A Long Day at the End of the World

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Overview

A chilling memoir of the Tri-State Crematory incident

In February 2002, hundreds of abandoned and decayed bodies were discovered at the Tri-State Crematory in rural Georgia, making it the largest mass desecration in modern American history. The perpetrator—a well-respected family man and a former hometown football star—had managed to conceal the horror for five years.

     Among the bodies found at the Tri-State Crematory was that of Brent Hendricks’s father....

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Overview

A chilling memoir of the Tri-State Crematory incident

In February 2002, hundreds of abandoned and decayed bodies were discovered at the Tri-State Crematory in rural Georgia, making it the largest mass desecration in modern American history. The perpetrator—a well-respected family man and a former hometown football star—had managed to conceal the horror for five years.

     Among the bodies found at the Tri-State Crematory was that of Brent Hendricks’s father. To quell the psychic disturbance surrounding the desecration, Hendricks embarked on a pilgrimage to the crematory site in Georgia. In A Long Day at the End of the World, he reveals his very complicated relationship with the South as he tries to reconcile his love-hate feelings for the culture with his own personal and familial history there, and his fascination with the disturbed landscape. In achingly beautiful prose, Hendricks explores his fraught relationship with his father—not just the grief that surrounded his death but the uncanniness of his resurrection.

     It’s a story that’s so heart-wrenching, so unbelievable, and so sensational that it would be easy to tell it without delving deep. But Hendricks’s inquiry is unrelenting, and he probes the extremely difficult questions about the love between a parent and a child, about the way human beings treat each other—in life and in death—and about the sanctity of the body. It’s the perfect storm for a true Southern Gothic tale. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sharing many of the same qualities that made his first book of poems, Thaumatrope, a fascinating conceptual and narrative success, Hendricks’s excellent nonfiction debut combines personal and psychological reflections to understand the largest mass desecration in modern American history, in which 339 decomposing bodies were found in February 2002 on the overgrown premises of the Tri-State Crematory in rural north Georgia. Seven years after the death of Hendricks’s father, he had been disinterred by his widow—who had developed a phobia about being buried in the ground—and sent to Tri-State to be cremated before being sent to New Mexico to be scattered over the mountains with her upon her death. As Hendricks recounts his traveling to Tri-State to find out if, in fact, his father was actually one of the bodies found there, he finds himself musing over a range of issues: his troubled relationship with his father and the irony of Tri-State being “the final place of unrest for a restless man”; his own “predisposition to prophetic revelation and doomsday excitability” that leads him to see the world around him as if “verything was disturbed ground”; and a final epiphany that the idea of his father “animated and engaged, rising from the unhappy earth” can help him to a new kind of living “that would not draw me away from this world but would bring me back here.” (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“When Brent Hendricks’ book came across my desk, I was attracted to the elegiac cover design. When I discovered it was about the Tri-State Crematory scandal, my interest grew. But when I read Hendricks’ gorgeous prose, I was floored.” —Suzanne Van Atten, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

“Astonishing and unclassifiable, personal and apocalyptical, mystical and mythical, this little book, beautifully written and explosively patterned, sets out to fathom the unfathomable and, uncannily, pretty much succeeds in doing so.” —Joy Williams, author of The Quick and the Dead

 

“Training one eye on poetry and the other on the apocalypse, Brent Hendricks has written a book I can’t stop thinking about. What a beautiful and uncanny accomplishment it is, and how well and unexpectedly its pieces fit together: at once the recreation of a crime and its aftermath, a meditation on the way a landscape can have its meanings shattered by circumstance, and the memoir of a son whose bond with his father remains as troubled in death as it was in life.” —Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead

 

“There is one thing you must know: the place where Brent Hendricks and I grew up was a land of ghosts, ghosts of an unspeakable past that was everywhere communicated by a flick of the hand, a turn of the eye, or a casual phrase. It was a place we learned to love and to hate, to defend and to fear, to celebrate and to deny. A Long Day at the End of the World is a note-perfect evocation of this strange haunted nature of the South. It’s a stellar debut.” —Peter L. Buck of R.E.M.

 

“Hendricks skillfully interweaves the true-crime shocks of the Ed Gein–like scene with thoughtful asides on everything from Southern Baptists to Hernando de Soto to alchemy. A unique and affecting wander through some unwelcoming places.” —Daniel Kraus, Booklist

 

“Sharing many of the same qualities that made his first book of poems, Thaumatrope, a fascinating conceptual and narrative success, Hendricks’s excellent nonfiction debut combines personal and psychological reflections to understand the largest mass desecration in modern American history.” —Publishers Weekly 

 

