Lawn Of The Dead
Andrew Loos met the funeral director’s daughter when they were in junior high school. After that, there was always a sense of inevitability to his future.
Even before he and Liz got engaged, Andrew heard the joke over and over: You know you’re going to end up running a mortuary, right? Funeral families have a habit of raising their young for the job. The parents want their kids to run their own businesses and be as financially stable as they are. And it’s not a trade that makes recruiting outsiders easy.
They managed to put it off for a few years. Though he didn’t do as well in college as he had hoped, Andrew found a good job in marketing after he graduated. They lived in St. Joseph. Liz got a merchandising degree and worked at the wedding department at a Dillard’s and managed some clothing stores.
One night at dinner, when Andrew was 25, his father-in-law paused between bites of steak to mention that there was a mortuary on the market in Raytown. If Andrew wanted it, they could be business partners.
Loos, now 37, performs one service that few morticians will do, and he does it more than any of his peers in the business. When Jackson County’s poor or homeless die and no one comes to claim them, it’s often Loos who handles the bodies. Under county guidelines, the public health department pays for disposal of the dead; most often, that means cremation because it’s the cheapest route — $400 per body.
Loos is pragmatic about why he became the county’s premier handler of the forgotten dead.
“We were the first business in the area to have a crematorium, and we have a freezer,” he says.
Usually, a family member somewhere is willing to sign off on a cremation and accept the ashes. In the case of a loner or someone without family, maybe a neighbor will pick up the remains. But sometimes, Loos cremates someone who has no family, no friends and no one willing to claim the remains. He has a plan for that.
“We do a scattering ourselves,” he says. Generally, he doesn’t wait longer than 30 days.
“We want to give them some closure in some sort of dignified manner.”
Loos always does the scatterings in the same place, between a cottonwood tree and a columbarium at Brooking Cemetery on East 53rd Street. He’s left dozens of men and women in the same spot over the years.
Because of privacy laws, Loos says, he can’t reveal the names of the people whose remains he has scattered. But for each indigent body the Jackson County medical examiner’s office sends to Loos, there’s a record that provides some clues as to whose ashes have merged with the patch of grass and dirt beneath the cottonwood tree in Brooking Cemetery.
The records list known family, known assets, the deceased’s last known place of residence, and who finally requested and paid for the cremation.
If there was no family and no one consented to cremation, Loos almost certainly disposed of the remains himself.
Jack McReynolds’ last residence was a nursing home on Wornall. County records list no relatives and “none” under assets. The applicant-for-cremation line is blank.
McReynolds knew that he wasn’t going to live in the Greens at Creekside for long. His nurse, Gloria Williams, remembers the tall, slender black man as still and quiet for a cancer patient who must have been in a great deal of pain.
“I knew he was at peace because right after he got here, he mentioned it,” Williams says. “He said, ‘I know I’m not going to get any better. I know it’s coming.'”
McReynolds stayed in his narrow hospital bed for three weeks before dying in March 2006 at the age of 67.
He spent most of his time reading novels or the newspaper or watching television game shows. Sometimes friends or old co-workers visited, many from the Baptist church that had made arrangements for him to go to the nursing home. But no family.
Joanna Belle, activities director for Greens at Creekside, has worked in nursing homes for more than a dozen years. She always gives new patients a questionnaire that hints at their family histories.
“I have to ask them why they’re here, and a lot don’t want to answer because it makes them sad. So they just say, ‘My health’ because they don’t want to talk about what’s going on with their families or people that could be taking care of them,” Belle says. “The only thing they’ll tell you about is their children. I don’t think he had any.”
Neither Belle nor Williams knows what happened to McReynolds after his death. County records note a $400 invoice for direct cremation to Heartland Cremation and Burial Society, requested and paid for by the county.
“You know, I never understood that, why he didn’t have any kids,” Williams says. “He was a real nice-looking man. You wonder what happened.”
Despite the comforting box of tissues on a polished wood table, the Heartland Cremation and Burial Society’s parlor is mostly a showroom. Urns of varying shapes and materials are on display, including one large biodegradable container in the shape of a heart, pale with pink flowers, like a box of Valentine’s Day candy. There are rows of jewelry in which the bereaved can keep a tiny piece of ash to wear around their necks.
Ash spreadings, Loos explains, have grown more elaborate over the years. He has stories about scatterings over the Gulf of Mexico, wine and cheese parties, and an $80,000 send-off with treats to match the deceased’s corporate logo.
Loos may have a soft touch with mourners, but when out of earshot of the bereaved, he talks like the public-relations major he was at Northwest Missouri State University. After college, he spent three years as leadership consultant to his fraternity, Delta Chi. Now he’s the president and a funeral director at Heartland Cremation and Burial, while Liz manages the floral arrangements.
