Growing up, every child gets to hear these stories, of cats pouncing on mice, dogs chasing cats, then comes the wolf, and so on. Stories of big fish eating small fish, and bigger fish eating … all the way to the biggest, which, of course, turns out to be man. Darwin for toddlers. Survival of the fittest, or in our case, the wiliest. As a child, I listened to my fair share of these stories, spellbound, and by the age of ten, I took my rudimentary understanding of Darwinism to its logical conclusion: if mankind was the end-station of the food railway, then my father was the station master, shunting the all-consuming wagons into their final dead-end track. Terminus. Amen.
And now I can hear you guessing – his dad was a priest, last confession, last rites, that sort of thing, but no, not if he had a son and a family (which, by the way, would be an absolute heresy in the Catholic backwoods where I grew up). An undertaker then, or a gravedigger? The answer is no, no, and no. The priest will babble and hum by your deathbed, the undertaker puts you in a coffin and the gravedigger six feet under. No, my dad didn’t come to whisper as you lay dying, and he didn’t dabble in coffins, nor did he dig holes. He came after all of that was done and dealt with.
My dad, you see, was all about stone and hammers and chisels, a master stonemason, like his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before him. When my great-great-grandfather first set up shop, the heydays of church and cathedral building, and the itinerant life of the stonemason that came with it, were a thing of the past. But with the steady rise of industrialist and bourgeois middle-class fortunes giving a healthy boost to man’s innate vanity, a promising new market was slowly opening up – elaborate gravestones in perennial granite, honed bluestone and delicately veined marble; and for those who could afford it, family sepulchres the size of a modest house. A simple headstone, or, god forbid, a plain wooden, cast-iron, or stone cross, just wouldn’t do anymore for the new gentry.
By the time my dad took over the family business, a good century and two world wars later, the art of the funerary monument had become ever more accessible to the man in the street. There was a stone for everyone’s purse now, and it is safe to say the production of tombstones had come to provide for roughly two-thirds of the family income, the other one third being provided by bluestone doorsteps, marble windowsills and sundry. After all, this is a country firmly housed in brick, stone and mortar.
So, there you have it. Death was our bread and butter, we were at the very top of the pyramid, and it was genius. We had tapped a market that would never fail, because, to put it bluntly, sooner or later, everybody dies.
Of course, I proudly shared my newly acquired insights, one sunny summer afternoon at the cemetery, as my father and his two fellow craftsmen manoeuvred a recently deceased man’s heavy and final blanket into place. All work stopped as I expounded my theory and the men rested their crowbars and laughed. Dad smiled at me. Not a mocking kind of smile, mind you, nor the type that acknowledges some lame joke, nothing like that. In fact, there was something sad about his smile. He put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Son, there’s no such thing as a food pyramid; a chain maybe, but then a circular one and firmly closed. None of us are on the top or bottom of anything in the world. Just think about it for a minute. What happens to your body, once you’re dead and buried?”
I thought about it, just for a few seconds. I mean, who needs a whole minute to contemplate the messy, pungent process of decay, right?
“So what about cremation then?” I asked my dad.
He shrugged. “Bad for business, I guess, but fertilizer all the same.”
Dad’s two companions laughed again, shook their heads and then returned to inching the solid granite slab into place on the concrete vault that housed the coffin.
I stood there for a moment, nodding, feeling foolish, and then resumed cleaning the men’s trowels and joint fillers in a bucket of water. Age ten and lesson learnt. No top, no bottom; no pyramid, but a circle; food … for thought. So much for the body and man’s place in the world, and I left it at that. God and the immortal soul weren’t up for discussion yet. That wouldn’t be till a few years later, along with questions about girls, sex, masturbation and similar adolescent sins. Yes, sins. God and sins. The Catholic yin and yang. In the small Flemish town where I grew up in the Sixties and early Seventies, there was but one way, and it was the Catholic way, and though the town’s priests didn’t push the ‘Devil-thing’ too much, boy was there room for sin! That’s why they invented confession, the mighty delete button on the Catholic keyboard.