Sky Burial

By  |  September 7, 2014
"Passing Through—60 Minutes in Foster City, Californioa," by Ajay Malghan "Passing Through—60 Minutes in Foster City, Californioa," by Ajay Malghan

Excarnation in Texas 

In February of 2002, Patricia Robinson wrote to her daughter, the third of her five grown children, about a hospital appointment for her broken wrist. 

Mary, I was wearing your hat—the purple & green & other colors one—to keep me warm & cover up my bad hair which was uncombed. Picture the old lady in gray sweatsuit, in jaunty hat with sprigs sticking out, shawl-wrapped wrist clutched to breast, shod in fat socks & men’s slippers—what a mess! And I had NO underwear, let alone clean. No pocket handkerchief. Dreadful! But they were nice to me anyway.

Patty was sixty-nine then—she would live seven more years—and she’d long ago developed a cavalier attitude toward her aging body, and her mortality, as one of many strategies for shrugging off disappointments. She told Mary that she’d turned down the doctor’s recommended surgery because “I’m betting on my body to repair itself as always.” She wrote, “I really do think my bones know who’s the boss, and I have spoken to them.”

Now it is May of 2014, and I am removing Patty’s bones from a long cardboard box. Here are the pieces that made up her arms: the humerus, the ulna, the radius that was fractured. Here are the halves of her pelvic bone, each ilium curved like a dish. Her vertebrae have been collected in a pile; her individual ribs are banded together with a Velcro tie. I remove her skull and cradle it, upside down, in the palm of my hand, where it fits perfectly. Without the jawbone, I can see her dental work clearly: two large gold molars, a bridge, and two porcelain crowns. When she’s turned upright to face me, I can also see the markings in her orbital bones, around her sockets.

I lay my fingertip there, just inside the socket, where some of the bone is chipped away: it was pecked out, by the beaks of vultures. These are the markings the huge black birds made when they consumed her eyes, with the permission of her family.

 

The few thousand acres of Freeman Ranch in San Marcos, Texas, include a working farm; fields studded with black-eyed Susans; and a population of white-tailed deer, Rio Grande turkeys, and brawny Gelbvieh bulls. But there’s more nested here: if, on your way from town, you turn off at the sign onto dirt road, and if your vehicle can handle the jerky, winding drive five miles deeper into the property, you will come across two tiers of chain-link fence. Behind this double barrier, accessed by key card, sixteen acres of land have been secured for a special purpose: at this place, settled in the grasses or tucked under clusters of oak trees, about seventy recently dead humans have been laid out in cages, naked, to decompose.

Just beyond the gates is where I meet Kate Spradley, a youthful, petite, and unfailingly polite woman of forty. She has short, mousy hair that’s often clipped in place with a barrette, and dresses in yoga-studio t-shirts that explain her slim, almost boyish figure. Kate is so utterly normal that it takes a moment to register the peculiarity of her life’s work: she spends her days handling and cataloguing human remains.

Kate, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, does most of her work at their Forensic Anthropology Center (FACTS)—the centerpiece of which is the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), the largest of America’s five “body farms.” Including Kate, FACTS has three full-time researchers, a rotating crew of anthropology graduate students and undergraduate volunteers, and a steady influx of cadaver donations from both individuals and their next of kin—brought in from Texas hospitals, hospices, medical examiners’ offices, and funeral homes. When I arrive, Kate is helping lead a weeklong forensics workshop for undergrads, spread out across five excavation sites where skeletal remains have been buried to simulate “crime scenes.” Under a camping shelter, out of the intense sun, she stands before a carefully delineated pit that contains one such skeleton: jaws agape, rib cage slightly collapsed, leg bones bent in a half-plié. In the time since it was hidden here, a small animal has built a nest in the hollow of its pelvis.

Over a year ago, back when he was “fully fleshed” (as they say), this donor was placed out in the field under a two-foot-high cage and exposed to the elements, his steady decomposition religiously photographed and recorded for science. Across the property are dozens of cadavers in various stages of rot and mummification, each with its purpose, each with its expanding file of data: the inevitable changes to the body that the rest of us willfully ignore are here obsessively documented. For the past six years, FACTS has been collecting data on human “decomp” while steadily amassing a contemporary skeletal collection (about 150 individuals now) to update our understanding of human anatomy. More specifically, for the forensic sciences, FACTS works to improve methods of determining time since death, as well as the environmental impact on a corpse—particularly in the harsh Texan climate. Texas Rangers consult with them, and law enforcement officers from around the state come to train here each summer, much like this collection of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds.

While her students continue brushing dirt from bone, Kate offers to take me on a walking tour of the cages. Or, as she gently puts it: “I’ll show you some things.”

As we wander down the grassy path in the late spring heat, the first thing I encounter is the smell. “Is that nature or human?” I ask.

“Oh, I can’t smell anything right now—sometimes it depends on what direction the wind is blowing. But probably human.”

The smell of rotting human corpses is unique and uniquely efficient. You need never have experienced the scent before, but the moment you do, you recognize it: the stench of something gone horribly wrong. It reeks of rotten milk and wet leather.

As I struggle to adjust to the odor, I see, from a distance, the rows of cages, staggered on either side of a rough path in a grassy, overgrown field. As we approach, the bodies begin to come into focus, each with the wet, tan look of wax paper. As we come closer still—and though I’d like to slow down, I keep pace with Kate—I also see how they’re deflated now: the viscera have collapsed into the cavities, and the limbs have withered.

“You can see a theme here,” Kate says with professional calm. “They’re a dark, leathery color: it’s a type of mummification.” This climate mummifies, and what’s most shocking is how this warps each body’s skin into a puckered, leathery casing, raised up just enough you can imagine peeling it off in one go. Then there’s the shriveling, the wasting away. Kate points out one man who was four hundred pounds when he came in. He’s now emaciated, drained into the earth, browning the grasses beneath him. “He took a long time to reach that state.” A shock of short hair still clings to his skull. Sometimes the scalp remains fastened indefinitely, and sometimes “it just melts right off with the skin.” Another body, a woman’s, has a chest that’s puffed up like a massive balloon but almost no stomach left. In spite of the cage, built to prevent scavenging by animals and birds, she has patches of tissue damage by foxes—maybe a small one managed to slip through the wire. “I don’t know how they do it,” Kate says.

After enough time has passed (often a year), the students dismantle the remains with medical scissors, place the thoroughly decayed parts in bright red biohazard bags, and take them into the lab to be “processed.” Then the bones, finally clean, are labeled and boxed and added to the collection.