“Coming into this as an outsider, having my outsider, unclouded opinion, it was important to know where we were going in the industry,” Loos says. “Worldwide, cremation is the preference. Caskets are really a North American cultural thing.”
He flies around the country giving speeches on how to advance the industry. “There’s a stigma in some areas that cremation is not popular. At one point, it made up less than 20 percent of the mortuary business. Locally, we’re now around the low 30s, and in part of the country, it’s up to 50 percent,” he notes.
“Going into this, you ask yourself: In the span of our lifetime, what is our business going to become? And cremation was an industry that was going to grow and is growing.”
But he says he makes very little, if any, money from the indigent cremations.
“When you consider everything that needs to be done, and that there’s only a flat $400 fee for the service, it’s basically charity work.”
The county can’t keep a body forever. The medical examiner’s office can hold a body for up to four months, if necessary. Eventually, though, something has to be done with it.
Ron Brasfield, forensic administrator with the Jackson County medical examiner’s office, says he exhausts every option to find family members, but it’s often hard to do. County officials usually search no more than 30 days, running newspaper advertisements and checking paper trails.
“The homeless aren’t really forthcoming when they go to places and have to register who they are. You can get hospital records, but when you get to next of kin, it’ll say ‘Mickey Mouse’ or something,” Brasfield says.
Once the medical examiner’s office has given up on finding a relative, it’s up to Michael Wells, in the office of the county counselor, to find someone to dispose of the body. Even if a relative is available, he or she may not want to claim the body. “You’ll get ahold of someone and they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, yeah, my uncle will handle that, so let me give him the message and he’ll get right back to you.’ Then you never hear from them again,” Wells says. In his desk drawer, he keeps a list of mortuaries willing to take an indigent case.
At Blue Ridge Boulevard No. 2, Heartland Cremation and Burial Society stands at the confluence of a business district and a residential neighborhood, across the street from a gas station and a block down the road from a high school. It was once a large, two-story house before it was converted into a funeral home. The interior still looks more like a house than a funeral parlor. The flowers and chairs might have been arranged for a party.
The crematorium is a free-standing, converted two-car garage not far from the back door of the house. It’s furnished with its own small office, with a cheap brown desk and a few shelves stacked with small brown cardboard boxes. One is labeled John Doe No. 253. This is where the indigents stay for a little while longer, in case someone comes looking for them.
In his last years, Felix Esposito carried a photograph around with him and showed it to almost everyone. He showed it to the same people repeatedly, presenting it as though for the first time.
Inside the black frame is Esposito, perhaps 50 years younger, on his wedding day in Cuba, his black hair slicked back and his mustache dapper. The photographer has caught him with his head turned toward his new bride, smiling with his eyes half-closed. His wife faces the camera with her eyes down, sliding a long kitchen knife into a sheet of wedding cake.
The photo was one of Esposito’s only possessions by the time he arrived at Clara Manor a few years ago. He died in October 2006. Lupe Aguilar keeps the picture wrapped in cotton.
Aguilar acted as Esposito’s translator — since arriving in the United States as a refugee in 1980, Esposito hadn’t learned much English. He was already in the early stages of dementia when he was checked into Clara Manor, near 36th Street and Warwick. And though he was surrounded by other Cuban refugees of varying ages and conditions, he made no attempts at camaraderie.
“He didn’t talk much,” Aguilar says. “He kept to himself. We would all go down to the senior center, and he would stand by himself, off in a corner.”
Sometimes he dropped hints. He had once owned a dry-cleaning business in Cuba. And he had been a prisoner, something he never explained, other than to say he hated Castro. “You’re not allowed to have anything over there,” he told Aguilar. His wife and his family were dead, he said. One living relative, a son, remained in Cuba.
“He was balding, and he walked with a cane, and, of course, he couldn’t drive anymore, so I would drive him down to the barber to get a haircut and a shave when he was scraggly looking. He was still a gentleman, and he wanted to look nice,” Aguilar says. “And I knew where he hid everything. When the dementia got worse, he would take things — little things like salt shakers, cups — and hide them in his room. He hoarded things, for some reason. If the kitchen was running low on something, I’d tell them to go to Felix’s room. He got rude as he got worse. That happens, you know.”
A woman named Rosa visited Esposito occasionally, but she was the only one. Aguilar was, by default, his closest companion.
Two weeks before he died, Rosa came to see him. He appeared to recognize Rosa but could not remember her name.
Aguilar, who saw him every day, asked if he remembered hers.
He considered the question for a few moments.
“Of course,” he said at last. “You’re my mama.”
When Aguilar knew that Esposito was reaching the end, she managed to set up phone calls between Esposito and his son. By that time, Esposito couldn’t remember most of the calls a few hours after they’d happened. The son hoped to come to America, but red tape prevented that from happening before it was too late. After Esposito died, Aguilar asked the son if there was a way to get the ashes to Cuba. The son refused to take them, insisting that Esposito would be happier to stay in a free country.
