It’s 8:58am at the cemetery and already it’s hectic: “Yes ma’am, I’ll put through the work order now and a member of staff will be out to the site within forty-eight hours. No, of course it’s natural for a grave to sink. The ground will settle over time. No, I can assure you – we never use soil from someone else’s grave.” What you never tell these callers is that a sunken grave is less often the result of the ground settling than it is because of a casket caving in under the weight of the backfill – people genuinely believe, despite knowing otherwise, that decomposition only happens to other people’s loved ones.
Four months into my temp assignment and I’m beginning to understand the bereaved logic of je sais bien, mais quand meme, i.e. “I know very well that Uncle Jim will break down like compost and return particle-by-particle to the earth, but nevertheless I want your assurances in perpetuity that no dirt will invade the sanctity of his resting place.”
“It’s a natural process,” I say, holding the common sense line reassuringly, “It’s totally normal.” Eventually the caller hangs up – not altogether satisfied with the outcome, but having talked it through, with a renewed understanding that there is little satisfaction to be found in death. It’s a delicate job.
There is, as you might expect, a vast unwritten thesaurus that forms the linguistic backbone of the cemetery business, and is it ever flexible. It bends in all directions – superstition, custom, good manners. Dirt is earth. A hole is a grave is a resting place. The deceased are not dead, are not even deceased. They are at rest. This last is the most problematic: by sugarcoating such a bitter pill as death with the imperfect metaphor ‘resting’, we imply its bitter opposite – ‘waking’, or worse, ‘sleepwalking’. When dead is never dead, it’s no wonder people believe in ghosts. But it isn’t ghosts who haunt cemeteries. Of course not.
But the macabre creeps in wherever the cemetery leaves an opening
It’s the Friday before I fly to Shanghai to visit my brother and his fiancé, and I can’t wait to get away. After lunch, Gravedigger Joe and I are going on a tour of the crematorium – that should kill the afternoon. Joe reckons it’s all a bit creepy, but for my money, the crematorium is far too regulated a space, too full of precision machinery to be creepy in its own right. I suppose this is the central charm of the utilitarian approach to death. But the macabre creeps in wherever the cemetery leaves an opening – the dark abyss of the office’s after-hours message bank, for example, which I check each morning. Always the same gravelly voice. The same blinking light on the handset.
I take a deep breath and dial 3-2-1. Forget the crematorium, every morning starts like this: someone walking over my grave.
Eucalyptus Woman is her name, so called because every message starts with: “Eucalyptus David Grey Cremate,” or some variation on the theme. For at least
seven years, sometimes several times a night–sometimes months apart, Eucalyptus Woman has been leaving messages in the dead of night. I received five of
these neat, pre-recorded nightmares on my second day. Seven on my third. Everybody else in the office stopped listening years ago, and whenever you try to
steer the conversation towards the message bank: total cubicle diaspora. And I can understand why. The voice is like rusty nails run down the glockenspiel
ribs of a spiny, horrible smoker. Picking up her messages is like picking up a psychic mainline to the unraveling mind of a ghost who think’s she’s still
alive. The steady rhythm and cadence of her broken, telephone-wire voice have become, in my mind, her fuzzy, spectral form.
2nd October 2014, 11:45pm
Eucalyptus David Grey Cremate.
I don’t know what I did to you in life,
In the years after.
Cause you were in the crematorium,
Put me through murder.
I had crematorium sickness,
It’s not real in this apartment –
I’m trapped and there’s no way out.
Whatever I did, I don’t know.
But my apologies, Dave.
It’s not so bad. This is just part of the job I do. A small part, really. The Vincent Price laugh at the end of each call is a recent development. And yes, her caller ID is blocked, and no, I haven’t tried to track her down. Of course not. But for the record, there is no David Grey in the database. Not even in the compactus. No David or Dave with the surname Grey or Gray has ever been cremated or buried here. There is no missing area man named David Grey.
“She exists, okay,” says Gravedigger Joe at lunch, “We can agree that whoever she is, she exists. And a big part of her existence is prank calling the cemetery. There’s fuck all you can do about it, but that’s all you need to know about the situation. You don’t have to listen to them messages every day, mate. You’ll do your fucking head in.”
Gravedigger Joe is working here because he’s on parole.
Gravedigger Joe is working here because he’s on parole, but he’s the only one who doesn’t completely glaze over when I talk about her. He was a reliable sounding board for the Eucalyptus theories for a while – I even considered taking up smoking to maximise face time on the issue. But I get the sense he’s starting to crack.
“There’s no hidden meaning. No hidden message. She’s just some sick, old grief-bag talking shit. Out of her mind, mate.”
“Is that what you think? Or is that what you’re telling yourself to think?”
“Same thing mate. You’re the creep who can’t let it go.”
“You don’t have to listen to her every morning.”
“You don’t have to listen to her every morning. And you definitely don’t have to write down the bullshit she comes out with.”
“But if I didn’t–”
“What? Press three to delete, five to return to the main menu. Fuck.”
