Last Rites

by Therese Gleason

Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.

—Sir William Ewart Gladstone, quoted on the homepage of Graham, Putnam, & Mahoney Funeral Parlor in Worcester, MA

Lord, bless the undertaker who makes the news
for burying the Boston Marathon bomber
when no one else will,
and again when neighbors complain about the smell

and inspectors find corpses weeping
from body bags in the unrefrigerated basement,
fluid seeping onto the floor
from the unclaimed dead taken in from nearby morgues,

there as the mortician waits
for permits to cremate the remains of the poor:
immigrants with no next of kin,
addicts who burned their last bridge,
outcasts, loners,

the broken ones
with no one to come for them,
no one to give them a plot in a potter’s field,
no one to make sure there’s an urn
or even a box for their ashes

and chips of bone, their teeth and discarded flesh bereft
of this final kindness,
their spirits wandering in the wind,
scattered and lost
as litter stirred up by the cars whizzing past.

Scraps of paper whipped into confetti,
empty convenience store bags blown up:
gray balloons carried skyward, taking flight—
never high enough to make it home.

Therese Gleason is author of Libation (Stepping Stones Press, 2006), selected by Kwame Dawes as co-winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Chapbook Competition. Her poetry has been published in LimestonePlainsongsThe Worcester ReviewAmerica Magazine, and San Pedro River Review, and is forthcoming in New Ohio ReviewLiterary Mama, and Painted Bride Quarterly. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Pacific University and lives with her husband and three children in Worcester, MA, where she works as a dyslexia therapist and literacy teacher. A feature of her work is available online at

Featured Photo: “Ashes” by David Strom