CORRESPONDENCErnLetter FromrnMinnesotarnby Mark FellowsrnA Winter’s TalernThe funeral home looked better on thernoutside. The solid, dignified impressionrngiven by the white pillars standing guardrnoutside the large double doors disappearedrnwhen you stepped inside andrnwalked on old carpeting into a dimly litrnroom with dark wood paneling. Acrossrnthe room were a pair of lime-green armchairsrnembosse^l with tarnished silverrnstuds. One of the chairs held an oldrnguy—probably the custodian. He was uprnfor some company, and I wasn’t in a hurry.rnHe brought out hot, strong coffee. Irngulped down as much as I could withoutrnscalding myself, hoping the warmthrnwould raise my body temperature.rnUp in northern Minnesota, he toldrnme, they bury the dead in vaults abovernground during the winter, Down here inrntropical St. Paul, however, everyone goesrnunderground. “Backhoes, power hammers,rnwhatever it takes,” he said cheerfully,rnexplaining that, after machinesrnpierced the frost line, winter gravediggingrnoffered no special challenges.rn”Arc you the pastor?” he asked, noddingrnat the thick black book I held in thernhand tiiat wasn’t holding the coffee. Irnshook mv head. “I was his social worker.”rnHe nodded again: “Nice of you to come.”rnHe handed me a 2001 calendar card that,rnright under the funeral chapel’s namernand the American flag, listed him as therndirector. We talked a while longer, thenrnhe excused himself He came back andrnsaid, “They’re out there, in the newrncemetery. You’ll want to drive your car.rnJust park it behind the hearse. Take yourrncoffee with you. They’re probably waitingrnfor you.”rnThe wind hurled snow at my face as Irnhurried to my car. It started, and I tookrnoff not bothering to turn on the heater. Itrndidn’t matter. It was one of those daysrnwhere vou just never get warm. I parkedrnbehind the white hearse, swallowedrnmore coffee, and joined the huddledrngroup of three men: the undertaker, hisrnassistant, and an acquaintance of therndead man. The looks they gave me spokernfor themselves: They had been waitingrnfor me. We introduced ourselves andrnmade small talk while the wind burnedrnour cheeks and our toes went numb.rnThe undertaker’s assistant pointed behindrnus to some frozen flower bouquetsrnsticking out of a mound of snow. “Didrnthat one yesterday,” he said. “A 14-yearoldrnboy.” Car accident? I asked. “Naw,”rnhe said, “He went into the hospital threernyears ago for surgery and came out a vegetable.rnCouldn’t talk or nothing. A damnrnshame. It’s a real blessing he died.”rnWe turned to our coffin. It rested onrntwo thick straps that wound around arnbroad, stainless-steel frame. At the properrntime, the contraption would mechanicallyrnlower the cofiPin into the hole. Behindrnthe grave, a chain-link fence separatedrnthe cemetery from the busy Highway 96.rnThe undertaker asked if I wanted somernprayers to be said. He deferred to me, Irnsuspect, because the county I worked forrnwas paying for the funeral, and he wasrnunsure if I was attending as a mourner orrnto make sure county money was beingrnwell spent. Yes, I said, I would say somernprayers.rnI opened the Saint Andrew’s missal,rnmade the Sign of the Cross, and readrnaloud Psalm 129, the De Profundis, inrnEnglish. We were about 30 feet from thernhighway, and I found my voice rising torncompete with passing trucks and cars. Arnplane flew overhead as well, drowningrnout the plea: “Out of the depths I haverncried to Thee, O Lord! Lord, hear myrnvoice.” Next I read the prayers in the burialrnMass, ending awkwardly, it felt, withrnthe prayer for absolution. A priest shouldrnbe doing this, not me. But this was arncount)- burial, not a funeral; besides, wernweren’t even positive the dead man hadrnbeen baptized.rnPart of the problem was that the deadrnman, when alive, often gave conflictingrninformation about himself I wasn’t evenrnsure his real name was Charles, althoughrnhe answered to it. Different people gotrndifferent stories about when Charles’rnbirthday was, what his Social Securityrnnumber was, which war he was in, whetlierrnor not he was married, whether or notrnhe had children, and so on. He wasn’trntrying to confuse people; he was confused.rnYears of drinking had given him arnwet brain. Charles was staying at a homelessrnshelter in St. Paul until he startedrnheaving up blood. At the hospital, the-rndiscovered he had lung cancer; after theyrntook out half his lung, they discovered hernwas demented. Charles was dischargedrnto a nursing home to recuperate from thernsurgery. He recovered so fully that hernstarted assaulting people. He was takenrnto the psych ward. The comity diagnosedrnhim as mentally ill and told me to findrnhim another place to live.rnThe last year of his life was spent in arndifferent nursing home. Charles stoppedrnfighting; other than stealing cigarettesrnand staying out late, he was a model resident.rnHe developed prostate cancer.rnThen his kidneys went out. Charles becamerntoo weak to loiter on Universit)’ Avenue.rnFor his own protection, he wasrnplaced on the locked unit. Like a cagedrnbird, he wilted. The last time I talked tornhim, he recognized me but was too weakrnand confused to say much. I didn’t tellrnhim things would be okay, though, becausernhe wasn’t that confused.rnThere’s no remedv for renal failure,rnbut Charles rallied briefly. He even aternsolid food for a few days. On Sundayrnnight, the staff took his vitals (pulse,rnblood pressure, heart rate), and his signsrnwere good. He lay down in bed, and, lessrnthan hvo hours later, he died, ven,’ quietly,rnalone. Because ofthe state of Charles’rnhealtli, most of his clothing was destroyed.rnThe nursing home was so thoroughrnthat Charles had no burial clothes.rnNot that it mattered: His was a quick,rnclosed-coffin burial without family,rnfriends, coworkers, or nursing-home staff.rnThere weren’t even any enemies.rnCharles left the world wrapped in a windingrnsheet and nothing else —nothing Irnknew about, anyway.rnThe acquaintance at Charles’ burialrnwas a retired bus driver named Bruce,rnwho talked to Charles a couple timesrnwhile visiting Charles’ roommate at thernnursing home. After I finished thernprayers, he sang a verse of a Swedishrnhymn in a clear, strong tenor voice. Irncouldn’t pronounce the name ofthe songrn(translated, it was something like “Godrnholds all of us in His hands”). Bruce toldrnme ofthe night Charles said to him,rn”I know I’m dying, and I want to getrnright with God.” Bruce said, “I sat withrn38/CHRONlCLESrnrnrn