The Secret Burial

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Seung Geel Hong

A teenage boy helps his father to bury a fetus, and he does not talk about it for the next 50+ years.

The Secret Burial

First Edition

By Hong, Seung Geel

© 2020 by Hong, Seung Geel

Edited by Maureen J. Silk

All rights reserved

ISBN:  978-1-71605-786-1

Disclaimer

The following story was inspired by true experiences; but the names of persons, organizations, and locations were changed to protect the privacy of everyone involved.  Therefore, any similarity between any of the names in this story to any known individual, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Hong, Seung Geel

Introduction

The following experience happened when I was in my early teens,  perhaps at age 13 or 14.

Our family had relocated at least 9 times before we settled into our new home 18 miles out of town.  And this is the place where my father and I did something that has been kept secret all my life.  Even my sister Sparky never knew what our father and I did on our property more than half a century ago.

1.The Burial

When I was in my early teens, my father was one of two pathologists in a hospital.  Previously, he had worked in smaller hospitals where he was the sole pathologist,  But now he was working in a larger hospital that needed two pathologists.

 In any event, on one Saturday morning around 10 o’clock, I was outside and was walking toward the back door to enter the house.  But before I could approach the door, my father exited the house and asked:

“I’m going to bury something.  Would you like to help me?”

Bury something?  The request sounded mysterious and exciting.  So I eagerly yet cautiously asked:

“Wow, . . . what are we going to bury?”

Father slowly and nonchalantly answered:

“Oh, . . . I’ll tell you about it while we walk to the spot where we’ll bury it.  You go and get the shovels while I go back into the house and get what we’re going to bury, okay?”

I eagerly answered “okay” and rushed to the shed and grabbed the digging tools: a regular long-handle shovel (which had a pointed blade) and a spade (which had a shorter handle with a “D-grip” and a square blade).

By now, Father was exiting the house with a brown square box under his right arm.

Then, as we were walking toward the woods (approximately 300 feet away), Father explained.

“We’re going to bury this premature baby. . . . Well, . . . actually, . . . we can’t really call it a baby, because it died while it was still inside the mother.  So technically, it’s a fetus that we’re going to bury. . . .”

When we had reached the edge of the woods, we searched the area for a suitable place to dig.  And we selected a spot approximately 40 feet into the woods.  The soil was sandy, so it was relatively easy to dig.

Then, about midway through the digging, we stopped to rest for a few minutes.  And Father opened the box and carefully lifted out a large glass jar that contained the fetus.

I could see the face clearly, especially the opened eyes that were not wide open but fully open nonetheless:  They looked as if they were observing what my father and I were doing.

As for the fetus’ body, I could not get a clear frontal view of it, because the arms and legs were partially bent and drawn up to the torso.

Moreover, I noticed that the fetus was immersed in clear liquid, and the fetus had turned grayish brown.  This condition indicated that the liquid was a formaldehyde solution called “formalin,” which had fixed the fetus and had inhibited putrefaction.

Oh, by the way, embalming fluid generally contains anywhere between 5% and 29% formaldehyde.  It also contains 9% - 56% methanol and ethanol, along with different solvents.

Anyway, I knew what formalin was.  It is used as a disinfectant and preservative.  And I had inhaled its fumes more than once; the smell is quite powerful.

I remember Mother taking me along to pick up Father at the hospital one summer afternoon.  And when we entered the lab, Father’s nose was running from the fumes emitted by the formalin, and he was constantly sniffing and blowing his nose.  Such was the air quality in the lab.

In any event, Father gently returned the jar back into the box, and we resumed our digging.  We dug a hole about two feet deep, and Father again carefully removed the jar from the box.

I asked:

“Are we going to leave it in the jar?”

Father slowly answered:

“No, . . . we’ll take it out of the jar; we want it to decay naturally.”

Father carefully unscrewed the lid of the jar and slowly poured the content into the makeshift grave.  And he thoughtfully positioned the fetus so that it appeared to be sleeping.

I positioned my shovel to scoop up the soil to begin filling in the grave, but Father said:

“Wait, . . . let’s say a prayer first. . . .”

I immediately felt embarrassed and ashamed for not having thought of it myself.  And I felt so heartless.

Father and I bowed our heads as he softly said a short prayer.  And he made the “Sign of the Cross” when he had finished praying.

We, then, filled in the grave and made a half-hearted effort to cover up the evidence by tamping down the grave and spreading loose dirt and other nearby material over it.

2.What Happened?

After Father and I had buried the fetus, I asked:

“Father, what happened to the fetus?  Why did it die in the mother?”

Father thought for a moment and replied:

“Well, . . . no one seems to know:  The young mother, 19 or 20 years old, came to the emergency room and was rushed to the labor and delivery suite.  The baby came way too early, so it had no chance to survive.

The mother was healthy with no apparent reason for losing the baby.  So, . . . it’s just . . . one of those questions that has no answer. . . . ”

I wanted to know why no one else had buried the fetus.  So I asked:

“Father, why did we end up burying the fetus?  Why didn’t someone else bury it, like a funeral home?”

Father carefully answered:

“That’s a good question.  I heard that neither the mother nor anyone else in the family claimed the fetus.  They declared that they did not have the money to properly dispose the fetus, and they refused to make any arrangements, which meant that they essentially had abandoned it.

So, the hospital, first,  had to determine how to treat the fetus.  If the fetus had died at the earlier part of the pregnancy, it would be treated simply as medical waste:  It would be incinerated.

On the other hand, if the fetus had died at the later part of the pregnancy, then it would be treated much differently:  A fetal death certificate would have to be filled out; and the hospital, then, would try to get help from a local funeral home, such as the M******** Funeral Home.

