It has now been 11 years since all of the civilized world was shocked at the gruesome discovery of 339 bodies scattered around the Tri-State Crematory in Walker County, Ga. It was a horrific scene where each corpse had been cast aside rather than properly cremated, and just now a memorial monument has finally been dedicated at the Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park Cemetery, near where the unclaimed remains of many were laid to rest.
Brent Hendricks, an Atlanta native and an accomplished poet, came to know the community of Noble –where the crematory was located – quite well; it was there he found the remains of his dad, a man whose body had been sent to be prepared for interment some five years earlier. Today the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux is releasing Hendricks’ first book: “A Long Day at the End of the World” that deals specifically with the tragedy. The subhead reads, “A Story of Desecration and Revelation in the Deep South.”
Even better, the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution carried excerpts of the poet’s book. Here’s is how it starts:
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“I first learned about the Tri-State Crematory when I glanced up at the television to see emergency workers in north Georgia rummaging through the thick brush surrounding a rural area. At the time — February 2002 — I was living in Portland, Ore., and I distinctly remember a helicopter on-screen, beating overhead, filming the workers from above at night, the spotlight causing their green jackets to flicker on and off against dark trees. Apparently, the workers had uncovered a few dozen decomposed corpses sprawled about the crematory grounds. The news report explained there would be more bodies to come.
“Eventually — after a series of gothic events, blackly fantastic — the full extent of the desecration was revealed. In all, authorities recovered 339 decomposing bodies, making the Tri-State Crematory incident the largest mass desecration in modern American history.
“And the details of the incident were gruesome, to say the least. More than 30 of the bodies were discovered in the main crematory building and two storage sheds, either lying on the floor or piled high in metal vaults. The remaining 300-plus bodies were distributed throughout the dense brush and woods of the crematory grounds. Of this larger group, the majority were dumped into eight burial pits of varying depth, which were then covered with dirt, trash, and, in one instance, an old pool table. Body parts were found sticking out of the pits, like grisly plantings in a neglected garden.
“The skeletal remains of other bodies were strewn haphazardly through the brush on cardboard and plywood burn pallets. Still others were discovered in discarded body bags beneath the pines. Finally, a small group still lay in their caskets, and the rats had found their way into those enclosures, shuffling the bones.
“My father’s bones were among those found at Tri-State, where he lay abandoned for five years.”
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Hendricks’ new book, which is 195 pages, includes much of the facts that were gleaned back then, including that operator Ray Marsh, a former athlete at UT-Chattanooga, was sent to prison for 12 years. Here’s another excerpt:
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“Human beings are funny things. We go on small pilgrimages without knowing we are on them. We roam around in our daily lives and wish for something significant or special to happen. And then occasionally we embark on big pilgrimages that project an end point — a point that might be religious or spiritual, or in my case a razed and abandoned field in the north Georgia mountains.
“But we need a lot of luck and we need to follow the signs. And so it was that during those first days of Tri-State I had made my arrangements. I’d sown the idea of my father, animated and engaged, rising from the unhappy earth. From the beginning, and perhaps hidden from view for his own protection, I’d endowed my father with the power of becoming — a thing that might bloom beautifully into himself. He was just the kind of ghost flower that might appear somewhere along my road.”
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The inscription on the monument that was just dedicated reads, “Garden of Peace: This section of Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park is dedicated to those loved ones who were discovered at Tri-State Crematory on Feb. 15, 2002 and laid to rest in March 2004. May they and their families have everlasting peace and consolation.”
Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell told the Rome News-Tribune that the state of Georgia paid for the $45,000 monument and indicated families who wished to have an engraved footstone installed in honor of a loved one could still contact the Memorial Park for details and pricing.