The Crematorium

It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” ~ Albert Camus, Neither Victims Nor Executioners

When I was a little girl growing up in East Tennessee in the 1960’s, I lived on the forty acre farm my great, great grandfather farmed in a house my father built with his father.  All around us were other small farms with a few cattle, each growing corn and tobacco.  When there was tobacco to harvest or hay to put up, the neighbors helped each other out.

From the outside, all of us seemed pretty much the same.  Still, my family stood out. My mother had immigrated from Switzerland in 1950.  We were Presbyterians in an area where most people were Southern Baptist or Methodist. We knew our Southern Baptist neighbors thought we would go to hell eternally for not being baptized by immersion, but we played together at school, swam together in the summer and didn’t worry about it too much since our theology told us that immersion baptism was unnecessary for salvation.  

The summer I turned 9, my dad’s friend wanted to build the first crematorium in East Tennessee.  He asked my father, who was an electrician as well as a farmer, to wire the crematorium and my father agreed to do so.  To our neighbors, this was an apocalyptic event.

Neighbors I had known all my life stopped speaking to us; my parents received death threats; people called my mother to tell her that her children were being burned alive in the crematorium; men and boys laid in the woods near the crematorium with guns and binoculars to observe the dangerous goings on.  People came by our house to tell us their children fell into fits when passing near the crematorium. My father started sleeping with a shotgun under his bed –a fact he mentioned during his next trip to the Co-op.  He never called the police.  After a while, things just sort of simmered down. It seemed as if the neighbors forgot about what was done.   

I never did forget about it and I ponder today the lessons to be drawn. When I was younger, the lesson that stood out most clearly for me was “how fragile is the tie that binds.”  These days I share more of (what I think was) my father’s perspective.   His job was not to join the fight. These were his neighbors, had been for years and would be for years to come.  They would, in the end, need to find a way to make peace among themselves.


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