ON WEDNESDAY, THE FIRST DAY OF THE NEW YEAR, THE CITY WAS FILLED WITH FOG, AND MYRTLE Ellis died of natural causes. At 109, Myrtle would be the oldest person to die in Dallas during the next seven days. The year she was born, Rodin was chipping away at “The Thinker” over in Europe and there were 20 miles of paved road here.
Although considered legally blind. Myrtle retained her mental faculties to the end. She spent her final 14 years at Heritage Village Nursing Home in Richardson, delighting friends with stories of an American girlhood thai knew no telephones, no motor vehicles and no flying machines.
Dying with Myrtle in Dallas on Wednesday were a computer technician, a fencing contractor and a 4-month-old baby. A police officer with 23 commendations died, as did an English warbride who fell in love with squaredancing once she got settled in Texas. And a 20-year-old man and a 31-year-old woman died when their car vaulted off an 1-30 overpass and fell 266 feet through the air before bouncing down onto Belt Line Road and bursting into flames.
In another of the year’s first accidental deaths, a too-happy New Year’s Eve celebrant plowed his car into a concrete bridge support down in the Trinity levee. Because the river bottoms were choked with blinding fog, police could not immediately assume that champagne had been a factor in this death from blunt injuries. They trucked the body behind Parkland Memorial Hospital to the morgue. Toxicology samples taken, the body was wheeled into a basement cooler that holds 50 bodies and is always pretty much packed these days.
About 200 people die in Dallas from Sabbath to Sabbath, a remarkably stable rule of thumb in recent years. In 1995, within the confines of the city proper, 10,547 people died; the year before, 10,390. A special data run provided by the city’s Office of Vital Statistics shows that during the first week of 1997, from Wednesday, Jan. I through Tuesday, Jan. 6, the number of deaths was 200 on the money.
And. lately, money is what death is all about.
The national average for funeral costs is $4,658. This figure does not reflect many incidental costs or the stylish inclinations of the average Dallasite. These taken into account, a conservative average of $5,000 per person would peg the value of a week’s worth of dying in Dallas at an even $1 million. Factor in the corpse contributions of the surrounding supercolony, and the annualized revenue stream approximates $200 million.
Because funeral costs double every five years and because the Beatles generation is entering the last stretch of its long and winding road, this number is about to start climbing like Sir Edmund Hillary.
“Oh, right now, it’s just the lull before the storm,” an industry insider says with a grin.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 2
ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE YEAR, THE OWNER OF AN OIL AND GAS operation died, and so did a self-employed food broker. In Bedford, one month after his 13th birthday, a clever and outgoing seventh-grader who played football and sang in his church choir was found dead in his bed from a heroin overdose.
The press painted a gruesome portrait of this young body. When a sibling found him, the boy was cold and blue-faced, tucked up defensively in a fetal position. There were numerous needle marks on the feet and arms, suggesting that the choirboy was also a junkie.
These stigmata panicked the burb’s population of 46,000. When local authorities confiscated two bags from the family home containing 0.4 grams of Mexican black-tar heroin, the mayor proclaimed that every member of the community must shoulder some blame for allowing an inner-city poison to leak into their protected enclave. Police tried to arraign the mother on child endanger-ment charges, but failed for lack of causal evidence.
The boy’s body joined that of the New Year’s Eve reveler in the morgue. “We’re seeing more heroin,” notes Dr. Joni McClain, one of eight pathologists on staff at the Medical Examiner’s office. “We still see a lot of cocaine, but right now heroin seems to be getting popular even at the 16- and 17-year-old level,”
Overseen by Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Medicine is one of the nation’s busiest and best respected. Each pathologist performs about 300 autopsies a year. McClain has personally delved into 1,500 cases since she joined me staff in 1992. “Most people assume we just do murders,” she says, ’’but our main job is to investigate and document all different kinds of sudden, unexpected or unexplained” deaths.”
Pathologists work around the clock, sometimes three of them on weekend night shifts. “We can get refrigerated trucks if there’s ever an emergency,” she says.
McClain’s records show that during the first week of the year she and her colleagues either visually inspected or opened up and formally autopsied 71 whites, 24 blacks, eight Hispanics and two East Indians.
Almost half these folk defused abruptly from natural causes like heart disease, hypertension, aneurysm, cerebral hemorrhage and stroke. Of 25 fatal accidents that week, 20 involved the kind of blunt force trauma produced when ears lash out at architecture.