The man who burns the bodies is Andrew Buck.
Not many small family businesses have histories as long as that of Liz Loos’ — she and Andrew mark her family’s fourth generation — but Buck’s family goes back just as far. His family started burying people in 1906. He was 3 years old when his father moved the family into a newly purchased funeral home. He grew up among the dead.
Like Andrew, Buck took his own shot at marketing in college rather than going directly into the family business. For him, it was hotel management, which he studied at Arizona State University and then at the University of Iowa. After leaving college, he spent a couple of years teaching special-education students and, in the summers, hauling tanker trucks of water for an Iowa co-op company.
Buck’s epiphany came on a hot gravel road during a 110-degree summer day. He looked down at his workman’s clothes and considered the 14-hour days and the $8.50-an-hour paycheck. It was time, he decided, to go back to school.
That brought him to Kansas City, Kansas, Community College, which has a program in mortuary science. Soon he was working as a pickup man for a company called First Call, collecting bodies for delivery to one of 50 area funeral homes or, when the deceased was indigent, the county’s medical examiner.
Nursing-home pickups were generally the easiest, except when daylight runs made discretion necessary. Buck would go through a back door and cover the body with a quilt so that residents wouldn’t be upset. Private residences were generally the hardest, especially those where people had died on the second floor. The body needed to remain balanced on the cot.
“When you have to deal with stairs, it’s a little rough,” he says. “Houses are built for vertical movement, not horizontal.”
He graduated in 2004 with licenses to work as an embalmer and a funeral home director. Buck had met Andrew and Liz Loos through the delivery job, and he accepted a job at Heartland Cremation. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the funeral home.
“Whenever I make new friends and ask them to come over, they always think there’s going to be a stack of dead bodies in the closet or something,” he says and laughs. “Growing up around it, I forget how uncomfortable death is for people sometimes.”
Sliding the bodies into the silver steel crematorium in the converted garage, Buck’s procedure is almost always the same, whether for indigents or the recently well-off.
The dead arrive from the medical examiner wrapped in a white sheet, zipped into a body bag. Buck checks for pacemakers, which need to be removed (the batteries will explode in the heat), and any jewelry or metal that the county employee may have missed. When the body is bloated in decay because it was not discovered promptly, Buck leaves it in the bag and waves a metal detector above it.
They always come with a golden identification tag, an inch long, that he hangs on one of the machine’s switches before he starts the burn. Turned on, the crematorium sounds like a commercial jet engine. Unless there’s a special request, everyone goes in a cheap, thin, cardboard coffin. It takes about three hours for the fire to consume skin, then fat, then muscle tissue.
The obese burn faster; the extra fat adds fuel. “It’s the same as any kitchen grease fire,” Buck says.
After the fire, the bones remain, white and brittle, on the crematorium’s rack. Large bones, such as femurs, retain their shapes, whereas the ribs and bits of skull collapse in on themselves. Buck scrapes the bones into a container and deposits them into a processing unit, where steel blades grind the remains into gray ash.
All that’s left are the nonhuman bits and pieces — fake limbs and metal plates and some things that aren’t instantly recognizable — which are tossed in a white plastic bucket next to the processor. Andrew Loos points to one long, looped piece of metal. “That came out of someone’s spine, I think,” he notes with enthusiasm.
The fire sterilizes these pieces. Twice since Buck has worked at Heartland, a man has come to retrieve them. Buck doesn’t know what the man did with the things he took. “He came recommended from another funeral home, that’s all I know,” Buck says. “To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure what the guy’s name is.”
When, after 30 days, nobody has claimed the ashes, Loos takes them to Brooking Cemetery. Should a relative ever arrive, he will at least be able to say what happened to the deceased.
“Sometimes a neighbor will find somebody after they’ve passed away, and sometimes you’ll have a poor family member that really can’t afford burial, and sometimes you’ll see a family member that just doesn’t want to pay for a funeral service, even though you know very well they’ve got the money,” Loos says. “But the people we scatter are the ones that don’t have anybody.”
There’s really no reason that he has to scatter anyone at all. He could just as easily deposit them in the trash or stack the small brown cardboard boxes in the back of a closet. It’s unlikely anyone will come looking.
“Doing that would just seem so sad. To just stick them somewhere. It would be mournful,” Liz says. “There has to be more to a person than that.”
He chose Brooking because he knows the place will be there for a long time to come.
Brooking Cemetery is a few blocks from Heartland Cremation, deep among the Raytown ranch homes and two-story middle-class houses.
Like funeral homes, most cemeteries are family businesses. Or they used to be.
