Saturday, November 26, 2011

"In The Land of Long Fingernails: a gravedigger's memoir" by Charles Wilkins

As a student during the summer of 1969, Charles Wilkins took a job as a gravedigger in a vast corporate cemetery in the east end of Toronto. The bizarre-but-true events of that time - a gravediggers' strike, the unearthing of a victim of an unsolved murder and a little illegal bone-shifting - play out among a Barnumesque parade of mavericks and misfits in this macabre and hilarious memoir. Amid relentless gallows humour and the inevitable reminders of what it is, finally, to be be human, Wilkins provides an unforgettable insider's view of a morbidly fascinating industry. {This} is a story of mortality, materialism, friendship and sexuality... and the gradual coming-of-age of an impressionable young man.

I had originally put this title on a TBR list for my hubby, as he loves this sort of thing. We've both read a couple of interesting books about death and the funeral industry, so this was a no-brainer. When I finally got it for him (the book, not a funeral), he flew through it and told me lots of little tidbits, enough that my interest was piqued. I finally finished it this morning, no small feat thanks to a busy work schedule, in-laws in for the Thanksgiving holiday, and general weariness of late which has had me falling asleep with only one, if any, chapters read at night.

The book is well-written, and yes, it is very interesting. The title is a bit of a misnomer, though, as Wilkins was not an "official" gravedigger. That title belonged to the only two union men on the crew, Peter and Hogjaw. When the strike hits (in the middle of summer, no less), the dead cannot be buried, as there are no other gravediggers available. Yes, Wilkins and his non-union co-workers could have done the job, but they are legally bound not to. Coffins with corpses are loaded into one of the buildings that has been outfitted with industrial A/C units; even so, after almost 3 weeks (and some 50+ corpses), the place is really starting to smell. Wilkin's job mostly consisted of cemetery maintenance, such as mowing lawns, clipping the parts that couldn't be mowed, filling in "sinkers" (plots that have settled enough to be noticeable by visiting mourners) and other such minutia that make a cemetery a place of peace.

There are several characters here, though. Peter and Hogjaw are the union guys. Luccio Pucci is an Italian in Canada on a visa (which has all but expired); he's a philosopher, writer, and in need of a better-paying, "real", job. He has hopes of becoming an economist, but seems to put off every potential employer. Fred is the one-armed groundskeeper, a quiet man of dignity who has perhaps one of the scariest brushes with death, as it is all too common and could happen to anyone. There's David, a grandson of the gravediggers' boss, Scotty. Scotty is the biggest character of all, something of a stereotype, but probably all too real. He drinks Scotch (of course) but it must be Cutty Sark and none other. He's brusque with his crew, yelling at them over the smallest details, and yet he can be sensitive at times. And like all human beings, he has a private life that his crew eventually learn of, one that explains his alcoholism to a point, one that makes him all the more human.

It's a good book, entertaining despite its topic. Some will find the gallows humour off-putting, I'm sure. But lots of professions use that sort of humour to deal with death: police, emergency personnel, etc. It's how you might react if you were the one faced with death on a daily basis. But the book isn't really about death - it's about life. And in the end, how you live it is more important than how you leave it.

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