Johnny and the Pauper Burials.

Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!

Thinking back to my time on the Island of Lost Souls, if my ‘Reading Lolita in Recovery’ friends Nick, John or I had died, would anyone have noticed?  Once I’d left the island and begun to feel the first faint pulses of hope, I could no longer look at the down and out the same way. I’d always been empathetic toward most skidders, but now I felt is was at one with them and their daily struggles.

During my time on The Island of Lost Souls, I’d managed to make luck happen. This had emboldened me to move back to Toronto. Outside the office building where I’d managed to string together a few weeks of temp work, there stood a man. Grey hair, grey beard, cane, holding out his baseball cap. Stereotypical, yes, but this guy was different. He wasn’t mumbling out the usual patter, the usual cons … he just seemed to be talking and laughing and enjoying the people around him. I stopped to talk with him and give him what I could spare.

I’ve since learned his name is Johnny and he’s from Nova Scotia. In the Spring of 2016, I saw him again. Hadn’t seen him for few weeks. He told he had a death in the family so he made his way back East. We talked about loss and hope. He was clearly shaken. We hugged. One human to another.

Weeks later, my youngest came to see me. As luck would have it, Johnny was there. We stopped to talk. I wanted to show my son we’re all in this together.

It was the fate of this man and myself that came to mind as I explored the sordid past and the surprising present history of pauper burials. When I was Down & Out in London & Toronto, I had nothing but a few bucks to rub together. It became fixed in my mind that I might die at any moment and have nothing to leave my boys except old pictures, boxes and boxes of books, and faded memories.

At that point, I had nothing in my bank account that could pay for even the simplest funeral. I was destined for what I thought was a phenomenon from the distant past, a pauper’s burial. In the past centuries, that meant being chucked into a mass grave, and covered with a sprinkling of dirt. Once resting in peace, either the animals would gnaw at you or the body snatchers would haul you out and take you to the anatomist for the few bob.

No. I didn’t want to embarrass my boys like I’d been by my father’s death. I would fight back from my lowly life. If I were to die, I would want a funeral to be a celebration of the things that meant the most to me – held on the stage of a theatre, it would include films, music and books read aloud, to really make my boys feel proud that their father was ‘special’.


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