on caskets

After Suji Kwock Kim


decorating the dead is among the most basic
human instincts, to return the borrowed body &
acknowledge Earth as maker & home.

Neanderthals used antlers & flowers. Egyptians
had pyramids with peasants buried in the walls they
built. some niggas just get a pine box. hopefully
you get a hole or a flame. some only get a cold
cabinet in the morgue until somebody or nobody
claims them as a loss.


a permanent fixture on my to-do list
is research life insurance plans. pick
a good one with a fair rate & enough
money to buy a nice box.


everything gonna be all
right this morning & i contemplate
the implications of the statement for the night.
everything in Mississippi is too cruel to bury.

i wonder what that means if every body in Chicago
has red clay in its lineage. Chief Keef must know
in his bones ball like it’s no tomorrow from what
Muddy time-capsuled into the South Side ground.


when grandma died she left mama a notepad
with instructions. the one i remember was get
the casket you want. what you like. don’t be

we wore blue at the service. we matched
the box & its glossy painted ribbons,
gold-flecked & light.


house slaves are responsible for preparing
the dead of the master’s house. they clean
& clothe. they dig the hole. they don’t
bury any black body really, only dispose.
one of the concessions won by slave riots
was the right to a funeral. whitefolk were
confused at how the Africans sometimes

wore white, smiled, shouted like joy.
they seen funerals. not homegoings.


my mother used to say my father loved
funerals. he worked graveyard shift & spent
the days & weekends visiting bodies.
running his finger alongside the box
& signing the greeting book.

the most decent thing you
can do is visit the funeral of
someone you didn’t know
for someone you do: sister’s coworker, lover’s friend
accountant’s mother, your aunt’s
high school rival.


black churches formed burial societies
after slavery. every week you chipped
off a piece of your pay to save for the shovel
& the rough hands that would lower you.

i know some black folks now buying
their plot foot-by-foot. saving for a
final mortgage.


it is día de los muertos & i have a check
folded in between the pages of a book about
genocide. i will send the money next week
to the other side of my family
& help bury grandma’s sister.


i can’t think of a black rapper who hasn’t
contemplated their own death on record.
ready to die, life after death, death is certain,
do or die, get rich or die tryin’, death certificate.

this is natural.
all my verses mention
boxes or holes.


once we lay this brother
down in the ground
we got work to do.

when i was a young boy
at the age of five
my mama said i gon’ be
the greatest man alive.

these children don’t
expect to live past 30.
they come to these funerals
& they represent.
they put themselves in
the place of the person
in the casket.
More Poems by Nate Marshall