He didn’t lead a special life. He never went to college. He has never seen the sea. He drank too much and watched too much TV. He worked in lumber yards all his life, selling lumber and then managing yards. He could calculate the amount of wood needed for a house in his head. He never used the internet. He liked winners, especially Mickey Mantle, John Elway and Michael Jordan. He loved Angie Dickinson and Mariah Carey. Even as he approached his 80s, frail, with failing kidneys and no teeth, he thought he could handle the ladies. He flirted with every nurse and waitress he met. It wasn’t until his final month that he agreed to cancel his subscription to the Playboy channel. He took many animal photos and hardly any of his family. He was the guy I called when I was doing something really stupid and needed money and the assurance that it wouldn’t be mentioned again. His humor was sharp, wry, sarcastic and could be cruel. His house was never clean, and his favorite foods were chili, prime rib, liver and onions, and pies.
He was typical of the men of his generation in western Colorado; These men identified as outdoormen, drunkards, and rugged individualists. They were headstrong and confident, uninterested in politics or current affairs, and slightly suspicious of educated people. He was not ambitious and lost several jobs over the years because of his drinking, his refusal to bow to authority, or both. He never had any money, and we lived in a double-wide trailer on a dirt road. There were ragged looking cottages as outbuildings. He hired a friend with a backhoe to dig a pond and tried several times to stock it with trout. He started many projects, finished only a few.
He lived alone from 1978 until his death in February 2017. During his marriage, he flirted with many women: his neighbor, his sister-in-law, his colleagues. He claimed he never cheated on his wife, but I remember several times our mother put us kids in the car and drove around to catch him cheating. I’m not sure if it was her jealousy, his infidelity, or both. Marriage has always been problematic. She left him for another man after 20 years and the messy divorce broke his heart. For several years he cried every time I saw or spoke to him. He never remarried and never lived with another woman.
In his last years he was ill. Years of high blood pressure and heavy drinking ruined his kidneys. He needed dialysis three times a week, which kept him alive but made him feel like shit. His eyesight began to fail due to macular degeneration that blinded his mother and older brother. Although he had a hard time watching TV, he still thought he should be allowed to drive. He bought a bow but was too weak to pull it back, so it sat in the hall closet. He wanted to fish and walk the river path, but he didn’t have the strength either. He wanted to repair his storage shed. One of his recent purchases was a collection of power tools that never made it out of the box. I visited him several times a week and thanked the universe for the quality home nursing care. They were the ones who made sure he took his medication and was driven to dialysis. My contributions were small and got him pudding, grapes and flavored water. Sometimes I watched TV with him, tried to talk about his memories instead of his afflictions, and held his hand for a while before going home to my life.
When his heart started beating irregularly, he spent two nights in a nursing home being monitored. It had become clear that he could no longer live alone. When he was discharged, he decided to stop dialysis. For the past few days, he’s sat in his armchair talking to his neighbors and family about the weather, the Broncos, and eating prime ribs in a few weeks. We never talked about him dying. For most of the past two days he has been asleep or unconscious in a bed. My sister and I sat with him on his last night and played his favorite music: Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Elvis, Eddie Arnold. “Make the World Go Away” repeated for the second time and my sister went home. I was alone with him waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive. Once he woke up with frightened eyes and grabbed my hands. He asked me to pull him up and get him out of bed. I tried to stay calm. I held his hands, spoke softly to him. I told him to relax, explained that he was too heavy for me to lift, assured him that it would be fine. I stroked the back of his hand as he passed out again. He died that night after I went home to my family. The next morning, I turned on the local country radio to Eddie Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away.”
We had pre-arranged a cremation at the area’s most popular funeral home, owned by a local woman and her parents. We bought cheap. Her cremation was the cheapest cremation in town. He didn’t want a coffin, he didn’t want a service, he didn’t care what happened to his body. Cheapest seemed to be a reasonable criterion for choosing a funeral home and crematorium.
The owner was a tall, broad-shouldered woman with very intricately combed hair and heavy makeup that tried to cover up her uneven skin. She was the kind of woman my father would have flirted with, cracked color jokes with—not subtle, elegant, or feminine, but with a presence he would have admired. She was also a product of western Colorado. Like my father, she was neither educated nor cultured. Most people describe them as weird, pushy, and attention-grabbing.
She began working at the local funeral home as a teenager and eventually bought her own business. It was a large building, decorated as if it were 1985: mauve, light blue, and artificial flowers. There were fake bronze angel figures and Thomas Kinkaide style prints in gold frames. Outside, there were concrete benches next to a “garden of remembrance” where families could pay extra to have loved ones represented. She also had a business called Donor Services. Next door was a two-story log cabin where she hosted events: baby showers, weddings, business events. She hosted parties selling her multi-level marketing products (jewelry, candles, home decor) or her own crafts. She opened a flower shop and sold it to her funeral clients. She was involved in the community and presented herself as a successful businesswoman who was involved in civic activities.
She didn’t have a degree, and Colorado law didn’t require funeral directors to have one. On the wall of her office hung a framed diploma certifying a PhD in Funeral Science from the University of Mortuary Science. There is no such degree or university.
The day after my father’s death, she met me in her conference room filled with artificial flowers, where I signed some papers and completed his cremation. It was a short meeting, unforgettable. Several days passed and her assistant called to say it was time to collect the cremains. We were given a very small container of ashes, which confused me at the time. I couldn’t believe a man over 6ft tall could be reduced to the amount of ashes from a small campfire. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never cremated anyone before. I made a small papier-mâché vessel, filled it with the ashes and threw it into the river as he requested.
A few months later, Reuters has done a series of investigations into funeral homes that have sold body parts to the plastination Industry (I had to google it too). She was interviewed extensively for the article and boasted about her “multi-million dollar” business. A segment in the series focused solely on their business, such as Donor Services being located in the same building as the funeral home. The series caused the state of Colorado to investigate her business and eventually they shut down the funeral home and donor services and she relinquished her license.
At the same time, the FBI launched an investigation. Local stories surfaced about parts being sold from the bodies of old people, young people and babies. In online groups, people shared their stories. Concrete mix in urns instead of cremains. Whole bodies sold abroad. Head, hands, legs sold to the plastination companies. She allegedly cut up bodies using power tools purchased from Home Depot, then wrapped and shipped them. She reportedly sold gold teeth from bodies to pay for the vacation.
I read the stories, followed the news, but I thought: He was so old and sick, no one would want his body or parts. He was so weak. so thin
Then the FBI called. The agent broke the news to me. Assuming it is one thing. Hearing the details is another. They said she cut him up in the back room of the funeral home and then sold his head. his torso. his arms. His legs below the knees. The only part of him she didn’t sell was his thighs. She cut his frail old body into pieces and pocketed the money.
The FBI has identified more than 600 victims. Most were told what happened to their loved one, but none of us knew if or when there would be an arrest. Almost three years later She and her mother were arrested on St. Patrick’s Day and charged with multiple counts of mail fraud and illegally transporting hazardous materials, with a maximum possible sentence of 135 years in prison. They were never put in prison. Now, She accepted a plea dealand the sentence is still outstanding.
I try to accept that there are no consequences for her. Instead, I try to remember my father. He was a flawed man living a less than extraordinary life. He loved his family, the outdoors, sports, naughty jokes, and women with big hair and too much makeup.
Ivy H Fife lives in Montrose.
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