The odor is strong as I walk among the cages, the air redolent with the heavy, sour-wet scent of these bodies letting go of their bile, staining the grasses all around them. I look at the sprawl, each individual in its strange shelter, shriveled and shocked-looking; each with more or less of its flesh and insides; each, in its post-person state, given a new name: a number. They died quietly, in an old-age home; they died painfully, of cancer; they died suddenly, in some violent accident; they died deliberately, a suicide. In spite of how little they had in common in life, they now lie exposed alongside one another, their very own enzymes propelling them toward the same final state. Here, in death, unintentionally, they have formed a community of equals.

 

An Army brat, born in the Philippines in 1932, Patty Robinson grew up all over the world, wherever her father was stationed—a life she briefly replicated with her husband, moving to Berlin when he was posted there early in their marriage. Even as a teenager, she knew she wanted more than to be defined by a domestic life. “Mother undertook my training to be a wife and mother,” she wrote in another letter to her daughter, Mary. “I was NOT interested.” She managed to graduate from high school early and head to college at Louisiana State University—to the dismay of her conservative father, who had plans for her to marry as soon as possible. “Her father came to LSU to drag her out!” Mary says—to no avail.

Patty met DJ when her father was transferred to a base on Long Island. DJ was the duty officer the night she arrived and, unlike her father, he had a sense of humor and seemed attracted to her independent streak and creative mind.

Patty gave birth to five children in seven years—a feat that every one of them mentions when I talk to them. Today, Jim, the oldest, works in tech management in San Francisco; Mary, the only daughter, teaches special-needs kids at an elementary school in Connecticut; and Carl, John, and Ted all live in Austin and work as arborists for electrical companies. But back in the Sixties, after an Army stint in Berlin, where the first two boys were born, the family settled in Westfield, New Jersey, and Patty was expected to oversee the entire brood single-handedly. “If they’d invented the phrase ‘free-range parenting’ then,” Jim says, “that would have been what to call her style.” Theirs was the house other parents on the block might be scared to let their children play at—“because we were the ones climbing curtains and bookshelves,” says Ted.

She was just as instinctive and free-form with their education: when she saw how bored Jim was with his classes, she gave him an encyclopedia set, and would let him take apart and reassemble any gadgets in the house. And when Ted was unusually slow learning how to read in school, Patty refused to make a fuss: she saw how easily he read the cookbooks when he was at home with her, helping in the kitchen. In this way, learning at home was just as important as anything that might happen in a classroom. Mary remembers how, when she was five, her mother woke the kids so they could watch the moon landing; and again when their cat Thomas had kittens, using the occasion to explain how animals give birth. In a way the kids were her great project: creating a clan of clever, progressive, fearless little people. “She loved us unreservedly, I never doubted that,” says Carl. “She wanted us to grow up to be her friends, to get to a point where we could talk like adults with each other. She told me on a few occasions that she never felt she had a lot of peers, people she could talk to about things—and that’s where the kids came in.”

Although she converted to Catholicism as an adult, Patty’s spin on the religion was unorthodox. She was staunchly pro–birth control—in her later years, she kept Plan B stocked in her guest bathroom, in case any woman in the neighborhood might need it—and, says Jim, she was very much against the “punitive, go-to-hell parts” of the church. “Patty’s belief in religion was ‘God is love’ and ‘Be nice,’” Carl says. She took the kids to services when they were very young—a lover of gospel music, she sang in the choir of every church she attended—but, in the late Sixties, mass was informal, often led by a young priest with an acoustic guitar. Once the kids started to put up resistance, she simply attended on her own: no big deal. And so it came as a surprise that, when Patty knew the marriage had soured for her (by then her oldest was twelve), she chose not to file for divorce from DJ: instead, embracing her technically Catholic status, she had the marriage annulled. Mary says their staunchly atheist father “had a field day. It was ‘Okay, you’re all bastards now!’”

One might assume it would be difficult to annul a marriage that produced five kids, but Mary says her mother reasoned their father had “tricked” her. “When she met him she thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve met my intellectual equal, and he’s fun!’ And then they got married, and before they even had the first baby he had towels made up that said boss and slave—and he thought that was hilarious. But she thought, ‘Oh no, no, that’s not funny.’” Or, as Jim puts it, “Mom thought, ‘I’m getting away from my stifling family, and we’re going to do things the way we want to’—and then he was like, ‘Well, I worked all day, and you can take care of everything.’”

Meanwhile, Patty, though very proud of her children, was aching to go back to work herself. She filled the free time she didn’t have with constant volunteering: for community theater, for public-television pledge drives. “She felt like her brain was turning into a marshmallow when she was staying at home,” Mary says—she wanted to make as much use of herself as she could. And so when Ted, the youngest, went off to kindergarten, she found a job, becoming one of the first generation of women to work for Xerox. Not long afterward, the marriage ended.

In spite of the loaded logistics of rotating five kids through the separate homes of two estranged adults, Patty was finally free of an unsatisfying relationship, and the newly single working mom decided to grant herself a whim: after one too many snowstorms in New Jersey, she pulled out a map, drew a line, and announced to the kids “I will live north of this latitude no more!” She convinced Xerox to transfer her, and she moved her little crew out of a New Jersey suburb and into a life by the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. And all the while, Patty continued singing in choirs, and amassing a library of titles she let the local kids borrow—from Agatha Christie mysteries to science fiction by Harlan Ellison. She had stage-managed for local opera productions in Princeton, New Jersey, and now she worked with an amateur theater group in Texas. “Theater was her sanity,” Mary says: her own social sphere and a way of holding onto her sense of humor. Not long after the split, she donated her wedding dress to be dyed and used as a costume.

 

The first thing Elaine Johnson tells me about her fiancé, Bill, is that he is intensely private. “He flat-out doesn’t trust anybody.” She has a habit of using the present tense when talking about Bill, though they took him off life support two months ago.

Now fifty-six, Elaine grew up in San Marcos—her father taught biology at the university for decades—while Bill grew up in Fort Lauderdale and rural Missouri. (He was fifty-two when he died.) A career Army man, Bill spent twenty-six years in the service, including work as a technician for Hawk air and missile defense systems and a tour in Iraq as a truck driver, training others to avoid land mines while transporting supplies.

She and Bill knew each other for four years before he died. They’d met on a biker dating website in the fall of 2009: he’d been riding motorcycles “forever,” while she’d started just the year before—the only good habit to come out of a short-lived affair. A devoted Harley rider, Bill was often in Harley tees and owned mugs and caps in Arabic, from their dealership in Kuwait. He wore a long ponytail and a series of black do-rags, sometimes sporting a POW MIA patch or one that read Live to Ride, and Ride to Live. He rode an Ultra Classic and a Heritage Softail, and under his watch Elaine graduated from a Honda Shadow to her own Fat Boy, with a comfy custom seat for the 13-hour days Bill liked to pull on the road. Out of character for Elaine, Bill loved to take off on a trip at a moment’s notice. “To be more spontaneous, I bought myself a little bitty bag I put overnight stuff in, so anytime he wanted to hop on the bike and ride down to Corpus I’d be ready,” she says. “I didn’t even get to use it.”

