Humans are the only species that buries their dead.
After Phineas Gage died (1860), he was buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery in San Francisco. Six years later, his brother-in-law, David Shattuck, along with two physicians (past mayors) dug him up.
Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in neuroscience and psychology fields.
Once he learned of his patient’s passing, Dr. Harlow (who treated Phineas) asked to have the body exhumed for the advancement of science. Phineas’s mother received this request and saw that it was carried out.
What is it like to unearth a member of your family?
David Shattuck (husband to Phoebe Gage / brother-in-law to Phineas Gage)
Lone Mountain Cemetery, San Francisco 1867
On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.
Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.
Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.
The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”
Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”
“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”
“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.
“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”
“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.
“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.
“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.
It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.
Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.
Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850
I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’
I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.
“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”
When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.
I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.
Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.
Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.
A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.
When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.
Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?
The Gage family was one of many who were affected by grave removals in San Francisco.
With growing pressure to make efficient use of valuable real estate, the dead of San Francisco had to make way for the living.
By the end of 1948 bodies in several pioneer cemeteries were moved to a mass grave site forty miles south in Colma, California.
Phineas Gage’s niece, Delia Presby (Shattuck) Oliver’s gravestone appears on Ocean Beach when heavy storms move sand out to sea. It was last uncovered on June 4, 2012. The lettering — still legible — reads; Delia Presby, wife of, F.B. Oliver, Died, April 9, 1890, Aged 26 yrs., 10 mos. 27 days, — Rest –
When I was 17 and living on my own…certain that I knew more about anything than anyone around me….I took a job for a few months as a janitor at an old folks home.
My friends and I called it the Home for the Nearly Dead. It was at the edge of town like it was slowly being pushed out there to the precipice of living, far from view.
It was a sad and decrepit little place with peeling paint and linoleum floors and a funeral home next door. That part of town had its own zip code…and some of the townspeople called it the Hereafter, like it was a rest spot between living and whatever comes later.
I was dating a girl out in the sticks so I would regularly go thru the Hereafter to get near her…the way a teenage boy will for any girl.
Passing through one day I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign and answered it. They hired me on the spot.
When I told my friends I had gotten a job at the Home for the Nearly Dead they all laughed.
The people there were so old we thought they were another species. Kind of human…but not like us. Not revving to run thru the days, not trying to make some girl, not getting loaded or sleeping on the beach, or trying to figure a way to make the world their kingdom.
That’s what life is like at 17. The world becomes a simple matter of speed. And I was chasing things with all my might full of only the certainty that they would be caught.
I became the groundskeeper at the Hereafter. This meant I was a janitor and a painter for the aged and the dying. Trying to make the world look neat and trim, trying to make the calamity of isolation seem orderly, and trying to forever mop up the dread that seemed to settle in its halls.
I had to cut the lawn too. I would do it at night …after I got off my other job. And then after midnight, I’d mop floors and try to make the place feel a little less lonely, like it could be washed away.
The lady who ran the place never gave me a hard time about when I did it…as long as it got done.
I can recall cutting the lawn at night a few times. Drunk once or twice. I think I even snuck my girl in a time or two to some empty bed on the ward. The Hereafter was as good as any place to chase love…or at least the 17-year-old version of it.
I remember they didn’t pay much but I needed the money so we were a match. I guess they liked having someone around whose heart could still race instead of merely meander.
There was this old man on the main floor. His grown kids had abandoned him there.
That’s really what it is…they drive by a couple times, sign the papers, then drop an old man or woman at the far edge of town into the Hereafter.
This guy’s kids would come by once a month and, because he was hard of hearing, holler at him in a loud voice….. like he was a thousand miles away. I suppose in a way he was.
But he wasn’t an idiot…and I could see how much it humiliated him. To be yelled at by his kids…who felt like they had to make this pilgrimage every once in a while just so they could look into the mirror. I watched it a few times. It was like watching some bad rerun.‘How are you, Dad? Can I get you anything Dad?’
You know the routine. It was merely obligatory…like he was a stranger who just happened to have the same last name.
It was like they had a bill that said they owed love and respect ….but had forgotten the actual debt.