Kirkus Reviews
A memoir in the form of a strange pilgrimage, filled with apocalyptic images, through the present-day South to the place in Georgia where hundreds of corpses were found rotting outside a crematory. The "cremains" sent out by Tri-State Crematory to bereaved families were, it seems, largely ground concrete. Poet Hendricks (Thaumatrope, 2007, etc.), whose father had died more than a decade earlier, was on a quest to find out whether his father's body was one of those discarded corpses. In 1997, his body had been disinterred from its Georgia grave since his widow wanted him cremated so that his ashes could later be dispersed with hers in the mountains. Five years after the disinterment, Hendricks sought to discover what became of his father's body and to understand how this mass desecration could have occurred. His journey through the South was nightmarish: religious bigotry, environmental ruin, slavery and its aftermath of racial prejudice, a history of Native American genocide dating back to the days of Hernando de Soto's exploitation. What was going on inside Hendrick's head was no picnic either. He ruminates on his unhappy childhood with a father he found hard to love and his growing up in the South, where he did not fit in. At journey's end, the author does see confirmation that his father's body has been identified. However, as for why the crematory owner had scattered corpses through the woods and pond behind his facility, no answer is ever forthcoming. A tough journey. For Hendricks, the discovery that counts is that the conjuring of his father's presence during his bleak and lonely pilgrimage has brought him to realize that perhaps he can love him again after all.
The Barnes & Noble Review

It seems especially fitting that I finished Brent Hendricks's affecting memoir, A Long Day at the End of the World, on Easter Sunday. More than anything, this story of a son's attempt to make sense of his father's place in the largest mass desecration in modern American history is one of resurrection. It's a sober, impressionistic mediation on what refuses to stay buried, of disturbed soil and the things that bloom in upheaval. It's also a rich root system of tangled connection, personal and historical, where a mis- folded American flag leads to musings on an extinct breed of lake snail, the explorer De Soto's doomed gold-seeking march across the American South, and the displacement of the author's Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears. Past is present in this book, so closing the cover, it was easy to appreciate the synchronicity of its last pages coinciding with the Christian calendar's ultimate celebration of life over death.

The Hendricks family story begins grimly. In 1997, having developed a phobia about worms and wanting her late husband closer to her, Hendricks's mother had his father's body exhumed from its original resting place and sent to the Tri-State Crematorium in northern Georgia. She took great comfort in the ashes they sent her and conversed with them daily. Then, in February 2002, news broke that a few dozen decomposed bodies had been discovered strewn across the grounds of Tri-State. Over the next weeks, that number rose to 339 — rotting corpses were found buried in shallow pits, sunk in the property's artificial lake, abandoned in the woods along with an upended pool table. Authorities speculated on owner Brent Marsh's motives. Was this respected African- American businessman and former local football hero a psychopath? A hoarder? Or merely disorganized? During the period when 300-plus bodies had been left for rats to gnaw, 660 others were properly cremated. The Hendricks family waited, and soon enough, word arrived that one of the first corpses found decaying in the woods was that of Ron Hendricks, identified by the personalized cowboy boots in which he'd been buried. The ashes on Mrs. Hendricks's mantel were nothing but concrete dust and fragments of animal bone.

Over nearly 200 pages, Brent Hendricks slowly doles out these details, along with dispatches from the trial and Marsh's ultimate sentencing. But the facts are mere way stations on a peripatetic, internal pilgrimage that begins with desecration and ends with — well — the End Times. In his father's disinterment, Hendricks (who confesses himself in possession of "the apocalypse gene"), finds a metaphor for all historical and environmental cataclysms, none more poignant than in the soil of the South itself. "There are flowers that grow mostly in disturbed areas," he writes, listing them like an incantation. "Black-eyed Susan, Venus looking glass, Queen Anne's lace, fleabane, blue toadflax, kudzu, poison ivy." The disruption was worked into his family's DNA, beginning with his father's birth into the turbulent Oklahoma Dust Bowl. His hometown would later be wiped from the map, purposely flooded by the Army Corps of Engineers with the damming of the Verdigris River. This Great Flood would come to symbolize all that was lost, not only for Ron Hendricks but for his later family, uprooted for corporate jobs in Tulsa, Missouri, and Connecticut before finally settling in a suburb just north of Atlanta. There, a disaffected teenage Brent would drink beer in half-built houses on dead-end cul de sacs, struggling to fit into the New South's suburbia, where the red clay soil was "constantly under siege."

His father's Lazarus-like return — twice dispatched, twice risen — finally forced Brent to confront their estranged relationship. In 2010, seven years after the first bones were discovered, Brent set off on a day-long drive from his home in Alabama to what remained of Tri-State, carrying with him his father's military funeral flag, conversing with it as his mother had with her ersatz ashes. Yet the paradoxes he found in the riven landscape of the ex-Confederate South served only to recapitulate his own internal divisions. On the road, Brent found himself alone and alienated, feeding, as he called it, "his addiction for cataclysm...[seeing] signs of the Tribulation everywhere. Everything was disturbed ground." He grew increasingly obsessed with the physical reality of dying. "Without the protection of a supernatural belief, I was suddenly confronted with the finality of my father's death ? his animal death, and my own. With all ritual displaced by Brent Marsh's conjuring of alchemical concrete dust and bone, I was alone with death itself, as exposed as my father in the close woods."