Bill retired as a sergeant first class a few years before Elaine met him. After that, he was hired to do IT work at the Guantánamo base for a year and a half, and then for the military hospital in San Antonio. He was on VA disability for various health issues, including knee and neck problems, but the deepest damage was psychological: his endemic lack of trust, his fight-first instincts, the nightmares that redeployed him to Iraq whenever he fell asleep. Sometimes the dreams were particularly bad: “He’d be shaking real hard with his fists tight, like he was having convulsions. I couldn’t touch him because he would think he needed to fight, but I would call his name until he would calm down.” Sometimes Bill would prod Elaine and ask if she’d heard something, maybe people talking outside the house, and she’d say, “No, I didn’t hear anything, honey.” Other times he’d need to sleep on the sofa in order to keep his back against a wall, like his cot in Iraq, and she’d be awakened by the sound of Bill shouting her name from the living room, making sure she was there. He kept loaded guns in every room of the house.

He was often on edge, and often combative. Elaine’s nickname for Bill was “Central Texas Weather,” because his moods were always changing: you never knew what you were going to get. “He was extremely direct in an in-your-face kind of way. You never had to guess what was on his mind: he’d come right out and say it, no matter how non-diplomatic it was. He and I were totally different: he’s not worried about hurting feelings, and I don’t like hurting feelings. And he was always ready for a fight.” In his dating profile, he’d posted (to women hoping for a wealthier man, Elaine guesses) “You think you’re too good for a simple guy?” Unimpressed by his presumptuousness, she’d blasted right back: “Every woman who doesn’t want to go out with you doesn’t think they’re ‘too good.’ Maybe you’re not their type!” Bill had been waiting for someone to challenge him, it seems, because he asked her out right away.

As untrusting of the world as he was, once he partnered with Elaine, that was it: he was with her completely. Once Elaine told him, during his night panics, that there was no danger, he could fall back asleep: some primal, half-asleep part of him thought that if she said so, it must be true. Estranged from much of his family, while working at Guantánamo he gave Elaine power of attorney so she could handle all his affairs back home—including the house he’d bought. And when he realized he wanted someone to leave his possessions to, he drew up a will and named Elaine his sole beneficiary. “He did everything to make sure that if anything ever happened to him, I’d be taken care of.” They moved in together on his property, a six-acre, 1940s military house that had been relocated out to Guadalupe County. Within two months of Bill’s death, Elaine was able to make the last mortgage payment.

He was generous in other ways as well, quietly. While working at a mental hospital in San Antonio, he’d take clothes to the teenagers who were inpatients there. And, never having had a father figure himself, he always made an effort with Elaine’s father, nearing eighty and a little overwhelmed by the work needed on his land. Whenever he and Elaine planned to visit, Bill would tell him, “You have a project planned and we’re gonna do it. Be waiting for me in the driveway with your tool belt on.”

“Bill is such a contradiction,” Elaine says (again in the present tense). “He’s serious a lot, pissy and pissed off. He calls himself an asshole, which he can be. So when he does something funny, it totally catches the guys by surprise.” She shows me photos: Bill striking a pose outside Disney World with a woman done up as Snow White; Bill and his best buddy, Joe, a motorcycle mechanic, standing in their helmets in a cotton field, a grinning Bill holding a jumbo cotton puff over Joe’s head; Bill in wire-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, his eyes soft and smiling as he grips a black cat to his chest a little too tightly. “He says he doesn’t like animals, but he really does,” Elaine says. “You don’t think he likes anything when you talk to him, besides riding, cutting wood, and mowing grass—but you just have to watch him.”

Doing just that, his friends quickly saw a change after he met Elaine: Bill was happier and more stable than he’d ever been. Plus, she was okay with managing his anger—though sometimes, she says, “it sapped my energy.” While he never got into a fistfight in front of her, twice—at a gas station, and at an electronics store—Elaine had to talk Bill down from a confrontation “because if he would’ve started, he wouldn’t have been able to quit before someone was really hurt.The vein would be popping out of his neck and he would be fuming—you could see it in his eyes. He was a real all-or-nothing kind of guy. His mind was his own worst enemy. I just told him, ‘It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it, man, let’s go.’” He’d think of that phrase, he told her, whenever he felt himself on the verge of losing his temper.

Elaine says she stayed with Bill through these episodes, and the difficult nights, because “you could see he was worth it, the person in there. It was hard, but he was doing a lot of things to show me he really cared—and I don’t mean buying me shit, because I can buy my own stuff. Even being the hardass that he was, he was trying.”

 

Nearby on Freeman Ranch, Kate takes me into the processing lab, a room with the white-tiled walls and easy-mop floor of a high school cafeteria kitchen—as well as some of the very same equipment. Industrial-size pots are stacked on the floor, and two large aluminum kettles stand against the wall, the kind used for bulk food prep. These are “where we do the de-fleshing,” says Kate, “where we put whole bodies,” once they’ve been brought in from the field. She lifts the lid of one kettle, which should be clean, and finds some dark brown sediment at its bottom. “Sometimes the decomp just settles down there.” This, she explains, is mummified tissue that’s been sloughed off. “Like when you boil a pot of soup with meat in it or something.”

I ask about the crock pots on an adjacent shelf, each decorated with a friendly floral design: these are for smaller animals, “or if you’ve just got a hand.” There’s also an incubator, where particularly delicate remains are placed for a slow hot-water bath so they won’t damage while being de-fleshed. “We had a stillborn come in—” She stops, anticipating a reaction. “I know. I can’t believe it: somebody donated their infant. Which is great.”

She points out the red plastic bags on the floor: they may look like garbage bags tied to be taken out, but these are remains recently brought inside, now ready to be processed. In other words, these are fleshy bones in a pile. At just this moment, a kind of fly lands on my left cheek, and for the first time I notice: large black insects are touching down on surfaces throughout the room.

While grad students carry out the “intake” and “placement” of the bodies outdoors, about twenty-five undergrads volunteer to process the remains for free, from disarticulating the sun-dried cadavers to soaking them in the kettles to scrubbing the last bits of cartilage off with their gloved hands. They remove tendons with hemostats and toothbrushes, then they wash the bones again by hand, adding Dawn if still greasy. Finally, they leave them out on countertops to dry.

I can imagine rushing to volunteer at a crime scene, I tell Kate, but it seems another thing entirely to hand-wash decomposition off the bones of dead strangers. “I know,” she says. “This is really the worst, most difficult part of the whole process, this room right here. But I think these students realize that they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to handle actual human remains. And so they do the work. We’re really grateful.”

