Not long after Dutschke and Curtis’s unfriendly introduction in 2006, Dutschke mounted a campaign for state House district sixteen, against long-term Democratic incumbent Steve Holland. By all accounts, Dutschke’s PR strategy was little more than a public display of bitter, empty vitriol—its rhetoric revolving around comparisons of Steve Holland to Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard and suggestions that the 9/11 hijackers were Holland’s friends. Why Dutschke loathed Steve Holland so hotly is not clear.
“I had never stood eyeball to eyeball or dick to dick with the man, but for some reason he just hated the hell out of me,” says Holland, a gloriously profane and paradoxically genteel man of 58. “He called me everything from gay to communist. Everything but a child of God. I mean, he had no campaign or agenda except to cut my nuts out…. But you got to get your ass up early and go to bed late to beat my ass. I’ve held this seat for thirty years. I can absolutely make love to a bull moose on the steps of the Lee County courthouse and garner more than 5 percent of the vote.”
If you were to diagram the political dream-lives of Everett Dutschke and Kevin Curtis—the forces they believe they’ve been striving against, the enemies they’ve cultivated—the circles would Venn at the man who offered that last piece of insight, Rep. Steve Holland. Until the ricin thing happened, Holland was the guy Everett Dutschke seemed to loathe more than anyone in the world. But curiously, Kevin Curtis does not count Holland, the enemy of his enemy, as one of his friends. Because Holland runs a funeral home with his mother, Judge Sadie Holland, Curtis suspects that Holland has an important if unspecified role in the body-parts conspiracy. (I called the hospital for comment on the issue. A bunch of times. Nobody ever called back.) I wanted to understand this man Holland more—in the hope that by so doing, I might better understand the rivalry at the center of our tale. And in a show of true hospitality and professional transparency, Rep. Holland invited me down to the funeral home one morning in early summer to help him put a nightgown on a corpse.
Holland Funeral Directors stands due west of downtown Tupelo in a metal building that formerly contained “the largest nightclub and beer joint in the state of Mississippi.” In 2006, Holland bought it, “put brick on the front, hung some shit [ornamental pediments and moldings] on it, and now I’m doing 300 funerals a year.”
Holland has been in the mortuary business for four decades. Due to a lately discovered allergy to formaldehyde that nearly took his life, he no longer embalms bodies unless he’s in a “hazmat suit.” His hairdressing talents he considers to be inadequate, so this morning we loiter in the coffin showroom while the coiffeurist treats the deceased to her final styling.
The caskets are as opulent and beautiful as a fleet of limousines. The top-tier models sell for upwards of $5,000, but Holland begins his sales pitch to prospective clients with a humble gray container in a far corner of the room. “I bring ’em to this little $995 jobbie right here. I say, ‘Okay, this will get you from point A to point B. Now, water and worms will get in there, and if you read the Scripture it says “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” and that’s what this is really all about. What you are buying is $995 worth of dignity to keep me from tying a rope to your heels and pulling you into the hole, which would accomplish the same thing.’ Then they’ll come buy this shit over here.” Holland indicates a box that retails for $3,495. “And ka-ching-ka-ching-ka-ching. Forty years I been doing this. It’s fucked! I mean, the [funeral] services are incredible. I love the services, but all this merchandising-pagan-ass-crazy-certified-lunatic-damn bullshit—it’s so fucked. God bless America!”
Kevin Curtis’s loudly bruited suspicions about Holland’s purported ties to the North Mississippi Medical Center’s organ-harvesting ring have not hurt his business, though he allows that he has had to deal with “people saying, ‘Are you stealing our bodies and selling parts?’ And I said, ‘Are you fucking crazy?’ ” Holland points out that to sell body parts would cut against his interests. If he were to butcher and trade bodies rather than simply burying or incinerating them, “you sons of bitches wouldn’t be coming to see me for $8,000 a funeral.” Of Kevin Curtis’s suppositions, Holland has this to say: “That son of a bitch was getting so bizarre even I can’t take it. It really hurt my mother’s feelings more than anybody else’s.”
And what are Holland’s feelings about Everett Dutschke, the man who publicly insulted him and stands accused of trying to poison his mother?
“I remember thinking, initially, ‘That sorry son of a bitch,’ ” Holland says. But then he thinks, had the letter-sender “really been smart, and mixed the ingredients properly, my mother could have been in her damn urn by now, you know? And I get pissed. I get totally fucking pissed.”
I follow Steve Holland into the embalming room. The chamber holds a forbidding, sloped steel gurney fitted with a fluid drain and beside it a tray of even more forbidding surgical tools. On a nearby counter is an appliance resembling a squat oversize blender. This pumps embalming fluid into the dead vasculature. On a rolling table topped in gray Formica lies the body. For a woman just shy of a century old, the deceased looks rather pretty. The stylist has teased her gunmetal hair into a tidy cumulus. Her cheeks radiate the sun-burnished haleness of a country woman who did not fear the out-of-doors. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Holland says. “Three days ago, she was out turning up her garden with a grubbing hoe.”
At present the dead woman is clad in a sheet and a set of demure underthings. Her body I will respectfully decline to describe, save to assure you that everything seems to be in place, and there are no sutured wounds in sight through which organs could have been pilfered. Our job is a simple one: to dress her in a classic shroud of white sateen and to help her into a waiting coffin.
“Okay, here we go,” says Holland. “You want gloves?”
He is not wearing gloves. “Nah, I’m good.”
He passes me the shroud’s left sleeve. The dead woman’s hand feels about like the undefrosted wing of a Perdue roaster but smoother and denser to the touch. We sleeve her without mishap. Holland hoists her legs. We tuck the shroud beneath her. He releases the legs. Her heels hit the table with a loud, upsetting clack.
Holland arranges the gown about the body’s collarbone and gives a nod of tempered satisfaction. “I think she looks rather angelic in this little apparatus. But I think I’m gonna aggrandize her just a bit.”
With a couple of fistfuls of loose cotton tucked just so, he amplifies the departed’s bust. Her lips are slightly parted. He seals them with a clear adhesive, applied with a tiny steel spade. “This is nothing but airplane glue,” he explains. “You can pull a damn eighteen-wheeler with this shit.”
These last fastidiousnesses attended to, we hoist the body into a rose-colored casket. As we tighten the lid in place, I assure Holland that I will let it be known that no choice cuts were set aside for sale on the black market.
“Thank you! Perfectly intact, just like I got it, except the formaldehyde. At Judgment Day she’ll be just like this.”
We carry her into the brightness of the day, and after loading the pretty pink casket, Rep. Steve Holland drives off in the hearse.