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He Takes Them Home

Many have left Bill Broughton's corner of Alabama, but returning is often their last wish. He is the long-distance driver families turn to.

November 12, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

WELLINGTON, Ala. — When Bill Broughton heard about Katie Ruth Wills, he did what he always does to prepare for a death call: He took a bath.

Then he combed his hair into a wavy pompadour and dressed in a freshly laundered white shirt and brown suit. He attached his tie to his shirt with a gold clip.

Other men may transport bodies "with short pants on, and shoes with no strings," as he puts it, but Bill Broughton will never be one of them. It is a task he approaches with dignity.

Wills died in Charlotte, N.C., 370 miles away. A 63-year-old woman who for years cleaned houses for a living, Wills was in the habit of denying herself indulgences, so it surprised no one when she declined a crucial transplant to replace her kidney.

The week of Halloween, when a lung infection turned into sepsis, she rejected a feeding tube. Before she died -- "her little body just done gave out," said her daughter, Kim Patterson -- she did make one very clear request: She wanted to be buried in Alabama, where she was born.

Bill Broughton, 74, makes these journeys all the time. When a funeral home calls him, he will climb into his Dodge Caravan and drive 750 miles north to Detroit or Chicago to bring a body back to an Alabama graveyard. He has traveled northeast to Philadelphia, and once, as far west as Idaho, through 3 feet of snow and mountains so beautiful they left him breathless.

His service is a rare one in an age when the dead generally take their last long journey by air. But in the northeast corner of Alabama, some families can't afford the airplane ticket -- or they cannot abide the thought of their loved one being handled by strangers, in the cold cargo hold of a plane. In some cases, the loved one in question was afraid to fly.

For these people, Broughton will make a long, solitary journey.

"He's a character," said Wayne Bishop, owner of Chapel Hill Funeral Home in Anniston, who often refers work to Broughton. "He don't even get out of the car. He'll eat in that car. He don't leave that body. When you take that body on, it's a great responsibility."

Night had fallen on a recent Thursday when Broughton arrived in Charlotte. Wills' body -- drained of blood and filled with embalming fluid -- lay on a mortuary cot, draped with a white plastic sheet. Broughton had gotten the call from Anniston Funeral Services on Wednesday. Wills had been dead for a little more than a day.

Broughton helped slide her body onto his own cot, then rolled it into the back of his van, which is fitted with a hearse floor to keep caskets and stretchers in place. He covered her with a heavy velvet blanket. Then he shut the back door of the van and pulled away.

Already Broughton had been driving for seven hours. Beside the highway, steam billowed out of smokestacks and melted into the night sky. Eighteen-wheelers lined up for the night at weigh stations. The van was quiet. Mile markers slipped by one after the other.

When Broughton starts to drowse off on the highway, he plays tapes of gospel music and sings along, sometimes at very high volume. He laughs at "the unique, delightful humor of the Southern Negro," a comedic act recorded by a white minister from the Mississippi Delta.

He will not stop unless forced to. If he is overcome by exhaustion, he will pull over at a rest stop, tip back his seat, and go to sleep in the car, beside the body he is carrying.

About 9:30, he pulled into the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse and peered in the front. He was looking for a seat close to a window, which would allow him to watch the van while he ate.

It is not like transporting an object.

"You just don't leave a body unattended," he said. "You've got some of those maniacs out there that would do anything to get ahold of a human body. Those Satan worshipers. They had a case down here in the next county in Birmingham years ago, someone dug a lady up, got her head and everything to use in their services."

Death is still taken personally in Wellington, the town where Broughton grew up. The dead are buried with their feet pointing east, so that they will be prepared to rise and face Jesus when he steps through the eastern sky. In the nearby town of Centre, the Tucker brothers still dig graves by hand, disappearing into the ground up to their sweat-soaked shoulders.

Older people can remember the way all activity seemed to cease on the day of a funeral; if a procession passed, cars pulled off the road and came to a stop. In their fields, farmers stood still and took their hats off.

In those days a body was never left alone, or with strangers; it was bathed and dressed and laid out in the front room, where friends and neighbors stayed awake all night, chatting. The body meant something. When a coffin was closed for the last time, it wasn't unusual for mourners to bawl or scream.

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