The fundamental difference of opinion between us is this: he maintains that the messages are gibberish – verbal tics totally divorced from meaning, driven only by a deep and dark mental malfunction. On the other hand, I can’t make sense of them as anything other than purposefully drafted transmissions. I’m not sure what the point of it all is, but I’ve listened to a lot more of these messages than Joe, and besides I’m not sure if Joe can be trusted on this topic; a gravedigger does a lot of emotional compartmentalisation.
There are patterns in the Eucalyptus messages that you can only get a grip on if you take them as a whole; themes that run all night, sometimes interwoven with recurring images and self-referential allusions that stretch over weeks. And yes, I am fully and vividly aware that this is exactly how nightmares function.
My thesis is simple: What she says might be difficult, but maybe she’s the one poet who found the perfect medium for her work. Her brutal, gothic, mortifying and supremely uncomfortable work. Don’t all poets want to write poems like decent, honest nightmares? Simple line breaks, complex arcs of thematic patterns moving against each other in all directions. Slurred speech? Yes. Drunk? Yes. But also purposeful and premeditated, sometimes utterly indecipherable, other times crystal clear and blood-curdling.
After lunch we start the tour in one of the crematorium’s adjoining chapels, and I try not to think about Eucalyptus Woman, but it’s impossible. Cremation is her favourite topic:
3rd October 2014, 2:33am
Eucalyptus David Grey Cremate.
Your whole system’s got cerebral palsy.
It’s hypoglycaemic di-a-beat-ic.
She needs a high-sugar-level diet.
And she needs a lens to see with
For glycaemia in the eyes.
She sees a lot of twilight for some reason,
That’s a sure thing, Dave.
It’s crematorium sickness
In the dark.
Catchy thing too. Nevermind.
So sorry. Goodnight.
Sixty-five per cent of Australians are cremated, but most of us never get to peek behind the velvet curtains, so we have to guess what goes on back there. I always pictured the casket rolling away on a conveyor directly into a giant, preheated oven. The simple automation of it implies a final dignity that appealed to me, moving unassisted towards atomisation. In reality, there are a few extra steps and some very hard-working people in between, but you have to imagine something.
And isn’t Eucalyptus Woman’s predicament simply an extreme example of imagining the unknowable final moments? In her imagination—as inferred from her transmissions—the cremator itself is an agent of death perched at the centre of a web, constantly drawing us in. She’s bridging that same uncanny gap with her imagination too, but the difference is that hers isn’t so naïve as mine, and it’s been running wild on this topic for at least seven rough years (probably a lifetime).
As the tour moves from room to room, I wonder if it would be any comfort to Eucalyptus Woman to see firsthand just how ordinary and non-sentient a cremator is. Would it help her to know that the space behind the velvet curtain is just like any other clinical-industrial workplace? Prosaic routines, processes, procedures.
They show us the hydraulic trapdoor mechanism used to lower the casket.
“You oiled that up or what, mate? The last thing you want to hear is gears screeching right through I Did It My Way,” says Gravedigger Joe.
They demonstrate how the coffin descends into the stage and rises on a platform backstage. Three chapels arranged in an arc feed four furnaces. Along the back wall, caskets and coffins are lined up on a steel bench awaiting cremation. It isn’t unusual to see a container marked ‘**BRAIN ONLY**’; coroners often need to hold onto them a little longer than bodies. Brains are part of the job too. There are clipboards, running sheets and highlighted lists on every wall.
When the coffin slides in, the chamber immediately and audibly explodes in flames. The more expensive caskets’ rich lacquers have a tendency to create mushroom clouds that ball up against the fireproof roof, their half-lives folded in on themselves by the slow swing of the loading door. Once it’s closed, the only outward signs of the cremators’ extreme heat are four black scorch marks above the mouth of each chamber. You can’t see anything through the little window in the door except an inferno.
By the way, pacemakers are removed post-mortem/pre-delivery under law because, if they remain in situ, they will explode and unleash all 1,000 degrees of the cremator’s hellfire.
Once the furnace is cooled and the curtain of flames is dropped, the remains are more intact than I imagined. In Japan (where the cremation rate is over ninety-eight per cent), bone shards are ceremonially collected and distributed between family members. Here, the bones and coarse ash are swept from the final chamber into a metal container with a handle, lid, and a wide chute that facilitates their being poured into a pulveriser or ‘cremulator’, which is like a reinforced tumble dryer that churns five heavy weights the size of lawn bowls. But first, the cremains are stirred in their pans with a magnetised wand to remove any lingering metals – plates, pins, rods and screws, Kirschner wires, titanium hips, intramedullary devices. These might still be useful.
In the end you’re sifted into a plastic container, a cardboard box, a glossy bag.
Back at my desk, about to go on holidays, I’m waiting for 5pm like a function approaching its limit. My brother has just emailed me a news story about Samadhi: 4D Experience of Death, Shanghai’s new, immersive entertainment experience: a simulation of death, cremation and rebirth.
“FYI. Maybe something to do while you’re in town?”
Samadhi is a new take on China’s popular puzzle room culture. These entertainment venues are generally carefully designed networks of rooms that interconnect with tunnels and passageways. A friendly host explains the rules and locks you in a seemingly empty room with a small group of friends. Except the room isn’t empty – there are clues and puzzles planted to facilitate your escape. Codes and lockboxes and magnets open passageways, hidden staircases etc. Often they’re themed – futuristic prison, haunted hospital, haunted school, POW camp. Samadhi’s point of difference is that each participant competes individually, and eliminations are conducted progressively. Each subject undergoes a mock execution, a mock funeral, a simulated cremation replete with projected flames and jets of burning air. At the very, very end, a calming rebirth into some kind of ambient relaxation pod.
Perhaps a little context will be useful here. Cremation started here in Australia. Mungo Lady (or ANU-618) was ceremonially cremated and buried around 20,000 years ago at Lake Mungo in New South Wales, predating the cremation boom of Europe’s late Bronze Age Urnfield culture by millennia. Cremation is now more widely practised than at any other time in human history, particularly in China, where as many people are cremated each year as live in Sydney – more than 4.5 million.
Although the majority Han Chinese traditionally favour earth burials, cemetery overpopulation (read: war and famine) caused the Communist Party of China (CPC) to ban burials and enforce cremation. The cremation edict has long been upheld in major metropolitan areas of the PRC where atheists and party faithful readily adhere to the policy, but after a long period of non-enforcement, rural people are again finding their traditional burial culture challenged.
The government argues that the age-old Confucian practice of ancestor veneration has chewed up vast tracts of arable land, and annual coffin production lays waste to whole forests. China’s ageing population, therefore, looms as an enormous and real environmental challenge. The under-supply of suitable burial space has caused prices to inflate drastically, creating a visible wealth disparity that the CPC wants to be seen to be flattening out.
In January 2014, state media reported that officials in Anhui, setting an example, ordered a recently buried senior’s family to exhume and cremate his body, which was buried without proper authorisation. When the family failed to comply with the order, officials opened the grave, poured petrol on the body, and set it alight. Of course, there is an important distinction between conducting a cremation and simply burning a body, but the nuance was lost on the regime. In May, further reports from Anhui Province claimed that officials had initiated a door-to-door enforcement campaign resulting in the destruction of 45,000 coffins and a spate of suicides in seniors hoping to beat the June 1 deadline for the cessation of burials. One elderly villager reported that her own coffin was sawed in half in her living room.
In order to promote the policy, Communist Party historian Zhang Lifan led a public campaign to iron out one of the PRC’s most problematic internal contradictions: to have the body of Mao Zedong cremated. Despite his pro-cremation stance, Mao was embalmed and remains on display in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, a souvenir of his own cult of personality in the fashion of Lenin and (before his own posthumous de-Stalinisation) Stalin.
There are hard and soft tactics at play in China’s burial wars; all hands on deck to usher the ageing population into the most economical kind of oblivion. On this scale—just like Australia or anywhere else in the world—the huge vacuum of not knowing is filled by the community imagination: superstition, tradition, religion. It’s a huge gap to fill, but it’s no great leap forward to imagine that Samadhi has a role to play in the CPC’s cremation revolution. The simulator promises to demystify the process one tour group at a time.
Three days later I’m wandering the grounds of a repurposed orphanage in Shanghai looking for Building 2. This is where Samadhi 4D Experience of Death is meant to be but, despite press releases to the contrary, it isn’t open yet. We snoop around and look in the windows – there’s a fractured mirror on one wall. A steel shaft linking two rooms. But it’s too dark to see much, and the windows are dusty. Another vacuum. Death really sucks. I try to make some enquiries, but the only person who speaks English is an American woman in a hessian skirt drinking tea on a ledge in the orphanage’s garden.
“It’ll probably never open,” she says. “It’s probably a front.”
“Just money moving.”
“But I read about it online.” She looks genuinely disappointed in me.
“Did you know that in the Confucian burial culture they burn paper hell money so the dead can bribe officials in the afterlife?”
20th October 2014, 2:39am
Eucalyptus out there. Out there. Out there.
Eucalyptus Crematorium Authority.
Testing. Testing. Testing. Testing.
Did she know the listening post was unmanned? I wonder if she knows that the whole idea of haunting is backwards: the dead don’t possess supernatural powers (they’re dead). We’re the ones with the material power to possess the dead and make them dance. We can pass through the histories of their lives like poltergeists. We can forget the dead, or imagine they never died. Governments can do this on a monumental scale. I want to tell Eucalyptus Woman that the truth is the dead aren’t really resting, so no matter how scary you think you are, they’ll never wake up to it.
“You know what you should do?” says Gravedigger Joe, “You should stay here tonight and drink crematorium coffee all night until the phone rings, and then…”
“And then I answer it and say: Hello Eucalyptus Woman. This is David Grey.”
Vern Mitchell is a writer, editor, poet and visual artist from Brisbane. His work has appeared in Cordite, Overland, Rabbit, etc.