McClain, who from time to time must testify in child-abuse homicide trials, also serves on the Dallas County Child Death Review Team. “The Medical Examiner’s mission is to speak for victims who cannot speak for themselves, and children are a difficult aspect of the job,” she explains, a quick wince clouding her face. In almost a quarter of the 205 cases studied by the team in 1995, the children were victims of homicide.
In two deaths that occurred during this week, the manner of death could not be determined. McClain acknowledges without hesitation that in spite of new DNA breakthroughs in her highly specialized field, death can still defy definition.
“Sometimes it’s just a mystery,” she says with a smile.
Another woman who loved dancing died on Thursday. Her funeral announcement in the newspaper was the only one all week long to contain the word “cremated.” In fine type, it also contained this fine elegy: “The stars in heaven inherit a brave, kind spirit; She touched the lives of so many and made the world a better place.”
Into a retort oven went the body, where flames burning at 2,300 degrees reduced the dancer to four pounds of fine gray ash. Exposed to the same intense heat, a big man like a professional football player would render down to eight or nine pounds of ash.
Whereas almost half the residents of states like Washington and California opt for the furnace, only 10 percent of Texans do so. Usually for religious reasons, the vast majority prefer to be cas-keted for display. In cities like Dallas and Houston, packed as they are with pagan corporate nomads, the cremation rates are right in line with the national average of 20 percent.
“Funeral directors don’t like to talk about cremation because they can’t make any money on it,” says John P. Brooks, who personally handled the dancer’s arrangements. Brooks, the owner and independent operator of Oak Cliff Funeral Chapel at Kessler Park, uses his middle initial to distinguish himself from a preacher of the same name. Both men do their fair share of burying on the south side of the Trinity.
Since opening his chapel in a former 7~ Eleven storefront across the street from Methodist Medical Center, Brooks has directed more than 300 services and seen every manner of humankind undone. He has watched Native American tribesmen dance around open graves in feathered bonnets and seen Muslim bodies enter raw earth elements clad only in linen sheeting.
He has casketed people with golf clubs and fishing poles, basketballs and Bibles, teddy bears, Barbie dolls, cowboy hats, cowboy boots and an impressive collection of cowboy belt buckles.
Once, a traditional African storyteller elected to take down into die underworld his magical storytelling staff. Once. Brooks buried an old lady farmer in her favorite pair of worn coveralls, Once, unforgettably, he buried a young Hispanic girl in a fancy dress and shawl.
“She had been sick her whole life and died just a few months before the big deb party her parents had planned for her 15tb birthday,” he recalls quietly.
The parents brought him the party gown anyway, which in cut and elaboration of design closely resembled a bride’s, and asked that he casket their daughter in gala attire, shoulders wrapped in a sky-blue shawl just like the Virgin Mary.
“All (lie families touch your heart, but 1 lost it completely on that one.”
FRIDAY, JANUARY 3
ON FRIDAY, THE DALLAS-FORT WORTH AREA EXPERIENCED A RECORD high of 78 degrees for that date, and the death notices sparkled with personality: an avid bowler, a lover of nature, a retired truck driver who became a Baptist minister and the man whose company pioneered vinyl wallcovering throughout the Southwest for more than 20 years.
Friday did a gothic number on a local Renaissance man who was a professional engineer by trade, but who also devoted himself to the study of historical literature and the science of golf. He played every week up to and including the week of his departure.
Friday permanently grounded a man who had been looking forward to receiving his pilot’s license. As on every day. under photos of fresh faces, death notices bristled with the words “sudden” and “unexpectedly.”
At 7 p.m. on Friday, a rosary began in a chapel at Rest land Memorial Park for the soul of a man who earned two Purple Hearts as a Marine during World War II. Throughout the week, generations of soldiers were remembered for their contributions to campaigns in Italy, North Africa. Korea and Vietnam.
John H. Van Amburgh was proud to have been a member of the “Fighting 69th” Infantry Division. Marvin Spurlock, a retired LTV employee, was a radio operator on the first wave of planes to drop supplies to troops of the 101 st Airborne when they were trapped by Panzers at Bastogne.
One Dallas soldier, a 53-year-old systems analyst, had been a member of the military’s first data processing group. Another, an 85-year-old retired plumber, had in his youth been a mounted troop in the Texas National Guard’s 112th Horse Cavalry.
Pathologist Joni McClain was a soldier once herself, an Air Force medical examiner who ventured into the jungles of Panama and Borneo in search of downed American flying machines and the remains of their crews.
In her civilian incarnation, McClain must occasionally lead outsiders on tours of the morgue. At the bottom of two flights of concrete stairs, she keys in her access code al a door posted ;’NO VISITORS BEYOND THIS POINT.”
Gallantly, she volunteers to scout ahead and make sure no activities are under way that might affront the biologically naive.
And, except for a breathless gentleman on a stretcher in the middle of the main work area, all is a marvel of sterility and order. Painted concrete floors and stark tile walls blaze in the fluores-ence that rains down from above. Against a far wall, scales with hanging pans sway over a bank of big stainless sinks, stations where the viscera and hearts can be weighed.
Against another wall is the bay where each body is photographed at least three times: one picture for general identification, one each for upper and lower body. When evidence abounds in the flesh, as many as 50 images may be taken.
“We have hundreds of thousands of photos on file,” the doctor estimates.
During the week, field agents brought the pathologists six homicides and seven suicides-all males. The ages of the murder victims, in the order they appear on the official records: 36, 40, 17, 21, 47 and 18. The oldest suicide, who shot himself in the mouth, was 76; the youngest, who shot himself in the head, was 25.
Firearms took all but two of these lives-a man who was beaten to death and a man who hanged himself.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 4
ONE DAY’S DYING IN DALLAS TENDS TO RESEMBLE ANY OTHER, BUT Saturdays have an explosive potential that sets them apart. On the fourth day of the year, the trauma commenced when a woman drowned watching a football game. Things went precipitously downhill after that.
The 76-year-old was found floating in a backyard swimming pool, fourth-quarter bowl fury flashing on a TV screen inside the house.
A crime scene detective surmised that the victim stepped away from the game to untangle a pool cleaning device. This simple task, poking at the coils of a floating hose with a stick, she had performed innumerable times before without incident. On Saturday, she lost her balance and toppled into the deep end.
“Such a shock” is how a neighbor described the reaction of (he While Rock neighborhood. Two hours Inter, an Arlington neighborhood recoiled when a man accidentally drove a pickup truck over his 19-month-oid son. The toddler had been sale on the porch with his mother and grandmother, but scampered away abruptly into the path of the vehicle.
The sun went down and a Burleson man died when a pickup truck flipped near the Big Town exit on State Highway HO. Same night, same highway. Town East exit, a drag racer lost control of his car and rifled across a median into a head-on collision with two Dallas men who were not wearing seat belts and who therefore ended up in the morgue cooler.
The speedster, horizontal in the hospital but still among the living, was charged with criminally negligent homicide.
Homicide trends are encouraging in Dallas, falling from 276 in 1995 to 219 last year. At the beginning of the decade, the numbers were almost twice as high.
“I can’t think of anything that truly has caused this dramatic reduction,” said a Dallas Police Department spokesman. “It’s just one of those statistics with no explanation.”
AT 10:40 P.M. ON SATURDAY NIGHT, RONALD JOHNSON BECAME AN inexplicable statistic on the sidewalk in front of an apartment complex at 3116 Mahanna, near the corner of Cedar Springs. The brown brick structure is nice enough looking behind a fence topped with coils of military-style razor wire and blazoned with a sign that pleads “KEEP THIS GATE SHUT.”
Johnson was walking down the street with a friend when two bandits approached him and demanded his wallet. He refused to comply and was promptly shot in the gut. From the dying man’s pocket, the bandits fished a brown wallet containing an Arkansas driver’s license and a S20 bill, and then disappeared into the night.
Late Saturday night, a man died when the storage shed he called home burned to the ground in the parking lot of a liquor store near Samuell Boulevard.
“Us homeless, 95 percent of us use handles like truck drivers, because we don’t want people finding out we’re down on our luck. Around here on Samuell. there’s about 15 of us. You got ’Bull.’ You got ’Wolf.’ You got ’Tracker.’ The man who burned up that night, we all called him ’JoJo Dancer.’ “
JoJo Dancer’s friend goes by “T.J.” and is quick to point out that he and the loose fraternity of drifters who sleep like cats in the alleyways behind the firewater shops are all alcoholics, thank you, and not crackheads.