Kate did plenty of processing herself as a PhD student in the anthropology department of the University of Tennessee, home to the first body farm in this country, opened in 1980. One major difference between the two facilities is the climate: the dry weather and the Central Texas sun combine to guarantee mummification, rather than the thorough skeletonization that naturally occurs in humid Tennessee. Another is also a function of location: Texas is at the center of what Kate calls “a mass disaster,” with hundreds of undocumented immigrants dying each year as they attempt to cross the southwestern border with Mexico. In the “dry” lab, they store and analyze migrant remains, hoping to lead to positive identifications (the long-term project is dubbed Operation ID). Most of these bodies were exhumed in Brooks County, where last year a colleague of Kate’s from Baylor University delivered sixty body bags in a single day. Those remains, kept separate from the donations, are still being processed, and the personal items and clothes sorted and hand-washed by volunteers. (They recently discovered one young woman’s ID card in the shoes she’d been buried in.) Some law enforcement divisions, aware of the work being done, now bring bodies directly to FACTS, rather than burying them where they were discovered.

While FACTS had only three cadavers donated in 2008 (its first year), by 2012 that number was up to fifty new donations, and then sixty-six last year. Thirty-six have been placed since January. Unlike medical schools, FACTS has no restrictions: the only disqualifiers for donation are communicable disease or extreme obesity; people can donate their organs and tissue before being brought in. Plus, they try to accommodate any specific requests: one person wanted his cellphone and charger to be stored with his bones in perpetuity; another wanted a photo of himself included, so that researchers would see his face while working with his remains; one woman wanted to have a hummingbird feeder installed above her decomposing cadaver; and another woman, in perhaps the most eccentric request of all, wanted to be laid out to rot in eighteenth-century colonial dress. “As long as they can provide the outfit,” Kate says.

Kate, like most of the people who work here, plans to donate herself—though with the stipulation that she be buried for three years before her remains are handled. “When donate, I don’t want people that I know looking at me. Even if I go to Tennessee, people know me there. I want to be a nice skeleton when they excavate me. I figure three years will be enough time for that, under any soil conditions.”

 

In her later years, Patty moved to Austin, closer to Carl and John and Ted, to finish her PhD in psychology (the career she’d quietly dreamt of). But, having expended huge reserves of energy on raising her brood and somehow, miraculously, paying the bills—after Xerox she’d tried real estate (bad market), work on an oil rig, then a series of bookkeeping jobs—Patty had already begun to adjust her ambitions. Now that she finally had a chance to complete her degree, she found she no longer had the flexibility it required: her ego could not stand the condescension of her much younger grad-student advisors. And so this was her last hurrah. “She wasn’t going to be able to accept the situation, so she bailed out,” says Jim. “She figured out how to live on lower wages. She found a condo on terms that let her afford the mortgage, figured out what her means were, and learned to live within them, and stayed out of stores so she wouldn’t be tempted to buy things.” 

In her condo, says Carl, “she had a pool, she had a yard she never had to cut, she had plenty of space to spread her books out and do her crossword puzzles”—and that was that. She wore a bathing suit, says Ted, “ninety percent of the time,” with “the little muumuu thing to put over it.” In her final months, when she wasn’t working odd jobs, you’d find her at choir practice at St. James Episcopal (they were chosen to sing at Lady Bird Johnson’s funeral). Otherwise she was out by the pool with a paperback, drinking her coffee and relishing a cigarette. “She went from being a fairly successful businesswoman,” says Carl, “to not really caring about materialistic things.” Jim tells me, “She was happy with what her kids were doing, by and large—that was a big one. She thought she had done it well enough—and for a while there, she wondered if she’d be able to.”

Patty died with the kind of stubborn independence that marked her life. Her children had no idea just how ill she’d been, and they agree she must have feared needing to restructure her life around her health, being defined by rounds and rounds of hospital appointments—something she had no patience for. A couple weeks before she died, she sent an email to her kids: “They did an x-ray, and I’ve got a hernia, and I’m naming the hernia Penelope.” Penelope had long been her play name for moments of denial, moments when she wanted to be free and invisible: whenever she’d found herself in a houseful of kids calling for her, she’d call back “My name is not Mom, it’s Penelope!” In hindsight, Mary thinks, the so-called “hernia” was “a huge growth in her intestines, and she didn’t want to put it out there because people would try to boss her around.” As the daughter of such an independent woman, Mary is sympathetic. “That’s the greatest thing that you fear, that you won’t have say over your life anymore.”

Patty was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pains, and soon after her arrival the stress induced a heart attack. In examining her, they discovered a mass in her intestines large enough that nothing could be done. Long ago, when the kids were still young, Patty had made absolutely clear to her children that she did not want to be kept alive on machines or through extreme surgical measures. “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind,” John says. “She wanted it her way. That was her iron will, one last time.” In brief moments of lucidity, through the haze of morphine, Patty saw her sons John and Carl and Ted. She died a few hours later.

Then came the question of what to do with her body. Again, Patty’s children had long known her wishes: while she’d considered herself a Catholic, she’d often spoken about her faith in science, and she’d seen no need for her body to be pumped full of chemicals and sealed into an expensive coffin after death—Patty would much rather her remains be put to use in a cool experiment, part of discovering new terrain. And while they range in spiritual leanings from improvised New Age (Mary) to “your most straight-up Richard Dawkins atheist” (Jim), her children all share Patty’s view of her physical self. “She would mock the foolishness of thinking that there was anything going on with your body after you died,” says Jim. “The special part is the alive person.”

“Her body was whatever carried her spirit and her brain around,” says Carl, “and in the end it was just a bag of meat when she was done with it. Whatever happened after that, that could be useful, was a good thing.” If in life she hadn’t become a psychologist, at least in death, perhaps, her pieces could be put to work for science.

Once all the Robinson siblings were gathered in Austin, they discussed how best to put Patty to use at such sudden notice. Without advance arrangements, options were limited. Searching online, Jim soon encountered FACTS—and Carl recalled Patty mentioning to them that a body farm was being built in San Marcos. For the Robinsons, this was the perfect way to satisfy their mother’s wishes.

Her choir had a memorial for Patty at the church, which her kids dutifully attended—except Jim (“I didn’t want to see her church ladies, and I don’t feel bad about it”). As for the siblings themselves, in lieu of a traditional funeral, they gathered friends and family at John’s house. “There was a tremendous amount of sadness,” Ted says—and then corrects himself. “Not really sadness: a release. But it wasn’t that movie scene where everyone’s wailing and wearing black and just acting.” Everyone drank and told stories about Patty. And, sometime in the middle of all this, the morgue handed the remains of Patricia Robinson off to the body farm.

