How did Andrew Meredith ever start making a living hauling dead bodies?
Well, it’s quite a story, and one well-told in his memoir, The Removers.
Meredith, 38, lives in Los Angeles now, but he was a Frankford guy from Oakland and Orthodox who went to St. Joachim and North Catholic. He screwed up in college and was living at home with his parents. Meredith was hard up for cash when his father got him a part-time job picking up corpses for a neighborhood company that contracted with funeral homes.
He became one of the removers, the guys that nobody remembers who take the dead from homes or hospitals on the beginnings of their final journeys. He stayed in the business for years as he struggled to figure out himself and everything else.
“People ask how I got in the funeral business, the underlying implication seeming to be, Why would you possibly choose it? The answer is that I had not yet developed any choosing skills. I was a broke dummy just as startled as anyone else to find myself picking up bodies. That was it. And without any sort of vision for myself, I took the job that came my way from someone I knew. That’s how everybody I knew got their jobs. They knew somebody who got them in. I could have just as easily become a guy who fixed ice cream freezers in corner stores …”
Meredith weaves his impressions of the work, his co-workers, his parents’ dead marriage, his rarely lively love life and his very gloomy assessment of Frankford into a story that is as realistic as it is poetic.
His life with death began in his early 20s.
“I’m twenty-two. I’ve bounced from failure at school to crappy job and back for two years. I spend my time outside the house either dragging the local dead around or getting drunk listening to rock and roll before chastely coming home to sleep ten feet down the hall from my parents. I’ve now handled far more dead women than live ones.”
Meredith kept at the removing business and eventually worked at a crematory, operating a machine that turns bodies to ashes but is never called an oven.
His part of Frankford changed around him.
“Frankford’s an angry druggie gun boy. Frankford’s bleeding out. Gazz goes to every neighborhood in the city to fix freezers in pizza shops and bodegas, and one day he says, ‘To tell you the truth, Frankford’s the scariest. I don’t know what it is, but I go there with fear.’”
Meredith tried LA. He worked temp jobs, but even the occasional encounters with celebrities didn’t keep him there. He came back to Philly and back to the funeral business. But only for a while.
He’s out now, a college graduate, and writing. The Removers, his first book, was published by Scribner and hit stores in mid-July.
“I got to the point where I felt it was a nice job and I sort of knew I didn’t want to go further,” Meredith said of the funeral business during a late July phone interview. “I knew I wanted to go to grad school … and study writing.”
He left Philly in 2008.
DEAD TO WRITE
Although Meredith’s work in the funeral business had a logic of its own, that he became a writer seems almost inevitable. Both parents were English teachers. His father also was a poet.
Meredith began writing full-time in 2010 and finished his book in fall 2013. Scribner had bought the book several months before it was completed, “but the end was in sight.”
His agent, he said, had taken care of shopping the book to publishers and had sold it in a few months.
The Removers is a relatively short book at about 170 pages, but it was a larger work before Meredith did some self-editing.
“I probably wrote 400 or 500 pages,” he said. “So I cut it before I sold it.”
Book editors are known for demanding cuts, but Meredith’s editor wanted him to beef up his memoir. He said the editing process was smooth and he followed his editor’s instructions. “I went into working on his changes with the sense it is all for the better,” he said.
The story is all true, he said, although he changed the names of his employers. “I might use novelistic storytelling techniques,” he said, “but it is a memoir.”
The Removers hit stores and online sales on July 15, Meredith said. “I’ve been really lucky … It’s starting to get positive response … and I’m getting good feedback.”
Does the writer ever come home again? Yes, to visit his family. There are lots of aunts and uncles, and “my cousin Jimmy is principal at Ryan.” ••