NONFICTION: A writer learns about life by working as a “remover” of the dead in this debut memoir.
‘We are men made to be forgotten,” writes Andrew Meredith of his accidental profession as a “remover”: a worker, usually a man, whose job it is to pick up and transport the bodies of the dead from wherever they took their last breath to the funeral home. With this sentence Meredith also refers to his father and himself: two men from Northeast Philadelphia whose own personal tragedies have led to the kind of employment that renders one invisible.
Meredith’s father, an academic who was fired from his job as a professor for sexual harassment when Meredith was 14 years old, was a poet who also worked as a remover to support his family. Meredith’s memoir of how his life was affected by his father’s transgression is itself poetic, and he tucks his bittersweet childhood memories between tales of removals as carefully as the death certificates he slips between the bodies he picks up and the stretcher-like contraption that transports each body to the waiting vehicle.
“If I’d just met him on the job, he would’ve been my favorite guy to work with,” he writes about his father, but instead Meredith’s hard resentment won’t allow him to forgive the man. Meredith finds himself drifting further and further into self-sabotage as he ages: He drops out of college (having unwisely gone to the university his father was fired from), hops from woman to woman and drifts aimlessly through life, though never very far from his parents’ suffocating marriage and the deteriorating neighborhood of Frankford in Northeast Philadelphia.
There are details, many details, about his his work among “The Removers” and later, at the local crematorium. Meredith writes with candor about his early days, including one call where he recognized the corpse as his elementary school librarian. (“Mrs. Browning was sitting up in bed, like she’d been reading.”) His passages about what happens to a body when it’s cremated leave nothing to the imagination, right down to the temperature at which a skull finally incinerates.
After a failed attempt at living in California, Meredith returns to Philadelphia, where his former boss offers him a salaried job at the crematorium: Despite his misgivings, he accepts the steady work. In the last place he thought he’d find peace, he notices a shift. “After eight years I now see that I am working for the living … and for the first time I see how important this job has been all along.”
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.