 

Years before there was a forensic research facility in San Marcos, Elaine’s father, an entomologist and parasitologist, staked out a pig to observe the process of decomposition and which insects arrived first. He worked on a couple of cases with the Austin PD and DPS, collecting maggots and flies from bodies at crime scenes, and helped train law enforcement to do the same. He never had to explain his work to Elaine and her two younger sisters, she says, “because we were biologists’ kids! We were always camping in the hill country, picking up fossils or arrowheads. Mom and Dad had us making plaster casts of animal footprints we found.” They collected tadpoles, snakes, and horned toads. As a family, says Elaine, “we don’t shy away from things. We don’t get the ooh gross syndrome so many people have.”

Elaine had always been fascinated with science herself, but because of “how life shook out,” she took a very winding road through employment, from waitressing gigs to a stint operating a wastewater treatment plant. There was also a year and a half, in her early twenties, as a gravedigger. “Needless to say, death does not bother me a whole lot. To work in the cemetery, you’ve got to not be thinking about it too much.” Now, mostly retired, she does ornamental ironwork in her own blacksmithing shop.

The combination of her reptile- and insect-friendly childhood and her time spent interring the dead made Elaine a very un-squeamish individual, and one with a clear understanding of the inevitable progression of the human body. And so when Bill announced that, when the time came, he wanted to be donated to science, she was instantly comfortable with the idea. Watching local TV one night, he saw a news item about the body farm, and he told Elaine “That’s where I want to go. I want to write it down and notarize it.”

This was two days before the accident.

That morning, they woke up at 4:45 as usual—Bill started work in San Antonio at 6 a.m.—but Elaine remembers him being out of sync. “He did say that he just couldn’t get it together.” It was in the forties that day, so he needed his leathers, but he took a long time finding his gear. And though the cold meant taking his Ultra Classic was the best idea (it blocked more wind), at the last minute he decided on his Softail. “Before we met, he had three wrecks on a red Softail just like that,” says Elaine. Then Bill rode off down the same winding route he’d taken every day for years.

Elaine watched the morning news with her coffee and saw that there’d been an accident on their road, way out in the country. “I was listening for the word ‘motorcycle’—and then I heard it. Crap, it’s him! I called his work: he hadn’t gotten there. I called again, and now it’s a quarter after six. I threw on clothes, no jacket—it was cold, but I didn’t care—and I raced over there.” The road was blocked by a fire truck, but the volunteer firefighters (her neighbors) told her the bike was red. She knew it was Bill. He’d run off the road. “We just really don’t know what happened,” Elaine says, “but he ended up flipping.” The helicopter had already transported him to the hospital, leaving the sheriff’s department there to survey the scene. They gave her Bill’s wallet, and the leathers they’d cut off him, and she cleared out his saddle bags “because he had made himself a special lunch the night before, something from Germany that he was used to eating”—he’d been stationed there early on in the Army—“and I got it out of his bag because it would’ve been no good.”

At the hospital, the trauma team was hard at work: on the surface, Bill had merely fractured a tooth and scraped his nose, but internally, the damage was much more serious. Because his neck had already been broken twice—once at seventeen, in a car accident, and fractured again in the military—Bill could only wear a lightweight helmet: a standard helmet would put too much pressure on his neck. And so he’d suffered extensive brain trauma and re-broken his neck, leaving him unconscious, in need of a breathing tube, and paralyzed from the throat down. “He was one of those few cases that would have had zero chance at recovery,” says Elaine. “So, you know, it sucked big-time.”

During that week, friends took turns being on call, sitting in the waiting room, rotating through visiting hours. “He didn’t think the guys liked him that much, because he thought he was so different,” Elaine says. “But he had friends that were there for him every single minute he was in the hospital. He was a hard character, but he really doesn’t know the effect he had on people.”

For Elaine, someone who had never witnessed her partner sleep through the night, “Those days were the calmest I’d ever seen him.” He was admitted on February 28 and never regained consciousness. On March 6, a decision was made, and Elaine left the hospital room as they took him off the respirator.

When they first met in person, on a date at a friend’s dairy farm, Bill’s hair hung to his shoulders, and Elaine can still go on and on about his black locks. “He had thick, thick hair, super-wavy and curly, and when it was wet, it was total ringlets. It was so pretty! He always kept it in a braid or tucked down his shirt in the back, because he didn’t want anybody to be able to grab it—he’s always thinking fight, right? It had to be wet for me to be able to braid it because it would puff. It was luxurious, man.” Bill let his hair grow throughout the four years they spent together, with the idea of donating it someday to make hairpieces for sick children. “When we ended up cutting it off, at the hospital, it was down to his butt crack! It was so thick, we had to snip a little bit at a time. They had to go get a bigger pair of scissors.” She gave his ponytail to Locks of Love.

Then, as happens, came the question of the body. Once they knew he would not recover, Elaine looked into donating Bill’s remains to a medical school—but, as is usually the case, they were unable to take him because he had died in an accident. So she made arrangements with FACTS, and on the day of his death they sent a pair of graduate students to pick the body up from the morgue.

“People know that he donated his body to science,” Elaine says. “Some know it was to FACTS, but they don’t know what that means—I don’t call it ‘the body farm’ because most people would not be able to deal with it. But Bill would never have wanted to be in a hole in the ground.” Respecting his contempt for traditional funerals, Elaine held a “memorial barbecue” for Bill. “He’s not social, but he always wanted to have friends over for barbecue: he just grills and lets them talk with each other.” And since Bill was a Mason and a Shriner—he often wore his Shriner patch on his biker vest—she followed instructions and cremated his white sheepskin Masonic apron on the grill, sprinkling the ashes around their yard.

I ask Elaine how she can handle the idea of her fiancé being at the facility right now, the “details” of it. She hasn’t had to handle the thought, she says, “because for some reason I’m able to block out the part where they’re actually doing the initial research. I know what it’s all about, but my brain doesn’t even focus on that side of it”—the body of someone she loves laid out to rot—“not even when I’m talking about it. I don’t think of him being outside in this situation, going through the steps we go through after death. I’m able to totally separate myself from that.” Instead, she tries to think about “what people might learn from him that will identify somebody or save somebody or whatever might come of it.”

She and her two sisters are all considering donating. The application sits on Elaine’s desk.

 

In the 2012 issue of Forensic Science International, an article entitled “Spatial Patterning of Vulture Scavenged Human Remains” appeared. It featured computerized maps and tables of data, as well as a series of color photos taken outdoors, over a twenty-five-hour period, with a motion-sensitive game camera. The sequence of images went as follows:

December 26, 2009, 11:16 a.m.: A deceased woman’s fully fleshed body is laid out in a dry field, the belly extremely bloated, in stark contrast to the arms and breasts and legs, now withered. The head is turned over the right shoulder, facing the camera, but she remains anonymous, a thin black bar Photoshopped over her eyes. An American black vulture stands by the left leg, peering at the body.

