My residence is a funeral home in West Virginia. I live among the dead.
Night and day, I witness the arrival of dead West Virginians from my apartment atop the funeral home garage. I hear the sobs of loved ones who bid farewell in the chapel down below. Sad songs echo in my home place, Christian anthems once reserved mostly for natural deaths now performed often for the overdosed, the suicides and those killed by coal.
For me, death by misused drugs is not theoretical. Suicides are no rumor. And coalfield departures are not left to my imagination. The unnaturally deceased arrive, in mounting numbers, at my doorstep without fanfare on stretchers for me to see, firsthand. Such blatancy is injurious to my soul. Not to mention my civility.
Many of my neighbors are in disbelief when I tell them that deaths from cancer, black lung, suicide and drug addiction are outpacing natural causes for the first time in our written history. To them, such deaths are simply statistics to be denied. From my funereal vantage point, such deaths cannot be refuted.
How difficult must it be for someone not as profoundly acquainted with death as I am to understand what it means when I tell you that, in mountaintop removal mining counties in central Appalachia, an additional 60,000 cases of cancer are directly linked to federally sanctioned strip mining. Not until you see, personally, a withered body made so by deadly particulate blown by strip miners into our mountain air can you appreciate, fully, just how toxic and lethal our land has become.
I am dismayed by what I observe, constantly, in my house of horror. I stare at young faces frozen by death and wonder how it is that so many youngsters are being laid to rest. Once brimming with life and hope, they lie here motionless, without any expression. I want to grab them and shake them back to life. I want to erase the poisons that laid them low. I want their skin to be radiant, their eyes bright and sparkling and not dulled by the drugs that, finally, put out their lights. Then, I remember another statistic. Life expectancy for men in my sorry neck-of-the-woods is 18 years less than for men in affluent Northern Virginia.
I am saddened by how the perished here are blamed for their own demise. I rebel on behalf of the dead downstairs in the morgue when a coalfield politician proclaims that, save for President Obama and his so-called war on coal, these dead shall not have died. I know as surely as do the dead that Obama did not kill coal. Nor has he taken their jobs and, thus, in their despair, their lives. To say otherwise is a lie.
I hoped Obama’s recent visit here to help our state cope with its drug problem–number one in the nation–would mean, eventually, fewer bodies will be brought here to my place. But until we shift from the mono-economy that is killing us to sustainable economies that will save us, those dead of unnatural causes will be visiting me in numbers greater than ever before.
Ed Rabel is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and author who lives in Lincoln County, West Virginia. He has recently joined the Peace Corps for an assignment in Uganda, East Africa. This article first appeared on December 30, 2015 in the Charleston WV Gazette-Mail and has been reprinted on-line. This editor, recalling Rabel from his early days in radio in Charleston, West Virginia, has followed his career through the years.