Arts & Culture » Culture

Witness to an exhumation

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My friends and family consider me the queen of odd jobs. It's true, I have worn various and sundry hats, which currently include singer, artists' model, CPR and first aid instructor, swimming pool manager and lifeguard. Past gigs had me retouching safety signs, cleaning offices and delivering appellate briefs. I've sung madrigals in royal garb at the DIA Wassail feast, and Christmas carols in Dickensian dress. At Renaissance Festivals in wench attire I've painted faces, hawked games and taunted patrons. As costumer-dresser for a Matrix Theatre show, I outfitted a cast of 10 (playing 40 characters) in period clothes that spanned most of the 20th century. I've done nonprofit fund-raising, selling flower bulbs, gift items and candy, the latter earning me the nickname "Sugar Pusher" among my husband's co-workers (disclosure: he works for Metro Times). I can even boast of the time, years ago, that bandleader Doc Severinsen was one of my massage clients at the health club of the Pontchartrain Hotel.

But one of the oddest things I ever did for pay was being a witness to the exhumation of cremated remains.

I got the 11th hour phone call from Wayne State University Law School, where I used to do courier work. A witness was needed that afternoon, and no law students were available, so would I be able to go? I was free, so off I went, dressed to look professional in trousers, turtleneck and blazer. The day, appropriately enough, was gray.

In the cemetery office, I learned from the attorneys that there was some question as to whether the ashes to be unearthed were those of a Michigan man, who had died and was cremated in California, then supposedly returned here for interment, or those of a California man whose remains may have been erroneously sent instead. In short, did the West Coast crematorium screw up?

When a body is cremated and transferred, a permanent ID tag is packaged and shipped with the remains. The tag for the Michigan man had been found with remains supposed to be those of the California man, back in California. The disinterment was to determine if the California man's tag — and perhaps therefore his remains (known in funeral parlor parlance as "cremains") — were here in Michigan. So my job was to witness the process and report whether the tag was indeed here.

We trooped out to the gravesite, where one of the groundskeepers — a big, hirsute guy with a beer belly and a Harley belt buckle — took up his spade and started digging. I was surprised to see that the remains were buried in a concrete vault, just like those for caskets, but smaller and nearer the surface. The vault was opened, and a metal box removed. When the lid was lifted, we saw a paper label glued to its underside with the name of the late Michigander, but the attorneys still had to know whether the permanent ID tag of the Californian was inside.

So we followed the burly gravedigger back to the maintenance area at the edge of the cemetery and into a corrugated steel outbuilding, where he dumped the contents into a wide, shallow wooden bowl and began sifting, this way and that, with his bare hands. There we stood, in a rusty equipment shed, watching mutely as this dude who looked like a Hell's Angel pawed through some dead guy's ashes with his stubby, grubby fingers. It was surreal, and ludicrous, and all I could think was, "Whoa. I'm getting paid for this. I'd better not laugh."

After all that, there was no tag. I signed a document stating as much, got my check and went home. I never did find out whose ashes they really were.

Sophia Raptis, in addition to her many other talents, is also a writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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