29 June 2009

Book Review: In the Land of Long Fingernails

Fellow brave hearts and lovers of black humour, listen up. I know you, as well, appreciate literary excellence. Hustle off to your library or bookstore to find Charles Wilkins’ In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Memoir (Toronto: Viking Press, 2008). It might be a revelation for family historians who metaphorically dig up ancestral dirt. Should I mention this also has direct relevance to anyone who is about to die? Which seems to mean all of us.

No, the book is not about ghosts, although it has scary elements. In 1969 Wilkins was a university student who took a summer job as a gravedigger. This was not his first choice to enhance his resumé. Presumably he had hoped to become a kids’ summer camp counsellor or something equally altruistic. Instead he swallowed his disappointment and diligently learned to fit right in as low man on the totem pole at Willowlawn Cemetery. We meet the cast of true characters one would swear came from a latter-day Dickens: the never-sober Scots manager, the grumpy Dutchman, the over-educated Italian and the one-armed Pole. The collective misfits managed to perform the necessaries in a large urban cemetery, preparing gravesites, dealing with funeral managers and interring the coffins. Each employee knew his role. In between such bouts of intensive activity, they found their own rest in favoured grassy spots for a daily bit of mellow meditation.

Maintenance was also a routine part of the schedule. The grounds and the flowering plants were relatively easy. Old sinking plots and stray bones were handled on an ad hoc basis without bothering the management sailing on Cutty Sark. All still pretty straightforward in terms of job description for a young lad. Unless weather, or a union strike, interfered. Yes, both happened in 1969 in Toronto. Flooding rain does not bode well for some of the after-life occupants. Moreover, when the strike curtailed actual burials, we get a graphic visualization of coffins-in-waiting.

Wilkins’ macabre but funny memoir is a head butt with some realities of the death industry but it is always entertaining. (Maybe it’s a Canadian thing?) Lest you think I stand alone in my praise, Wilkins’ totally engaging writing style won him shortlist nominations for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the Trillium Award this year.

Shall we convince ourselves that the intervening forty years have seen improvements or shall we opt for cremation?

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