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 –
I held you as you grew in inside my life-giving waters. I dreamed for you before you could dream. Every new sound, smile, and movement was recorded upon the tender organ beating within my breast. I am the keeper of your origins and the name on your tongue when your last breath has been taken.
The Brilliant One. He was named thus for the persona he elected. Black wool dress pants with creases so mean they could cut through turbulent air. A long overcoat, crafted from the same materials, scratched and abraded at his neckline and cuffs. These micro irritations served as constant reminders of a fact that very few people knew. He was not the only one.
A Teacher. The best and brightest minds were sent to him for training. He was the man with wild, wiry hair that reached toward his shoulders. He joked that when the brain worked at full capacity, it would produce so much heat that the follicles at the top of one’s head would burn away.
A Mind Like No Other. He had the tools of technology at his disposal but preferred, instead, the scrape and scuff of chalk on board and the compact binder that fit in the palm of his hand. Upon the page of every fresh notebook, he taped a photo of her. The binder and chalkboard went with the persona and recorded information that others raced to comprehend.
He Agreed. When the choice among billions came down to one, he nodded. He understood. He would represent them all. A holdout. For the blink of a cosmic eye, he would continue recording his thoughts and equations.
Beauty and Beast. It was a surprise to observe what the mind does when deprived of human contact. Guilt clutched at him with cold, bony, claw-like talons. Every day, he stared, as if mesmerized, at that thing of massive beauty that revolved beneath his window. Illuminated and glowing against her blanket of dark emptiness, her silent cries reached him, causing the talons to tighten.
Eyes Closed. The reoccurring dream was a further surprise. When all the thoughts of humanity and the universe were open to him, it was his sister to whom they ever returned. Алина. His twin. They’d lost her when she was ten. Chernobyl had been their childhood home. He knew, without a doubt, that her mind had been greater than his.
Musings. Perhaps the expiration of humanity had occurred on the day of Chernobyl’s disaster. He’d helped put off the inevitable. He was a temporary patch on the dam with fatal cracks that ran too deep. No one but him was left to wonder if she might have been the key that could have changed the outcome.
Story Prompt: WriteOn weekend challenge – in 500 words or less – Marooned