“I can’t say what JoJo’s problem was.” T.J. wheezes through a ruined esophagus. “He was young. That’s usually a problem. I think probably he was just lost like the rest of us.”
T.J., who says he once earned $120.000 a year from a spa distributorship he owned on Jupiter Road, came unglued when the business did and drifted off into the Florida Keys and cirrhosis of the liver. Gravity brought him back to Dallas, where he joined (he ranks of the 3.500 to 5.000 adults and children, who on any given night, bed down in shelters and cars and parks and right against the stone skin of the streets.
This afternoon, absorbing sunlight like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, T.J. sprawls on a bedroll in the parking lot where JoJo’s death began. Graciously, he volunteers to fetch the man who tried to save JoJo. a man who hasn’t had a drink since the night of the death.
“It freaked him out, man. It freaked all of us out.”
He returns with a sad-eyed, unblinking man who has not only abandoned liquor but begun a regimen of vitamins he hopes will one day balance out his blood chemistry. Ken begins his story by pointing straight down at the ground.
“I was laying right about here that night. I remember I was worried because it started getting cold all of a sudden, and I still had some flu and pneumonia. All of a sudden, I smelled smoke. That’s what drew my attention. 1 looked up and JoJo had draped up a blanket to keep the wind and cold out, and it was all lit upon fire,
“I yelled to him, ’JoJo! Get out of there! It’s on fire! ’And I kept yelling for the longest time. I’m pretty sure he was drunk because early in the day somebody saw him fall down and said he needed help getting back on his feet.”
T.J. shakes his head indignantly. “The cops thought we killed him. What happened was he woke up, lit a cigarette and passed back out.”
Ken continues, ’i tried to reach in and grab him. but when I did the fire blew back at me. There was a lot of wind that night, like I said, and it was just like you see on TV when people are trying to get into a room and a big ball of flame shoots back at them. I’m surprised my beard didn’t catch on fire. It was longer back then.”
He strokes the growth, gauging its length and abstracting.
“Finally, JoJo got to where I could grab him by the shoulders and roll him down the hill.”
The parking lot falls away from the street like a bunny slope and dead ends against an oily brick wall. Both men stare in silence at the spot where the body of JoJo Dancer finally tumbled to a stop.
“The only thing he had on that didn’t burn up was his shoes,” T.J. grimaces. “Everything else just kind of melted right onto him.”
Ken says, “Most people would probably like to see the same thing happen to all of us.”
JOHN P. BROOKS SITS IN THE SMALL CONFERENCE ROOM OF THE chapel he built in an old 7-Eleven and says, “There’s more to life than money. The older you get the more you realize that.”
Brooks, who has buried his share of the well-to-do, is not indulging in fatuous moralizations about the emptiness of worldly riches. What galls him is his belief that corporate bandits are turning a profession with some sacred dimensions into robot work and a numbers game.
The funeral industry is in an acquisitive mode, following the lead of groups like Service Corp. International out of Houston and Stewart Enterprises in New Orleans. “Clustering” is the trend, a straightforward integration strategy whereby the chains buy up a number of well-respected funeral homes, cemeteries, flower shops and crematoriums in a given metropolitan area, then centralize functions to cut costs.
“The focus these days at the premier properties is whether the numbers are up or down and what can be done to get the numbers as high as possible.
“Conglomerates buy up independents as a means of acquiring the people’s trust. Nine times out of 10, the first thing they do is raise prices.”
In a Yellow Pages ad that is also a stormy editorial against the corporate menace, Brooks uses bar charts to show how cheaply a square-dealing independent can provide a family with dignified services: $3,305 for a traditional funeral, as opposed to price ranges from $5,739 to $6,505 at the clustered outlets; $1,025 for direct cremation with a memorial service vs. a high-end chain option at $3,395; and direct cremation fora mere $725 instead of $2,800.
In retaliation, he says, the Oak Cliff Funeral Chapel at Kessler Park has been sneered at by the multinational strategists as a no frills, quick disposal chopshop. the Wal-Mart way to go.
“And if you go look in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, you will probably see the same kind of cars you see in mine,” the feisty populist intones.
