He didn’t live a special life. He never went to college. He never saw the ocean. He drank too much and watched too much television. He worked in lumber yards his whole life, selling lumber, then managing yards. He could calculate the lumber needed for a house in his head. He never used the internet. He liked winners, especially Mickey Mantle, John Elway and Michael Jordan. He loved Angie Dickinson and Mariah Carey. Even when he was nearing 80, frail, with his kidneys failing and no teeth, he thought he had a way with the ladies. He flirted with every nurse and waitress he met. It wasn’t until his last month that he agreed to cancel his subscription to the Playboy channel. He took a lot of wildlife photos and hardly any of his family. He was the guy I called when I did something really stupid and needed money and assurance that it wouldn’t be mentioned again. His humor was sharp, off-color, sarcastic, and could be cruel. His house was never clean, and his favorite foods were chili, prime rib, liver and onions, and pie.
He was typical of western Colorado men of his generation; These men identified as outdoorsmen, drinkers and rugged individualists. They were opinionated and confident, not interested in politics or current events and slightly suspicious of educated people. He wasn’t ambitious and lost several jobs over the years because of his drinking, his refusal to bow to authority, or both. He never had money, and we lived in a double-wide trailer on a dirt road. There were ragged looking shacks for outbuildings. He hired a friend with a backhoe to dig a pond and tried several times to stock it with trout. He started many projects, finished few.
He lived alone from 1978 until his death in February 2017. While married, he flirted with many women: his neighbor, his sister-in-law, his coworkers. He claimed he never cheated on his wife, but I recall several times our mother piled us kids in the car and drove around trying to catch him in the act of cheating. I’m not sure if this was her jealousy, his infidelity or both. The marriage was always troubled. She left him for another man after 20 years, and the messy divorce broke his heart. For several years, he cried every time I saw him or talked to him. He never remarried and never lived with another woman.
In his last years, he was sick. Years of high blood pressure and heavy drinking ruined his kidneys. He needed dialysis three times a week, which kept him alive but made him feel like crap. His vision was failing from macular degeneration, which had blinded his mother and older brother. Despite finding it hard to see the television, he still thought he should be allowed to drive. He bought a bow, but was too weak to pull it back, so it sat in the hall closet. He wanted to fish and walk the river trail, but he didn’t have the strength to do either. He was going to fix his storage shed. One of his last purchases was a collection of power tools that never made it out of the box. I visited him several times a week and thanked the universe for quality home health care. They were the ones who made sure he took his meds and had a ride to dialysis. My contributions were small, bringing him pudding, grapes and flavored water. I sometimes watched TV with him, tried to talk about his memories instead of his ailments and held his hand for a while before going home to my life.
When his heart began beating irregularly, he spent two nights in a nursing home to be monitored. It had become clear that he could no longer live alone. When he was released, he decided to end dialysis. The final days, he sat in his recliner and talked to his neighbors and family about the weather, the Broncos and going out for prime rib in a few weeks. We never discussed that he was dying. The final two days, he was mostly asleep or unconscious in a bed. My sister and I sat with him on his final evening, playing his favorite music: Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Elvis, Eddie Arnold. “Make the World Go Away” looped around the second time, and my sister went home. I was alone with him, waiting for the hospice nurse’s aide to arrive. He woke up once, his eyes frightened, reaching for my hands. He begged me to pull him up and get him out of the bed. I tried to stay calm. I held his hands, spoke softly to him. I told him to relax, explained that he was too heavy for me to lift, assured him it was OK. I stroked the back of his hands as he drifted back to unconsciousness. He died that night after I had gone home to my family. The next morning, I flipped on the local country radio as Eddie Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away” played.
We had prearranged cremation at the most popular funeral home in the area, owned by a locally well-known woman and her parents. We shopped for a bargain. Hers was the least expensive cremation in town. He didn’t want a casket, didn’t want a service, didn’t care about what happened to his body. Least expensive seemed a sensible criteria for selecting a funeral home and crematorium.
The owner was a large, broad-shouldered woman with very complicated teased-out hair and heavy makeup that attempted to cover her uneven skin. She was the kind of woman my dad would have flirted with, made off color jokes to — not subtle, classy or feminine, but with a presence he would have admired. She was also a product of western Colorado. Like my dad, she wasn’t educated or sophisticated. Most people describe her as odd, pushy and attention-seeking.
She started working at the local funeral home as a teen and eventually purchased her own business. It was a large building, decorated as if it was 1985: mauves, light blues and artificial flowers. There were fake bronze angel figurines and Thomas Kinkaide-style prints in gold frames. Outside there were concrete benches next to a “memory garden” where families could pay extra to have their loved one represented. She also had a business called Donor Services. Next door, there was a two-story log home where she hosted events: baby showers, weddings, business functions. She hosted parties where she sold her multi-level marketing products (jewelry, candles, home décor) or her own crafts. She opened a floral business, selling to her funeral customers. She was active in the community, presenting herself as a successful businesswoman who was civically engaged.
She didn’t have a degree, and Colorado law didn’t require one for funeral directors. There was a framed diploma on the wall of her office, claiming a Doctorate of Funeral Services from the University of Mortuary Science. No such degree or university exists.
The day after my dad died, she met with me in her fake-flower-filled conference room where I signed some papers and finalized his cremation. It was a short meeting, unmemorable. Several days went by, and her assistant called to say it was time to pick up the cremains. We got a very small container of ashes, which puzzled me at the time. I couldn’t believe a man who was over 6-feet tall could be reduced to the quantity of ashes from a small campfire. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never had someone cremated before. I made a small papier-mâché vessel, filled it with the ashes and threw it in the river, as he requested.
A few months later, Reuters did an investigative series on funeral homes that sold body parts to the plastination industry (I had to Google it, too). She was interviewed extensively for the piece and bragged about her “multi-million dollar” business. One segment in the series focused solely on her business, how Donor Services was in the same building as the funeral home. The series prompted the state of Colorado to investigate her businesses, and eventually they shut down the funeral home and Donor Services, and she surrendered her license.
Simultaneously, the FBI started an investigation. Local stories emerged of parts sold from bodies of old people, young people, babies. In online groups, people shared their stories. Concrete mix in urns instead of cremains. Entire bodies sold overseas. Head, hands, legs sold to the plastination companies. She allegedly cut up bodies, using power tools purchased from Home Depot, then packaged them and shipped them. She reportedly sold gold teeth from bodies to pay for vacations.
I read the stories, followed the news, but I thought: He was so old and sick, no one would want his body or its parts. He was so frail. So thin.
Then the FBI called. The agent gave me the news. Suspecting it is one thing. Hearing the details is another. They said she cut him up in the back room of the funeral home, then sold his head. His torso. His arms. His legs below the knees. The only part of him that she didn’t sell was his thighs. She cut his frail old body to pieces and pocketed the money.
The FBI has identified more than 600 victims. Most were told what happened to their loved one, but none of us knew if or when there would be an arrest. Almost three years later, she and her mother were arrested on St. Patrick’s Day and charged with multiple counts of mail fraud and illegal transportation of hazardous materials, with maximum possible sentences of 135 years. They were never put in jail. Now, she has accepted a plea deal, and the sentence is still to be determined.
I’m trying to accept that she may not face consequences. Instead, I try to remember my dad. He was a flawed man who lived a less-than-extraordinary life. He loved his family, the outdoors, sports, off-color jokes, and women with big hair and too much makeup.
Ivy H. Fife lives in Montrose.
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