Last week, Jane and I sifted through your ashes, looking for your gold teeth. No luck. We got some ashes on our hands and on the pasta strainer and card table, which we gathered up as well as we could but in the end, I’m afraid some of you wound up in the sewer system. A little wound up in me, too. I had an impulse to taste my ashy finger when Jane wasn’t looking. Just a touch, with the tip of my tongue.
We did find a different kind of teeth — tiny metal rectangles that we eventually decided must be the teeth from your pants zipper. Then we found the zipper pull itself, blackened but still recognizable. We were excited by these finds, the zipper pull especially. We were archaeologists on a dig. Artifacts!
The absence of your gold teeth raised the obvious question: Does our local crematorium run a brisk little side business in recovered gold? One can’t escape the vision: a seedy dentist, barred from practicing his or her profession on live humans due to… what? Alcoholism? The uninvited groping of hygienists — or patients? You know what I mean.
Seedy dentist, anyway: red-eyed, puffy; a slovenly soul, prying gold teeth out of dead mouths (yours, in fact), going home to cheap vodka, barely able to stomach his or her own sordid life.
Naturally, I turned to Google. My search: “after cremation, gold teeth missing.”
Google returned with multiple perspectives on the matter. A news website explains that the legality of the salvaging of gold teeth by crematoria depends entirely upon the individual crematorium’s contract, usually signed in haste by a member of the deceased’s family — the wife, in your case — after a typically inadequate perusal of the fine print. Did signer request, in writing, return of teeth and/or jewelry? If not, crematorium will have standard legal rights to “recovery” of “materials.” Jane says no, she did not request return of teeth. She didn’t know it was an option, she says.
A second perspective — from a “funeral cooperative” — disagrees. No, no, says the cooperative. It doesn’t happen that way at all. Gold teeth are not made of pure gold, but of gold alloys. That oven gets very, very hot. Pure gold won’t melt at crematorium oven temperatures but gold alloys almost certainly will; melt and “redistribute.” The gold may still be there among your ashes, Dad, but funeralcooperative.org says we’ll never find it.
As you have no doubt noticed, my understanding of the distinction between pre-cremation “extraction” and post-cremation “recovery” was initially muddled, but I picked up on it eventually; particularly after reading Google’s third offering: Gold alloys are worth less than pure gold. Your average bereaved family would have to pay a dentist $600 to extract a tooth worth fifty bucks — and that’s assuming they could find a dentist willing to do the deed.
Our seedy crematorium dentist will do it — and for less than $600. For the gold itself, in fact. If he or she extracts enough teeth at fifty bucks a pop, he or she can afford his or her vodka and the rent on his or her gloomy studio apartment, even after splitting the “materials recovery” cash with the crooked crematorium manager, who naturally blows his or her share on titty bars.
But let’s not portray our dentist and crematorium manager too harshly, Dad. Every soul has something fine in it. Perhaps the dentist also paints pictures — though maybe not of nude ex-wives like you did. Landscapes, I imagine. Watercolors of old barns and covered bridges. And let’s allow that the crematorium manager may not be a mere one-dimensional customer of titty bars, but also a lover of gardens or reader of poetry. Perhaps he or she returns home to care for an elderly parent (like your daughter did!) or simply has a kindly spouse. Rescues dogs, runs a charity for the impoverished bereaved, etc.
A slovenly soul or a fine one? Is any soul fully one or the other? You know what I mean.
Anyway, Dad, your gold teeth are missing, or else they have been redistributed. Jane kept the zipper teeth, though, and the pull. She put them in a tiny Ziploc bag, of the size used by jewelry stores for earring parts. It pleases her to have your zipper bits back; it comforts her, I imagine, that these artifacts, these real things, survived that very, very hot oven. The rest of you is unrecognizable. A modest bagful of ashes — they taste salty, in case you wondered — and morsels of bone the size of peas.
Not much to it. Not much at all. You know.