I, too, end up in the land of long fingernails.”
– Mary Roach, author of “Stiff”

News | 07/09/2009: Four nabbed in ghoulish scheme at historic cemetary by Bill Hutchinson

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