The second thing chains do is mass-market. Late-night TV watchers in Dallas are now regularly jolted out of their comas by high-energy talking heads extolling the pastoral charms of Cemetery X and hawking gravesites like waterbeds.
Mass mailers let recipients know they have been demographed as buzzard bait and transmit apocalyptic guilt trips with swift precision: 87 DECISIONS IN 72 HOURS! If you don’t face your decision TOGETHER, ONE OF YOU WILL FACE IT ALONE! NO ONE WANTS TO THINK ABOUT IT.. .but do you really want to leave the burden of making your funeral arrangements to your family? 67 PERCENT OF ALL FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS are made by the wife…ALONE!
On a wall of the small conference room in his chapel, Brooks has hung a photograph of his ancestors and a small plaque with the Brooks coat of arms.
His people, happily assembled shoulder to shoulder several decades ago, look to be standing in a bright, spring light. Their coat of arms displays a plumed knight’s helmet with visor and the Latin motto Respice finem. ’’Respect the end,” he translates, smiting al the ironic dovetail with his professional calling. He points out individuals in the photo gathering and lists their special talents.
’They were all very helpful people.” he says.
Brooks is married to a licensed embalmer and has a daughter in mortuary college who will carry on the family business. His chapel is designed to remind guests of an ideal grandmother’s house. Fabricked walls, period paint schemes and vintage furnishings convey a warm, cozy “Radio Days” feel. Green is the man’s favorite color, and soothing greens predominate.
Music follows you into the main sanctuary, which seats as many as 85 and has two overstuffed Victorian sofas, each with its own centrally located box of tissue. Music follows you into the private room where widows like to visit with the ashes of their spouses.
Brooks respects the healing power of music. Quarterbacking graveside huddles in good weather and bad, he concludes each service with a few diplomatic words. More than once, he has been deprived of the power of speech by haunting renditions of “Taps” on the bugle or the weird spell of an expert bagpiper.
“Mariachi trumpets can cut you to the quick, too,” he attests. “I had to bury one young man who had been killed in a drive-by two days before his birthday. His brother had already paid for a mariachi band to play at thai celebration, so we all sat beside the grave for an hour and listened to these incredible musicians. When the trumpets hit the final note on ’One Day at A Time, Sweet Jesus,’ the brother took the flower off his lapel, kissed it and tossed it onto the casket.” He mimics the gesture carefully.
“It really was a perfect service. The trumpets sent a chill from the top of my head all the way down to my toes.”
Brooks hates to use his technical skills to fix faces and bodies that have been insulted by firearms, but when necessary he will ask the family for photographs and resculpt the flesh.
Working with ami-gang programs, he lakes caskets to high schools and props them up with mirrors inside and a sign that reads “THIS COULD BE YOU!” Dallas Public Schools teens stand in line to ponder for the first time these sobering reflections in a box.
Himself a designer of caskets, with a preference for the traditional full-top. full-couch style. Brooks displays in the chapel showroom a handsome example of his craftsmanship. The container has rich bronze handles and a muted emerald finish as lustrous as any luxury sedan.
“Personally, I don’t see myself in a metal casket,” the arch traditionalist confesses. “I’ll probably go for a nice wood like mahogany or cherry.”
SUNDAY, JANUARY 5
ON SUNDAY, BOBBY LEE BENTON DIED, LEAVING AS SURVIVORS HIS wife, two sons, one sister, two aunts, three cousins and a host of nieces and nephews. Benton worked at the Stoneleigh Hotel for 17 years, the Sheraton Dallas Hotel for 21 years and the Summit Hotel for eight years. He was also a drummer and a knowledgeable collector of jazz records.
On Sunday, Orenee Walker died, Born in Millery, Ala., she settled here in 1931 and worked as a housekeeper for 60 years. The Pride of Dallas Cab Company employed her as the first black woman cabdriver in the history of Dallas. She also had a strong desire to play golf, and from 1954 to 195K was (he reigning champion of the Texas Negro Women’s Golf Association.
On Sunday, a man died at Baylor University Medical Center. where small-talk in the coffee shop thai night focused much on the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff loss earlier in [he afternoon.
Between 60 percent and 70 percent of all deaths in Dallas involve patients in hospitals. In their waning days, most of the dying experience an unpleasant symptom like pain, breathless-ness or confusion. During the last three days of their lives, most of the elderly and seriously ill undergo at least one “heroic” medical treatment-CPR. assisted breathing with a ventilator, or feeding with a tube.