12:06 p.m.: A swarm of vultures, over two dozen of them, have descended on the body. Only the distended belly is visible above the fray. 

3:39 p.m.: The body, still covered in its outer casing of skin, is now deflated entirely, all viscera removed. The skull looks as if it’s been stripped, but the right hand, stretched above its head, is still mostly intact. A cluster of birds lingers.

The next day, 12:12 p.m.: The body is finally de-fleshed, mostly skeleton, and in an entirely different position. Turned completely around by the frenzy of vultures, its head now rests at the opposite, right-hand edge of the frame, turned upright; its right arm bones are stretched out above the shoulder; its right leg is no longer visible. One bird remains at work on what little might be left inside the rib cage.

The article, the result of a FACTS study, was co-authored by Kate, her fellow researcher Michelle Hamilton, and Texas State geographer Alberto Giordano, who tracked the impact of vulture scavenging patterns on one human body over a seven-month period.

Things we know about New World vultures: They soar when the air heats up, sniffing out their meals from on high. Their heads can be as red as flayed skin (the turkey vulture), or as gray and cracked as dry earth (the black vulture). They’re literally repulsive: they urinate on themselves, vomit when threatened, and feed on carcasses. But as far as how they scavenge remains—and human remains in particular—our knowledge is only anecdotal, based on research done with pig cadavers. Using photography and GPS mapping to track even the smaller bones, this FACTS study provided new information that impacted forensic work in the vulture-friendly Southwest: the birds are capable of de-fleshing a human body in as little as five hours; they cause signature damage to the orbital bones (around the eyes) and the rib cage; they dramatically disturb the positioning of the body (within two more days, they would drag the subject out of the camera’s range).

As a result, when this paper was published, a short related article ran in the Associated Press and spread around the Internet. The AP story included a slide show set at FACTS, featuring images of Kate standing in the field with the anonymous woman’s now-skeletal remains. But this time the subject of the study, the woman in the journal, was no longer anonymous: she was identified as Patricia Robinson, placed on-site at FACTS on November 19, 2009. In the first week after being placed, deliberately without a cage, two vultures had been spotted consuming her eyes; thirty-seven days after placement, the day after Christmas, the swarm arrived; by December 27, she had been skeletonized.

Her children recognized her skull by its gold teeth.

It was Jim, in San Francisco, who’d spoken briefly on the phone with the AP reporter and, perhaps not realizing the quick turnaround of the piece, did not tell his siblings about the article before its publication, or the fact that he’d given the writer permission to identify their mother’s remains by name. So when Ted, in Austin, was scanning headlines online one morning, he came across an item about the San Marcos facility and discovered the slide show. He saw a photo of a skull in the grass and he knew, before reading the captions, that this was his mother: he could see one of her gold molars.

Perhaps surprisingly, his immediate reaction to the photos, and the details of the research—scientists “captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman’s body, breaking some of her ribs”—was one of pride. “Just the amount of damage done to the body—it was hours, literally hours, and it was clean,” he says. “It was just this huge amount of unthought-of information.” In his enthusiasm, Ted posted a link on Facebook saying, “Hey, look! Mom got eaten by vultures! Awesome!”

In a third-grade classroom at her elementary school, Mary was online and saw the note from her youngest brother. She clicked on the link—and had a typical Robinson family reaction: “I was like ‘Oh, cool! They’re talking about her!’” Then she saw the pictures. “And it was ‘Oh, there’s Mom’s face! There’s her teeth! Oh, there’s her ribs! Oh, wow.’”

Mary was deeply hurt when her friends and colleagues at work were unable to relate to her excitement at the news. “I have just hit revulsion, revulsion, revulsion—and it’s very lonely and hard. This is awesome—but it’s so out-of-the-box, there’s no paradigm. That’s your mom? What?

As the link spread to the rest of the siblings, their experience was the same: the painful feeling that, outside of the family, there weren’t many people they could share their decision with. “The people that I know,” says Carl, “most of them were like, ‘That’s really weird,’ and ‘That’s just gross. How could you leave your mother to lie out in the cold rain?’ So I didn’t talk to a whole lot of people about it.” In the middle of a culture that is in denial of aging, never mind death, the body farm at San Marcos is one of the only places in America where death is literally splayed out in front of us, laid bare in a field, undeniable—and it makes most people very uneasy.

However shocking it is to the mainstream American sensibility, deliberate excarnation (or de-fleshing) is also a practice with a history—a spiritual practice sometimes referred to as “sky burial.” After death, the bodies of many Tibetan Buddhists are partially flayed and left exposed on a mountaintop for birds and animals to consume. The Parsis of India, a Zoroastrian population clustered around Mumbai, place their dead atop Towers of Silence to be picked clean by vultures. And certain Native American tribes once left their dead on elevated platforms to be excarnated. While the AP article revealed that many Americans are deeply unsettled by body-farm donation (no great surprise), its outing of the vulture study also exposed an unexpected, if rarefied, desire in this country: FACTS began receiving calls from potential donors requesting to be consumed by vultures. It made religion-specific sense when a little-known Zoroastrian group in Texas reached out, proposing that FACTS build a similar facility on their property. (The researchers politely declined.) But at this point, more than two years later, these inquiries make up about one in three of the calls FACTS receives about donation. “They usually say, flat-out, ‘I want to be eaten by vultures,’” says Sophia Mavroudas, who coordinates with donors. “Some are interested in Tibetan sky burial—but we’re here, in this country,” so the body farm is the next best thing.

 

Within a week of Patty’s “placement,” the sprawling Robinson clan—four of the five siblings, along with their spouses and girlfriends and some of the kids—decided to drive to San Marcos to visit Patty. “It was not a sad trip for any of us,” says Jim. “The kids ran around looking at stuff. It was more of a celebration than anything else.”

Michelle gave them a tour of the lab, showing them how the skeletons are filed and stored in boxes. She told them their mother’s number (D10-2009), and pointed out the pin designating her placement in the field on an aerial map. “So when your mom’s done, we’ll bring her in,” she said. The outdoor facility, with its rows of cages, remained off-limits. “There was no desire, either,” Mary says, “to go out to look at that.”

I see what the Robinsons did not: how a body, like their mother’s, is received and placed on the grounds. It happens unexpectedly, on Wednesday morning. “There’s going to be an intake,” Kate announces—and the group is ushered into the lab by a grad student named Hailey. Looking around, I now notice that nearly the entire class is female, in ponytails and college-casual clothes that give a person the look of having just rolled out of bed or off an elliptical machine. In spite of their age, they seem mostly un-phased by the events about to take place. I, on the other hand, feel legitimately unprepared.

Hailey, in signature forensics cargo pants, her brown hair tied back, leads us to the intake area: an open space by a rolling service door where another student will soon pull up in the “body truck” with the latest donation. “Just to warn you guys,” she says, “this person has started to marble—I don’t know to what extent.”