“Corporations are coming in and buying too many things now,” Russ Pence says. This is the closest thing to a philosophical statement that you’re likely to hear from Brooking’s caretaker. “This cemetery is run by a board of directors, and they’re all direct descendants of the man who started this place.”
Pence parks his pickup next to a small stone fence within the cemetery’s walls. He points to a large marker, gray with age.
“That tall white one, that’s him. Albert Brookings. There’s another place around Troost that’s a Confederate cemetery, and it’s named by [Confederate Gen.] Nathan Bedford Forrest. That’s owned by a corporation now.”
Brooking cemetery has been here for more than 150 years, the cottonwood tree in its center probably a century longer. It stands a few yards from a black columbarium no more than 4 feet tall and 6 feet long, its peak the tallest point in Brooking and, for that matter, for at least half a mile beyond in any direction.
Loos says this is the spot where he spreads the ashes when no one comes to claim them.
Brooking has always been a place where the losers have come. Because it’s been kept in the family, Pence says, it’s cheaper to bury here than in, say, Forest Hill Cemetery on Troost, where tombstones memorialize Hallmark founder Joyce Hall and Kansas City politician Tom Pendergast and names that now appear on city street signs. Behind the cottonwood at Brooking is an unmarked patch of grass where Pence doesn’t want to dig because it’s where paupers were buried during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, caretakers kept records that left things too vague for his taste: Walk three strides to the east of the cottonwood tree and John Smith is buried here.
The cottonwood’s prominence makes it a convenient spot to spread the ashes. Loos figures that it’s a reasonably dignified slope of the cemetery, in case any-one ever comes looking for a long-lost relative.
“No, no one ever shows up to look for them. Or, at least, I haven’t met them if they did,” Pence says. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them anyway. If he [Loos] tells ’em he scattered ’em here, I’ll show them to the cottonwood tree.”
Anyone who does come will have to take Pence’s word for it. The ashes of a person have no more integrity than the remains at the bottom of a barbecue pit, and what isn’t immediately taken by the wind will go in the rain or dissolve in the morning dew.
Claudie Harris got the idea for the memorial service six weeks before Cherylen Battles died.
Battles had lived at Rockhill Manor, in the neighborhood a couple of blocks north of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, since 2002. The house is an assisted-living facility for people with chronic mental illness. Battles was dying of ovarian cancer. The weight had wasted from her face and limbs but remained in her belly, giving her the look of a woman who had finally conceived very late in life.
She had always been a quiet woman. When the cancer started getting worse, she fought to keep her own room on the second floor and struggled up and down the stairs rather than have the staff make up a new ground-floor room and go to the trouble of moving her. So it was a surprise when she finally asked Harris for something.
“I want me some fried chicken,” Battles said, “and some greens and some macaroni and cheese.”
The two had met when Harris was working in the home’s laundry service and Battles had gone down one day and volunteered to help. That happens a lot in Rockhill. There’s not much to do some days except work with the staff and make small talk, which is what they did — the news, what was going on around the home. Battles knew that Harris kept a garden and that she liked to cook.
So Harris prepared the food, and the next day, she brought Battles the meal.
“The only time I ever asked her about her family was when she got sick,” Harris says. “And the only family she knew of was an uncle in Kansas. She tried to call him, and we tried to get him, but he got the phone number changed. That broke my heart.”
Knowing Battles didn’t have much time left, Harris decided to organize a memorial service for her while Battles could still enjoy it. Harris talked to the staff, telling everyone a date and a dish they could bring, and she started making more fried chicken.
They brought Battles into the staff room with her boyfriend, another Rockhill Manor resident named Roy. Battles knew it was a goodbye, but she didn’t say anything about it other than to thank everyone who came.
She died a month later, in September 2006.
Roy met Battles waiting at the bus stop. She kept him out of trouble, he says.
“Not everyone act right, you know,” he says. “It ain’t the staff — it’s the residents. But not everyone always get along. She calmed you down. She told me once she had had a family and a couple of kids, but she didn’t know where they were.”
Roy and Harris sit at an outside table at the rear of Rockhill’s grounds as they talk. Harris pauses to light a cigarette.
“You know, that’s the first time I ever heard she had any kids,” Harris tells Roy.
The two talk a little while longer before Roy’s new girlfriend comes for him. Harris shakes her head, starts talking about everyone being God’s child and how long she’s had to be patient working here. She quotes Bible verses about forgiveness. She says she’s seen people go to bed normal and wake up not knowing who they are.
“Someone cared enough to get her to us,” she says of Battles, “but that was the end of it.”
She keeps Battles’ belongings in a desk drawer. There isn’t much there: a few cassette tapes, Christmas music and gospel mostly, and a picture that might be 20 years old of a young woman Harris has never seen in person.
“I keep thinking somebody might come and get them,” she says.
Then she rubs out the cigarette and walks back into Rockhill Manor. There are 168 residents, and something always needs finishing.