Much of this memoir is spent looking for signposts in oblivion. Alchemy, transmutation, photography, extinction, historical massacre — all come back to personal loss and inexorable change. At times Hendricks strains for connection or pushes a metaphor too hard. As he draws closer to Tri- State and the end point of his pilgrimage, the poetic language which has served him so well sometimes becomes overcharged and vague. His father's frail life is forced to carry too heavy a weight of apocalyptic rhetoric. He recovers, however, in his final grappling with Brent Marsh's apology letter to the family. As a last insult, Marsh manages to get Ronald Hendricks's name wrong, referring to him as Robert. If Brent was hoping for answers, he received none. Marsh asks the family's forgiveness but offers no explanation for his actions. Having never taken the stand at his trial nor issued any formal statement, his intentions remained, to the end, as unknowable as the mind of God. Why were some bodies cremated and others left to rot? Why were certain families and not others visited with pain and horror? In this final reckoning, Hendricks's human attempts to make meaning — all his close rhymes of De Soto (whose own body was dug up, reinterred, and ultimately drowned), the Civil War, the wounds of Southern race relations, and earthly topography — fall away before the incomprehensible.

All pilgrims set out with a destination in mind, only to discover the journey is what sustains them. Brent set out to feed his need for apocalypse, but the act of acknowledging universal estrangement allowed him to regain his father, almost as if he had been corporeally resurrected. Leaving Tri-State behind, the author understood his father had not returned. But then he writes that "suddenly I was crying and he was there in the car next to me, a shape, a presence, and I could feel him again as I had felt him as a young child. He was a vision — sprung from a flag case and from history, from the End and from the road. That's all I can say for sure. He was there for a while and I could feel him, real as a crush of flowers. He was close by and then he was gone."

Sheri Holman is the author of the novels A Stolen Tongue, The Dress Lodger, and The Mammoth Cheese, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Reviewer: Sheri Holman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374146863
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.46 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Brent Hendricks is a graduate of the University of Virginia, Harvard Law School, and the MFA program at the University of Arizona. He is the author of a book of poems, Thaumatrope, and has been published in such places as Poetry, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, The Southern Review, and Bomb magazine. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt

A Long Day at the End of the World


By Brent Hendricks

FSG Originals

Copyright © 2013 Brent Hendricks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374146863

1
 

I SNAPPED OFF THE CARDBOARD BACK of the wooden triangle and took it out. A slight musty smell rose from my hands, filled as they were with a thing that had been locked up for several years now. Dusty stars clung to my fingers while lines of color tumbled across the floor. Maybe you started with the stripes, I thought, kneeling down inside the four corners. Maybe it was mostly luck—luck and accumulation—like folding a map. Even halfway through I felt lucky, turning a quick corner into three points like a child making paper triangles. But reaching the end, I saw the same old picture again: my last rows twisted and dangling beneath a field of stars.
I wondered if I should try once more. Wasn’t it a matter of simple geometry—easy crease and tuck like the soldiers did on TV? Yet I had failed every time I had tried to fold it. Over and over, I’d felt compelled to correct the improperly shaped thing in its cheap display case, and over and over, my efforts had come to bad ends.
So I stuffed Old Glory back into its container, blue patch of stars jutting out unevenly against crooked stripes. I hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice the flag case tucked beneath my arm, because I’d have to explain it. I’d have to say I was taking it—my father’s burial flag—on a little trip, that I was going to carry it with me through the back roads of Alabama on a kind of pilgrimage.
And of course I couldn’t stop there—on the loaded word “pilgrimage”—because they’d only want more. I’d have to say I was setting out on a trip through the low hills of northern Alabama, climbing Lookout Mountain, hoping to descend again into the valley: to the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia.
But my own bewilderment about the excursion itself, and about that flag, would prevent me from giving a practical description of what had happened at Tri-State. Instead, I’d probably head straight to the big trouble: I’d say, yes, astonishing as it may be, my father had died and his bones had been resurrected. And then those same bones, the bones of my father, had been abandoned at the Tri-State Crematory for five years. The man was dead, rose again, and dwelled among the other dead for a time.
Even in the South, such apocalyptic declarations might overwhelm my devout neighbors. But the story required no articles of faith. My father had died and I had gone to his funeral and he was buried in the ground. I saw him lowered into the red dirt. My father was dead and the doors of his grave flew open and he came again upon the earth.
I would have to tell all that to my neighbors because I didn’t know what else to say. I was setting off to unholy ground, to a field with a lake where hundreds of bodies once lay scattered and alone, hoping that something would happen. For a while I’d lived with an image of my father lying lost at the Tri-State Crematory, and I needed to change it. I needed to take a ride to Tri-State and see where he’d lain those long years. I needed to tell him goodbye, or hello and goodbye, or tell him nothing but that I had tried. I had tried to make amends for his troubled bones.
And I had that flag, wrapped up all crooked and wrong, to prove it.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Brent Hendricks


Continues...

Excerpted from A Long Day at the End of the World by Brent Hendricks Copyright © 2013 by Brent Hendricks. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2013

    This profound book is a tale of a day trip and a story of a life

    This profound book is a tale of a day trip and a story of a lifelong struggle to understand.  The depth of feeling evident in this harrowing tale is astonishing.  Although there are some passages that veer off into relatively strange territories, complete with intense and poetic stream-of-consciousness phrasing, the reader always knows the end will be definite and final.  As in Life itself.  And perhaps that, along with the quality of the Journey, is the point.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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