A Hearse On the Highway

by Brianne Donaldson

The enjoyment of power is fatal to the subtleties of life. Ruling classes degenerate by reason of their lazy indulgence in obvious gratifications.

A. N. Whitehead

Adventures of Ideas, 106

Today an empty hearse cornered sharply onto the street ahead of me, speeding toward the highway ramp. I could not recall ever seeing a hearse anywhere but parked stoically in front of a funeral home, or slowly rolling toward a cemetery in some other direction with a line of cars morosely following at half-speed.

But of course, like all cars, hearses have to be parked somewhere, be serviced at some garage, conveyed by some driver from a parking lot to the funeral location. And why shouldn’t it race along like the rest of us, making-meaning out of going to the next, and the next place?

The back curtains were wide open as the hearse jerked quickly to the left to enter the swelling Saturday morning Houston traffic. I always thought a hearse was the strangest shape: like a pregnant trapezoid about to give birth to the dead. To see it move erratically gave me a feeling of seasickness, my gut rolling as though sloshing with a liter of water, and I wished I could look inside to see if perhaps the driver was using it to haul an old water softener to the dump that wouldn’t fit in his own second generation Toyota Corolla.

I wondered, too, what the other drivers thought as the hearse slipped into and out of their lane. Did they, like me, find their gaze magnetized off of the road for a second longer than is really safe at sixty miles-an-hour? Was their cell phone conversation interrupted by this darting behind the scenes reminder that death, in spite of its inexpressible weight, requires all the mundane materialities as our own day-to-day lives? A driver running late, a quick stop at the gas station (have you ever seen a hearse at a petrol pump?), a vacuuming-out at those pull-through car washes, picking up a new pack of fresheners—is it “Summer Linen” or “Bayside Breeze”?—to tuck stealthily into the center console.

Like so many happenings, death is a reality with all manner of props and performances. A hearse is but one of many players in a drama that ritualizes a transition that none of us know much about, but which equalizes us in a way that perhaps only the feeling of laughter, contentment, or fear might. And yet, here on the highway the curtains were literally pulled open on the mechanism and machinery that surround the business of dying, appearing almost silly out of its somber context. Yet it was not cartoon-like as the “Ghostbusters” hearse repurposed for the paranormal. Rather this was an abnormal glimpse at the totally normal.

It struck me how often I had seen an empty transport truck over the past two years in rural Illinois, coming back freshly cleaned after dropping off its cargo of pig bodies to one of the regional slaughterhouse. Those sights were as commonplace as subsidized seed corn and soybeans growing by the roadside, teams of hungry metal vessels about to be filled or refilled, or having just been emptied, with 200 or so of our planetary fellows. All of the slaughterhouses have specially-made truck washes to clean away the piss and shit scared out those bodies who are perhaps feeling the sun, rain, or snow for the first and last time in a kind of hearse that has no temperature control, no air fresheners; a 10-wheeled behemoth that clangs up to a industrial shed and swallows bodies up like a starving whale gorging again and again on shipload of nameless Noahs. How interesting is the keeping up of appearances around the dead, or the soon to be.

Still, the speeding hearse today was like invisible fingers snapping in front of my face, like a squeaky “Boo!” shouted by a diminutive ghost on my shoulder lifting up the veil on the inescapable business of vulnerabilities that peer out even from the busy-ness of our respective weekend to-do lists. It was as though the driver had instructions not to tarry on the roadways of our consciousness nor to split the illusion of our vitality for more than a moment, like livestock trucks sprayed clean of evidence of their resistant cargo. And yet I am sure that many hands this morning tightened on their steering wheels grateful for the gratifications of the day’s demands that reassure us through the self-important tasks of the living, much as we are buoyed in the passing of transport truck in the power of our persistent humanism that blinds us to subtleties of life and the communal wages of death whose material reminders race past us too quickly toward the next exit.

Photo Credit: Fotolia; Toronto Sun