About 45 percent of the patients are unconscious or in halfsenses during the final three days of their lives. Surfing in and out of faints, comas and trances. they are really neither in Dallas, Texas, nor any pinpointable geographic location.
The doctors begin to walk kin and friends through a carefully staged sequence of explanations, each a little franker than the last. They break down the facts into information clan members can use to make decisions. Breathing and heartbeat can be sustained indefinitely by machines, but once activity loss in higher centers of the brain like the neocortex seem irreversible, paperwork must be prepared.
It is astonishing how accurately the doctors can measure life’s energy as il disappears.
MONDAY, JANUARY 6
NOBODY KNOWS FOR SURE WHERE ALL THE BODIES ARE BURIED IN Dallas, but 140.000 of them are out at Restland, 15 times the current population of Highland Park. If this Monday was an average day, from 10 to 15 more joined the fold, according to general manager Jim Dennis, who oversees the keeping of the 340-acre grounds at the third-largest memorial park in the United States. He credits several factors for the park’s popularity, prominent among them, the convenience heralded in the corporate motto: “One Call Does All.”
Nine out of 10 families of those buried in the cemetery have made pre arrangements, as have 60 percent of the funeral-home customers. The property pulls from an extensive market that includes Irving, Hurst, Euless, DeSoto, Garland. Rowlett, Rockwall and other suburbs, as well as Dallas.
“Our Number 1 focus here is letting people know they can take care of everything in one place,” says Dennis. Reslland offers three on-site chapels, an “abbey,” large free-standing indoor and outdoor mausoleums, and a diversified staff of professionals like cosmetologists and music directors.
“’Some of these people have worked here for 20 and 30 years,” he says. “They take a great deal of pride in their work and always try to make sure everything is done just right.”
He gestures good-naturedly with a wave of the hand toward LBJ Freeway, where a line of motor vehicles stretches from Lake Ray Hubbard to DFW Airport, westbound in theory only.
“You never have to follow a procession out into ’that.” “
Dennis is also responsible for the park’s program of special events. On Memorial Day. families bring their children out to pay tribute to the many veterans buried there. The kids like the 21-gun salutes and F-16 fly-overs, and Dennis anticipates an audience of more than 25.000 for an upcoming visitation of a traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial wall. At Chist-mas. families bring ornaments as commemorative tokens of their losses. A musical event and festival of lights ends with an emotional tree-trimming.
“We read the names aloud as they hang the ornaments on the tree. We are not grief therapists, but we do get a lot of feedback from people who tell us that events like these tire very helpful to them. Last year, there were 900 ornaments on the tree.”
Kim Cleaver is Rest-land’s executive vice presidem of sales and marketing, responsible for 23 funeral homes and 11 cemeteries. A licensed mortician for 16 years, she was one of the first women to break into the profession locally. Today, with business magazines touting “funeral director” as America’s hottest new job opportunity, the number of female graduates from some mortuary colleges is approaching 50 percent.
“These days a lot of people are choosing to be buried in their favorite sweaters rather than the blue suit they wore to the bank every day,1’ Cleaver says. “We get requests to hold services in the deceased’s favorite restaurant. Songs by Whitney Houston. Garth Brooks and the Beatles are popular.”
Even in winter, Restland’s ranks of live oaks and post oaks throw up a dense enough canopy to blot out the silhouette of the big new chip plant Texas Instruments just built on the other side of the hedge.
Inside (he park, a web of paths defines 140 different burial gardens, some with inspirational stonework and statues that can’t help but make one think. In the Garden of Mount Vernon, a bold Gen. George Washington throws his shoulders back and stands ready to commence a democracy.
On a recent tour. Cleaver pointed out an interesting aspect of a large concave relief sculpture of die face of Christ in (he Garden of Love. “The eyes follow you.” she says. Looking back, it does appear as if the Nazarene were memorizing the vehicle’s license plate number, Beneath the face, the legend; “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
In the turf at the base of the monument, surrounded by markers with western names, lies a metal plate with raised Chinese characters. Attached, the emblem of the Dallas Buddhist Association, a lone white lotus that clashes not at all with the neighboring crosses.
