No sooner had this writer slapped down the terrible practice of stereotyping the South than the front pages blossomed with a plague of troubling stories. In Georgia, several hundred bodies have been discovered rotting on the grounds of a crematorium, whose proprietor hadn’t bothered to burn them, despite the low price of gasoline these days. In Texas, a mother faces justice for drowning her five children. And in Florida, which is not exactly a Southern state but is a state in the South, the psychic “Miss Cleo” has come under scrutiny, also for bilking clients.
It was as if Hollywood and allied anti-Southern hotspots have been vindicated in the belief that the South is populated by scoundrels, con-women, murderers, and thieves. A reader wonders what the Southern defender has to say in light of these horrors.
The point is well taken, the lashes fully deserved. There is no sense denying the South is beset by problems. It is the most violent region in the nation. Its citizens sometimes drink too much, eat too much, and carouse too much, often on the same evening. We are truly creatures of Saturday night.
But we are also creatures of Sunday morning. And so it is a point of pride around here that if you truly screw up and get caught, you shouldn’t have a prayer. In that spirit, we assume the final chapters of these stories will be happier than their openings.
Consider the child killer case. Should the alleged perpetrator be convicted of this heinous crime, she will no doubt be rewarded with a long sit on the Texas dunking stool, or some approximation thereof. Indeed, there is no doubt that if she could be revived four times and re-drowned, the jury would demand as much. Yet science has not been quite up to that task. Meanwhile, execution would also open up a penitentiary bunk for any Enron executive who might earn a trip to the brig, which may gain the region a nice column from Mr. Krugman, among others.
Even such positive notices, however, will not be enough to offset the fury of those who oppose state-sponsored executions. Many of us who do favor executions can admire the arguments of many who don’t, but it is extremely difficult extending respect to the National Organization for Women, which insists the alleged perpetrator was a “prisoner in the home” and may have been driven mad by homeschooling, clothes washing, and other domestic depredations.
Many of us are mystified by this organization, which was last seen holding the codpiece of a former president while he pillaged a body of laws NOW has historically championed. Now it rallies on behalf of someone who does not compare well with Charles Manson. The mind fills with an old question: Have you no shame?
As for Miss Cleo, she clearly has no cause for shame, at least on the charge that she is bilking dopes and making fools of officials. She is especially successful regarding the latter, and one must doff the cap in her direction. As one news report explained: “The state of Florida is squaring off in court with psychic pitchwoman Miss Cleo, trying to force her to prove she’s really the Jamaican shaman she has claimed to be before millions of viewers of her TV infomercials.” Added one high-ranking official: “That’s important because the whole concept of Miss Cleo is premised on her being a shaman from Jamaica. If she’s from the Bronx instead, that would be a fraud.”
Does this not suggest that if Miss Cleo is indeed from Jamaica, she’s no fraud at all? In her line of work, that suggests an authentic ability to unmask the past, divine the future, and perhaps talk to chickens. Maybe these guys could talk the authorities in New York into seeing if Al Sharpton is really a reverend.
Which brings us to Noble, Georgia, where the proprietor of a crematorium is also charged with bilking customers. This is a tough one, even for the most shameless defender of regional peculiarities. As Dr. Stein says, we shall do our best.
The evidence so far suggests the alleged perpetrator billed families for burning the bodies of loved ones yet did not burn them at all. Instead, he scattered them around his property and let them decompose the old-fashioned way. Some critics insist this is yet more criminal fraud, yet the closer one looks the more complex the situation seems.
According to one report, the current owner has not had a working incinerator for 20 years — the entire time he has operated the facility. If so, it is clear he never planned on burning the bodies at all. This has raised further suspicions of unnatural lusts; perhaps he has been building himself a harem all these years.
But there’s another explanation. The fact is, cremation has not been fully accepted in the South. For many residents, the quick trip from death bed to the incinerator brings to mind troubling visions of hellfire and damnation. Others consider it a pagan practice. The issue divides households, including my own. My wife is all for it, while I have stipulated a sky burial, in which the lifeless husk is lifted onto a raised platform, after which the sun, wind, and associated elements will undertake their solemn duty.
It can be argued that the proprietor was merely following the dictates of his conscience and letting unassisted nature take its course. This fellow’s problem, however, is that no one is marching on his behalf. Quite the contrary. The police say he’s better off in prison, where he is protected from outraged family members who may do him harm. His best course of action may be to insist he was indeed building a harem, at which time some pressure group is bound to spring to his defense — and Hollywood will no doubt offer him a movie deal.
If so, you won’t hear a peep out of me.
Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.