“And for those of you who have not seen a body except in decomposition, prepare yourself,” Michelle adds. “You’ve all worked on graves with a person in it, but this is a very fresh person.” “One thing I always keep in mind,” says Kate, “is that this person donated themselves, or their family donated them—so it’s a nice thing.”

The truck arrives, someone opens its back doors, and we see it: the white plastic body bag. Since FACTS receives remains before the official medical examiner’s report is completed, there’s often a delay between the donation and a complete understanding of cause and circumstances of death—meaning that each body bag may contain some very real surprises. All we know at the moment is that this specimen was just retrieved, in its immediate post-mortem state, from a funeral home in Houston.

Now clad in blue surgical gloves, booties, and plastic smocks, four grad students load the heavy cargo onto a collapsed gurney in the center of the space. The undergrads readjust their position in the room, clustering and re-clustering according to their individual levels of bravery.

“This is D25-2014,” Hailey announces. “Our twenty-fifth donation this year.” She turns to the others: “Okay, go for it.”

They unzip the bag.

D25-2014, it turns out, is a fifty-seven-year-old white man with a handsome, grizzled, mountain-man sort of face. He has curly white hair and a beard, an oversized belly, and skin that has started to turn an oxidized green around his neck and along his right side. Some reddish “purge” fluid has pooled at the bottom of the bag, having leaked from the body. Hailey, pretty cool and no-nonsense, talks the first-timers through this: “Sometimes, when they die and they’re kept in a cooler for a long time, they start to turn green. He’s starting to change, to decompose. The cooler slows down the process, but it doesn’t halt it.”

While the others position and measure the body, Hailey takes the standard photos—of each limb and the face, including a shot with the lips pried open to display the teeth. They check for any medical devices to remove, from catheters to colostomy bags. They take nail and hair samples, allotting clippings to other research institutions, and a DNA sample from the purge by his feet. When one woman adjusts his head, a red trickle runs from his nose and mouth, and I can see her tense up for a moment: the unexpected movement is a reminder of just how recently he was alive. Finally, they tag each arm and wrist with the assigned donation number: from this moment on, D25-2014 will no longer be referred to by his name in life.

At this point, I realize how quickly I’ve already adjusted to the shock of the dead: the trembling I felt in my stomach when they unzipped the bag has now mostly left me, and I’ve almost, almost stopped noticing the smell of cadaver. Though I’m not easily unsettled, to learn this about myself must count as a minor revelation: how rapidly I can recalibrate what repulses me—an ability taken for granted as a basic skill by many of the people in this room. I also realize that I’ve drawn a large measure of my comfort, my staving-off of total, primal panic, from the group reaction to rotting human flesh—which here,in this very particular place, remains one of calm appraisal.

In the parking lot, the students reorganize and hop into various pickups and SUVs, creating a caravan to follow the body truck out into the field. D25-2014 will be placed in a newly cleared area under some trees, to see what different results the shade might produce. The bag is unloaded, buckled to the gurney, and rolled over bumpy terrain to the designated spot: a bed of dry leaves under a cluster of oaks, where the students set down the bare corpse. The sight of a man laid out so neatly on his back, naked, in nature, makes me feel as if we’re sneaking up on an older hippie taking a nap—until, of course, the volunteers step forward, in their gloves and booties, and flip him onto his stomach, planting his face in the leafy dirt. Hailey now photographs him again from this angle: too tricky to pull off indoors without a mess.

Once he’s turned onto his back again, leaves still clinging to his body (Hailey asks a volunteer to wipe off his face), we can see the flies converge. One of the older male students decides to explain this to me. “What they’re doing is they’re laying eggs: they’re going to the mucous membranes—the nose, the mouth, the genitals—or where there’s a cut or an open wound. We can come back tomorrow and you’ll see: on the eyes, the mouth, and so forth, there will probably be maggots. It’s amazing.”

Someone hammers a wooden stake into the ground close to the head, with his number written on it in thick magic marker, and a cage is placed over him, granting some order to his new natural state. Then we simply walk away, leaving D25-2014 in the clearing, a palace for the flies.

Nearly the same things happen to the human body during decomposition, whether in the open or underground in a carefully sealed box: variables aside, we decay. But perhaps what prevents some of us, given the choice, from excarnating the body of a loved one, rather than embalming and sealing her in a casket, is how human decay plays out in our minds. In one scenario, total chaos, the elements allowed their full range, scavengers allowed to freely tear and consume and toss things around; and in the other, an elegant, abstract box, a theater, a contained stage on which decomposition can take place, allowing us the illusion of some control. The results may be the same, but the decision hinges on how well those of us left behind can live with theimagining of it all.

 

Two months after his death, I meet Bill.

He lies on his back, under his cage, in the rough and weedy grass, his head turned over his right shoulder—probably turned that way by the natural course of events, the flow of his bodily fluids, the movement of the large families of maggots that would have taken up residence there in his first few days outside. Right away, I notice his salt-and-pepper beard, and his hair: long for a man, but cut blunt at the ends, with a practical purpose—not to be worn that way. It’s stained with his body’s enzymes: the strands are now as rust-colored as the grass beneath them, the color of damp earth. While most of him has thoroughly browned, the warped, wrinkly skin of his chest and his sunken abdomen have turned a golden, buttery color from their own fat. Each arm and thigh, now tough as leather, is collapsed like an accordion; and his genitals are gone. Strangely, but typical here, his feet are almost completely intact, and it seems unusually intimate, even under the circumstances, to see them bare without his knowledge—like catching a glimpse of the fleshy underside of someone’s feet when they’ve yanked the sheets up in their sleep.

The anger that had defined Bill, and the night terrors, and the strain held in his body from years spent weaving through land mines, and the necessity of sitting with his back to the wall wherever he went—all that is gone, has leaked (or so it seems) from his guts and innards, through his back and his buttocks and the backs of his thighs, into the grasses, and the tension of living has stunted the plant life. The only taut thing left of him now is his casing of skin, mummified by the Texas sun into a husk shaped like a man, and the shape of his skull, just starting to peek out from where the skin has split open at the back of his head. The body itself, the core of it, is deflated, like all the others here, making it easy to imagine that the essential soul stuff has escaped, leaked out or drifted upward. And maybe it has. But what becomes certain here is this: that weeks ago the flies arrived and laid their eggs, and the maggots were hatched and began to feed, and ants and beetles arrived to feed on the larvae, and the blood decomposed, marbling the skin, and decay bloated the belly, only to puncture it. And now, two months into the inevitable, the remaining skin has hardened, making a shell for the continuing rot inside.