In the Islamic Garden, there are about 100 markers, including one for a doctor from Istanbul, one for a man who held (he rank of captain in an unspecified foreign army, and one for a man given this epitaph by his children: “Dada, who taught us the meaning of love.”
In the Islamic Garden, a fresh grave has been artfully distinguished with a sharp border of (lowers. Pink and white and red carnations glow in the black prairie soil, which has been strewn over with shredded petals to blanket the sleeper.
Dennis, who jogs through the park sometimes during his lunch hour to inspect the grounds, is every day impressed by the site of lone survivors, many quite aged, laboring patiently at a marker.
“You see the same people week after week,” he says. “They get right down on their hands and knees with a pair of scissors and make sure thai every blade of grass is trimmed just perfectly.”
TUESDAY, JANUARY 7
ON THE FINAL DAY OF THE WEEK, WITH A SNOWLINE STRETCHING from the Panhandle down through Dallas and on into Texarkana, Georgia Louise Wilks died at 4:45 a.m. at her home in Garland. The year she was born, 1912, a Chicago doctor made the first official diagnosis of a phenomenon called heart attack.
Rather than remain in Dallas, Georgia elected to return to Sulphur Springs, where she was buried two days later. About 20 of the 200 bodies the city produced that week became what are referred to as “ship-outs” in the funeral industry.
Out at the airport, the drifting snowline had grounded flying machines with caskets in their bellies destined for places like Pine Bluff and Foreman, Ark.; Atlanta; Cedar Springs, Mich.; and several foreign countries. In 1996, the Mexican Consulate in Dallas issued 431 permits for cadavers to be shipped across the border.
Lupe Garcia, the owner-operator of Calvario Funeral Home, air-shipped two men to Mexico that week. One. a 26-year-old, headed back to Michoacan. One, 22 years of age and dead of multiple gunshot wounds, had a cargo identification number that coded him for Queretaro.
“We ship the young men back to their parents or in some cases to their wives and children,” says Garcia, who specializes in foreign transports. “Most of the Central American shipouts come from the large Salvadoran community in Irving. We’ve seen a little run here recently on shipouts to Honduras, so there may have been some growth in that community as well.”
Brooks, whose wife, Retha. is a pilot as well as an embalmer, frequently climbs into the clouds in a Cherokee Six en route to small towns in Oklahoma or Missisippi. With them in the cockpit of their light craft will be a casket and survivors who choose to personally accompany their parents, children, brothers, lovers and friends on their final trip above the earth.
’i sent casketed remains back to Vietnam here not too long ago. I was (old that could not be done, and getting it done was not easy. But back at my house. 1 have a videotape the family sent me of the funeral dinner and (here is a big banner over the table that says ’THANK YOU. MISTER JOHN. FOR SENDING GRANDFATHER HOME.”
Sometimes, Brooks finds he must take time to break away from his busy schedule of solemnities. On these infrequent occasions,he will isolate himself and muster together the inner strength his work demands, the same kind of inner strength that fuels the esprit d’ corps of Dr. Jeffery Barnard’s crack troops at the Medical Examiner’s Office.
“if there was ever a person who loves what he does for a living, it’s me,’’ Brooks says. “Bat I am a human being, and being around death all day creates a lot of stress and anxiety. I hold people’s hands and watch them slip away all the time. It then becomes my job to hold the hands of survivors who are angry at God. It’s my job to explain the process to them, how it works.”
ALL WEEK LONG, “THE PROCESS” WORKED THE CITY, REMOVING A librarian, the owner of a vacuum cleaner store, a National Master Flower Judge Emeritus, and the shortstop for the 1944 State Champion Baseball Team.
The process claimed a member of the Accountants Hall of Fame, a letter carrier, a woman whose named survivors included two Airedales named Cassidy and Puddles, and a man whose happiest moments had been spent with his wife. The process, which John P. Brooks describes as a true perpetual motion machine, is something that the spirit can arm itself against only with special effort.
“I will lock the doors after a visit or a rosary and turn off the lights except for maybe a desk lamp. And I will sit alone for a while and meditate. I spend that time searching inside myself very carefully to make sure 1 am still all here.”
To make sure this important point is understood, he repeats himself for emphasis, rapping twice with his knuckles at the breastbone beneath his shirt and tie and skin. “To make sure that ’I’ am still ’here,’”
Twice, the bone resounds convincingly.