My Father’s Lost and Found Corpse
What happens when your mother refuses to bury your father
I have tried and failed many times to imagine the exact words the funeral director selected when he called my mother to persuade her to pick up her husband’s body. The funeral had ended weeks before. And yet, there my father’s remains remained. I’m sure funeral homes must often call patrons to pick up something left on their premises — an umbrella, a smaller bouquet that escaped notice by the bereaved. Likely, the odd jacket. Perhaps the funeral director began the call to my mother in this familiar vein of small property recovery: “Mrs. Prendergast, this is a courtesy call to alert you that you have left something here.”
But in this case, there had been no mistake. My mother knew exactly where she had left her husband. She just had no intention of picking him up. She had read my father’s burial plan and, well, she didn’t like it. She told the funeral director to call my father’s brother and then hung up the phone.
My father would have hated this fuss. He hated having his photo taken. He rarely made eye contact with strangers. An astronomer, he hid in his office doing equations and smoking cigarettes, his mind on the evolution of galaxies and the monumental force of black holes. He wrote about catastrophes, but only as they related to geometry and dynamical systems. “There are seven types of catastrophes,” he once explained to me, drawing diagrams on one of the yellow pads lying all around his home office. This fiasco surrounding his body was not one of the seven, but after 40 years of marriage to my mother, he might not have been entirely surprised, either.
My mother tried to explain to me what she objected to in my father’s plan. “He wrote that he wants to be buried with his entire family at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens,” she complained. My father was requesting to be interred with his mother, his father, his grandmother, and a few aunts in the long-standing Prendergast plot. Of Queens’ many cemeteries, St. John’s is notable for being the favored resting place of top New York mobsters. The largely quiet Irish side of my family shares ground with representatives from each of the city’s “Five Families.” Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Joe Colombo, Carmine Galante, and Carlo “Don Carlo” Gambino are all…