I can say that I’ve met Bill—but this is not Bill. It is no longer him. This is the remainder of the man, the epilogue we usually cut from the hero’s narrative, the precise stuff Elaine’s brain does not let her imagine. But on these sixteen acres in San Marcos, this process is laid out in the open, observed and annotated calmly by a rotating cast of young students, people just beginning their adult lives. In driving through five miles of ranchland and swiping a card to pass through the fences, you enter a world in which the naked dead are accepted, and rot is all right, and the only ceremonies needed to protect us from the fact of death are those provided by science.

Of course, there is a limit to what any of us can handle—including the Robinsons, who all plan to donate themselves. Seeing their mother’s completely de-fleshed skull online was okay for them, something they could digest. It was even exciting. But clicking through to the journal article itself, complete with photos of her recently dead body being scavenged by vultures, was more than they could, or wanted to, endure. This is the line they must draw to prevent themselves from losing their minds. Mary wishes she could un-see it.

“I don’t believe it hurt her, my mom, when vultures were eating her body. I don’t believe she was in there—I believe more that she’s kind of floating around.” But in seeing the time-lapse photos, she says, “It was, ‘Oh, that’s Mom’s body.’ And it wasn’t bones. And that was very, very, very hard. Traumatic. Like, I can freak myself out if I flash back on that picture in my head. Seeing her bones just filled me with love. Seeing her body, in the field, with the necrosis starting on the arms, and her midsection bloated, and her double chin, and her long, lanky legs—that is a haunting image. I don’tbelieve she is still in that body, but she looked like my mom. So I never went back to that link again.” To see someone you know intimately in a state of rot, that prolonged, viscous disappearing act after death, is too much—but somehow their bones are easier to handle, once the memory of decay has been rubbed out of them with a toothbrush.

Mary holds onto the notion that her mother is, in some ways, still around. “Because I think that we are energy. And when we die, our souls go up and they get mixed up up there. Ted said, ‘Oh, you mean like a soul soup?’ Yes! I believe in soul soup! We die and our soul, our spirit, our energy, is just mixing around up there, and then a handful comes out and goes into a new person. So I definitely feel her around. And talking about these things that were found out because of her, she’s out in the world again.” When her mother died, Mary says, “I wailed on my hands and knees, banging the floor and saying ‘No, no, no!’ I cry easily—all the kids at school are used to it.” Back home from Austin, “it sounds silly, but I danced in the yard and I prayed. I pushed energy out my chest.”

When Mary tells me this, I am struck again by the nature of mourning: no matter what kind of rituals we subscribe to, it’s an improvisation, an aid, a brace. Most people find some consolation in knowing that others in their culture take part in the same rites when someone they love dies—but it’s only a small comfort. And what we’re left with is the stubborn sense of how peculiar mourning is, how little we know about what we’ll need when a parent or brother or fiancé dies. And sometimes what’s needed most of all, to make the loss less vivid, is the passage of time, like the blanching of bone. In a letter that Mary makes sure to copy and send to me, Patty herself wrote:

For some reason, knowing tomorrow won’t be so bad doesn’t make today pass any faster. In my experience. But that awful day was Monday, and now it’s Friday and I don’t remember how bad I felt. Now that is a genuine blessing, because I do remember how bad I hated all the misery I can’t remember.

 

Kate and I sit at the glossy black tabletop, the long cardboard storage box of D10-2009 open, its contents now in makeshift rows before us. Sitting here with Patty spread out in front of me, I know that I will not be able to tell the Robinsons that I handled their mother’s bones, that I have done what they may never choose to do. That I’ve held their mother’s skull in my hands. That I’ve lined up the pieces that make up her fingers, and held the halves of her pelvis. That Kate and I assessed her remains, remarked on how diminutive her frame was, for a 5’10’’ woman. “You can see she’s very petite,” says Kate. “She had a very narrow face.”

She did have a narrow face, her jaw especially long and lean, with apple cheeks set round and high above her long grin. I know this from the photographs—not the ones published in that forensic journal (her face was hidden then, having become both Patty and not-Patty) but the family photos Mary sent me. There’s teenaged fan-girl Patty, in gingham and librarian’s glasses, standing next to Bob Hope; twenty-something Patty, visibly pleased to be at work on a theater fundraiser at some Baton Rouge Holiday Inn; Patty, now married and in feathered hair, watching Carl and Jim play in their Berlin living room; Patty on the rocks by the water in Corpus Christi, beaming in one of her signature bathing suits; Patty mid-laugh as she watches her barely-adult kids build a human pyramid on her fiftieth birthday.

Each of these is a piece of her, not unlike the slivers she tried to piece together of her own family—her parents, her grandparents—in her letters to Mary. Patty wrote about her mother Ruth’s memory of a one-armed Civil War vet coming to visit when she was a little girl, and how he helped sweep the house with “the broom handle in his armpit.” And how her stern father, while a student in Maine, had “stoked people’s coal furnaces to put himself through school.” She wrote of how Ruth, in “long sausage curls and flowers,” had won a Mary Pickford look-alike contest while also playing on her high school basketball team. And how Ruth had somehow carved out a career in the 1930s as a nurse—but that later, at home raising her daughter in lean times during the war, she “took out her official nurse’s cape, navy blue wool with a red wool lining, and cut it up to make clothes for both of us.” Patty wrote of summers by the sea in Islesboro with her Grammy, in a cabin that had an old water pump in the kitchen sink, and an outhouse, and how they “dug clams and baked them in a sand pit, with seaweed to make steam.” She tells Mary that years later, while she was at college against her father’s wishes, Grammy would mail her money so she could eat.

These are fragments—less tangible than bone, but of stronger substance, perhaps. Taken together, they make up a kind of catalogue, a measuring-up of the past.

When a researcher, with gloved hands, peels the last vestiges of mummified flesh off the donor, and with a toothbrush scrapes away the most stubborn tendons clinging to the joints and soaks each of the bones in dishwashing liquid, down to the smallest segments that make up each finger and toe, what isshe cataloguing? There is data to measure and chart, to scan and upload—but no matter how carefully each of her phalanges is collected from the grasses beyond the locked gates, Patty Robinson remains scattered. You can never gather up all of her.

In a later letter to her daughter, Patty wrote of their relationship as adults, which had been strained when Mary was a teenager.

I love you so much more now that you’re YOU, instead of Mary-in-training. I have loved you from the time you were on the way—I never would have guessed how much bigger love can stretch to encompass the well-grown woman. Now that I know, I predict my love bubble with your name on it will be visible from Connecticut. Keep an eye on the sky—it will look like a giant purple balloon.

Whether as a balloon or lifted up by God or an “energy” or a gross, red-headed bird, Patty believed the best part of her would be airborne.


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Alex Mar is the author of Witches of America, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her work has most recently appeard in the New York Times Book Review, the Believer, and Elle. She is the director of the documentary American Mystic

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