The town undertaker had eleven children,
he buried ten,
but first his wife, plump,
died of menopausal uselessness.
In his world of black clothes,
she was white, a shadow of light,
not even missed.
The children lived with death,
taunted by the other children
and the joking whispers
that old Hodge had kept it stiff
with formaldehyde;
and the claps on the back
joking about his dying business.
The first child he buried was two bodies –
his daughter and her half-born fetus,
a secret from him
until a car dropped her bleeding
on the doorstep of the funeral home
where he removed the rest of her guts.
Three months later a son
drank a few too many
mixed with a few pills.
He had been depressed, it was said,
by his younger sister’s death,
and there were other things said.
The older one who loved cars
put in a battery connected backwards,
charred hands hidden under flowers,
hair straightened,
he was put to rest.
The next daughter’s coffin was closed;
a drug to make her forget death
made her decide to fly
from the churchbell tower
during the pastor’s funeral.
She rode in the funeral car,
a smashed doll,
two trips to the cemetery,
and the night of the funeral
the next son crashed a hearse,
using it as a fiery coffin,
yet he was buried in a wooden box.
Hodge had never accepted cremation
although he could not find a vein
in which to pour embalming fluid.
To fly, to fly,
another daughter,
to find out how her older sister felt,
but the chute didn’t open -
this was worse than the bell tower,
tolling yet again.
Another son went hunting to forget,
came home headless,
coffin closed again.
Hodge wasn’t getting his makeup practice,
and some said the old man
didn’t even bother with the backless jacket,
tossed the kid in the casket
in his red plaid shirt,
the pattern distorted by blood.
To fly, to fly —
the last daughter swirled in space
to the waiting water and the unseen log;
body swollen and soggy.
Hodge dehydrated it;
drowned her in six feet of earth.
Hodge didn’t bury all of one son,
the one who became toeless,
footless, legless, mindless,
blood replaced by chemicals
before Hodge even got at him,
clothing most of him in flowers,
having hidden the body
during the last year.
Nurses whispered that only a head
was in the casket
and how Hodge had hidden the jaundice.
He must be a magician.
Hodge’s last son has survived,
is now the mayor of our town.
The son does not marry,
although the old man wants grandchildren.
He says we are all his children.
We continue to die.

Lucile Barker

If you have any comments on this poem, Lucile Barker  would be pleased to hear them.