As for the fetus that we just buried, it was on the borderline; and the hospital declared it as medical waste.

So, rather than having someone take it to the incinerator and burn it, I offered to give it a decent burial on our property. . . .”

I thoroughly understood Father’s explanation, and I had no more questions to ask.

Then, Father advised:

“Let’s keep this burial a secret, okay?”

I responded:

“Sure, . . . but, . . . was burying the fetus on our property illegal?”

Father answered:

“Well, . . . probably not, . . . because we didn’t do anything that was harmful. After all, the fetus was treated with formalin, which made it plenty safe.  But some people may not understand it, and . . . there’s no sense in looking for trouble by talking about it, okay?”

I answered “okay” and never mentioned the incident to anyone until I spoke about it again to my father after my retirement.

3.After Retirement

Four years before my father’s death, my sister Sparky and I drove 1300+ miles to visit our parents.

They were in their lower 80’s by this time.  Nevertheless, they were in relatively good health.  Our father’s mind was sharp as ever.  And our mother was still tough and stubborn as ever:  She was still smoking like a chimney.  They both looked as if they possibly could outlive my sister and me.

In any event, I wanted to speak to Father about the fetus that he and I had buried when I was a teenager.  But I wanted to be discreet about it, because I did not know how Mother would react:  She still had the tendency to be confrontational with me, no matter what I would say or do.

Therefore, I decided to “test” Mother’s attitude and behavior.  I asked:

“Father, . . . how long does it take for a skeleton to decay?”

Instantly, with a smirk, Mother blurted out:

“H-m-m-m,  you’re thinking about the fetus you buried.”

That did it!  Mother had read my thoughts, and there would have been no sense in asking Father for any details concerning the circumstances of the fetus, at least not in the presence of Mother.

Hence, I nonchalantly replied:

“Yes, I’ve thought about it a few times. . . .”

When Father had the chance to speak, he answered:

“It wouldn’t take very long for a fetus to decompose completely:  There probably would be nothing there by now; I think it would be all gone. . . .”

When Father had finished speaking, I no longer wanted to continue the conversation about the fetus, and so I remained quiet so that Mother could start talking about what had happened at the church.

Parting Thoughts

After my sister and I returned home from visiting our parents, I never had another chance to talk to my father about the special relationship between the hospital and the M******** Funeral Home at the time when we had buried the fetus.

The M******** Funeral Home has been out of business for many years, but I remember that it was a successful establishment when I was a teenager.  And the owner of the funeral home was an extremely kind individual who had helped many unlucky families.

For example, I once heard that a young couple could not afford to bury their stillborn child:  The husband had been injured on the job and had not worked for several months.  And the couple’s relatives had been supporting them.

Then, when the owner of the M******** Funeral Home learned the plight of the young couple, the funeral home supposedly made arrangement so that the stillborn baby could be buried with a woman who was scheduled to be buried shortly.

I’ve often wondered how the funeral home could have made such arrangement:  Did the funeral home offer a discount or a rebate to the family of the deceased woman?  Or, did the funeral home simply bury the stillborn baby for free and then claim that an understanding family of a deceased woman had agreed to let the fetus be buried with their loved one?

I’ve also wondered if my own father could have ever taken part in making such arrangements.  My father is dead now, and therefore we will never know.

Nonetheless, I personally believe that my father somehow could have taken part in making such arrangements.

He had serious problems most of his adult life:  He smoked and drank excessively; he took drugs; he suffered from mental illness; he had marital problem; he had employment problems.  Obviously, among other things, my father severely lacked foresight and discipline.

However, there was one thing my father did not lack:  He did not lack compassion; and interestingly, some even believe that most (if not all) of my father’s problems were the result of his having too much compassion.  Perhaps they are right; because, at the very least, some of my father’s behavior (concerning compassion) is quite confusing to many people.

For instance, according to my mother’s account of an attempted robbery, my father was drinking alone in a bar when he was about 46 years old.  And a woman discreetly approached him and pulled out a knife; and she softly ordered him to give her his money.

By the way, we must remember that this incident happened before the advent of the truly portable cellphone, and therefore the police normally would not have known about it until after the fact.

Anyway, my father pretended that he had a gun, and he threatened to shoot her if she did not put down the knife.

The woman reluctantly put down the knife on the counter and began to sob.  And she told her sad story of all the unfortunate things that had happened to her lately: loss of her job, her sick children, no food in the house.

Hence, my father felt sorry for her and asked the bartender not to report the incident, and he gave her $20.00 before leaving the bar.

Then, when my father went home and narrated the event to my mother, she told him that he was a fool for believing the woman’s sad story and for giving her the $20.00.

Such was the relationship between our mother and father.

 

As for my humble opinion, my father was not a fool.  He was a kind-hearted man who was greatly disturbed by all the suffering that he had witnessed:  He had witnessed the suffering of the wounded soldiers whom he had treated when he was a doctor during the Korean War; he had seen the suffering caused by injuries and diseases at the hospitals where he had worked; and he personally had experienced problems with smoking and drinking, drugs, mental illness, and marital problems.  In short, my father had witnessed suffering all around him for most of his life, and the weight of it was sometimes more than he could bear.

In conclusion, my father was a compassionate man:  He had compassion for someone who had attempted to rob him;  he even had compassion for a fetus that did not even have the legal right to a decent burial.  And I am grateful that my father gave me the opportunity to share his moment of compassion when I was a teenager more than half a century ago. . . .


Submitted: May 09, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Seung Geel Hong. All rights reserved.

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