This guy was a plumber. He had crawled around under kitchens and basements on his hands and knees in tight spaces for 50 years. Whenever someone called and was drowning in their own houses he would grab a wrench and go. So he knew a busted pipe when he saw one. And proud. Fixing things for decades makes a person self-reliant and proud. And he truly believed there was nothing in this life he couldn’t fix.But he could barely walk anymore.
And try as he might there was never any way to fix the pipes of time he had left.
They were just worn out, stripped at the nut from so many days coursing through them. He was crawling under his last days and knew it.
He had spent years on his hands and knees and now just wanted to stand and walk. He wanted to wrench his way forward instead of staying stuck in the bed where they expected him to die.
So every night, very late… he’d angle himself off his bed and unsteadily grab one of those walkers with tennis balls on the legs and slowly drag himself one tiny uncertain step after another out into the hall. He’d only do it at night…when there was no one to holler at him about how he shouldn’t be up, shouldn’t be trying to move, shouldn’t be doing anything but lying in a bed waiting on Death to finally find his room.
And late at night, we would meet unexpectedly sometimes.
The 17-year-old kid racing from job to job mopping the floors late at night and the eighty something plumber who, once again in a tight space, was trying to stand on his own two feet and walk through the hallways of the Hereafter.
I’d watch him some nights creep down the hallway. It was excruciating. The steps were so small. We got so we would nod and not say anything. I really didn’t know what to say to him.
I was a little afraid he would slip and fall on my mopped floor.
And I was afraid that Death was so close to him that it might take a hard long look at me if I got too close.
So I would watch him …not to help so much as to try to save my own ass if he went down.
And I got into the habit of waiting for him to make his great escape each night and to watch him struggle against his own failing flesh. I could see how much it hurt him to make those tiny steps…and how much it hurt him not to. And caught between those two kinds of pain each night he summoned up the will to demonstrate he was still living…to himself.
I found him one-night leaning against a wall in the dark. He had slipped….and could not quite regain his footing. I remember I was drunk…and so was unsteady myself. It was after midnight so the lights were off…except his room light with an open door at the end of the corridor. I saw him there…a shadow in the darkened hall….and stumbled over and grabbed his arm trying to lift him up. The unsteady 17-year-old and the unsteady 80 something leaning for a moment on each other.
His arm felt like a twig in November. Not really bone anymore, more like the memory of it. He hoarsely whispered to me “No, No, No,…I’m fine…’
So I let go…like a person building a house of cards lets go of the last card…and moves his hand slowly away…certain it could all come tumbling down any second.
Then in that darkened hall, that old man…a shadow in the dark crept away toward the light.
This was the first time I ever saw courage. And though at 17 I could not name it, I remember being in awe of it. Much later I came to understand it is usually found in the darkened hallways of any person’s days. It appears when the floor is slippery and when a soul is most unsteady.
I still think of him sometimes when I am not quite sure if I am steady enough.
I suppose that’s a kind of immortality. I suppose the best part of us, seen even at a distance can echo like that. Echo on for years.
The old man died a few days later. There was never a pipe he could not fix, except of course Time’s. It leaks in ways that cannot be repaired. He was a plumber. A fixer of the leaks of life. Filled with a common kind of courage. So common it is hard to see.
And his kids…. who hollered at his deafness each month came and stood in his room… without a word… at last.
An old man loses his legs and he grows courage in their place. The torrent of it runs faster because there’s a hole in the pipe.
There is some strange arithmetic at work in the human heart. Take away something …something you cannot do without …subtract it…and the sum somehow becomes larger.
They grow together.
—————– Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter. His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers. It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.
My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.
This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.
But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.
Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.
His wife of 60 years was in the ward.
She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.
And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’
Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.
He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.
He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.
So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.
He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.
When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.
I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?
What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?
She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.
And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.
I would stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.
It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.
But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.
Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.
She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say, “Do you know who I am?”
Somedays she would laugh and respond, “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”
And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.
Sometimes she would understand and ask, ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.
“Never mind…never mind that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’
Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.
Once again he was gently asking, “Do you know who I am?”
There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”
Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am. I know I should…I know I should…” trying to recover what had already leaked away.
He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright. I’m here.’
‘I know I should,’ she protested.
Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’
If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?
I quit that morning and I never went back.
The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.
They grow together.
Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.
A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.
And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.
I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.
I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.
And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.
Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter. His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers.