My first time digging a grave (and why it hopefully won’t be my last)

Guest post by Alina BT
Attleson Farm: Diggin a Grave

Remember those old westerns where the hero’s friend would be killed, and the hero would go out and dig the grave himself? He (it was usually a he) would spend hours of his energy, sweat, and sometimes tears, to produce a final place for the friend to lie in the earth for eternity, the resurrection, judgment day, or the zombie apocalypse, depending on one’s beliefs. That process always seemed a bit quaint and old-fashioned to me.

In our modern world, we are removed from death. When someone passes, they are taken away, processed somewhere else, and then put on display looking peaceful and life-like or boxed up never to be seen again. Death is a part of our lives, but the process of caring for someone after death is gone. We outsource it so that we can go on with our lives.

This was perfectly fine for me until I was forced to confront the death process in my late twenties.

My grandfather had passed many years before and was cremated. I was at the service, but then was rushed onto a plane as I was late for summer camp. (Priorities as a teenager.) My grandmother passed when I was 27, and I wasn’t able to make the service, as I was on the other side of the country. Grandma was very particular in her will — we all were to gather in Kansas to bury both of my grandparents’ ashes together. Now, none of us live in that small Kansas town anymore, so it was subject to much sorting out of everyone’s schedule. Eventually the Kansas funeral was scheduled for May. So, for nine months, grandma and grandpa lived in a box in my parent’s laundry room.

On a warm May morning, I went with my parents and my uncle’s family to the cemetery. The cemetery caretaker showed us the family plot. It looked very nice, but significantly lacked a hole for the box of ashes. Due to miscommunications, no one had requested that the hole be dug prior to the funeral. The caretaker said that we could pay for someone to dig the hole next Monday, or he had a posthole digger and some shovels in his car and we could dig it ourselves. My uncle (a former Kansas farm boy), my father, and I decided that we could dig it ourselves. The caretaker pointed out the best location to dig, one where we likely wouldn’t hit another grave, and gave us the tools. So began my first time digging a grave.

We only had to go down 3½ feet for ashes, not the six feet you hear of in songs. And a box is much smaller than a body. Still, the work wasn’t easy. It was a dry spring and the ground wasn’t forgiving. Slowly, we made progress.

Each time the posthole digger came up, it brought up that rich Kansas soil that Grandma and Grandpa worked so hard with to grow crops. Each time we pushed it into the ground, we came closer and closer to saying goodbye. It was peaceful digging. The location was beautiful and, as we went on, the fear of disturbing another grave slipped away.

We didn’t talk much, but this might have been the first time I ever worked side by side with my father and uncle. I dug the final portion, laying on the ground and reaching down nearly four feet with the shovel to clear out the corners. When the work was finished, we quietly left to clean up and have a family dinner.

The next morning the church service was full of people who knew my mom and grandparents 40-50 years ago. It didn’t matter that it had been so long; everyone in the town showed up and brought a story to share of how my mom’s family had touched their lives. My grandparents became more alive to me during that weekend than perhaps they ever had been, as I learned of the struggles and triumphs they had in that small Kansas farm town. The church ladies also brought food. If you’ve never been to a Midwestern church ladies’ picnic, I highly recommend going.

Finally with doggy bags full of food, the family went back to the cemetery. There, in our suits and dresses, we put grandma and grandpa into the ground. Another uncle said a prayer over the grave and then we reversed the process of the day before. Each of us shoveled dirt back into the grave. The dirt we had worked so hard to remove yesterday went quietly and smoothly back into place. We had dirt on our hands, our clothing, and our shoes but it was a physical piece of that moment. There were no tears to cry now; we had each left a part of ourselves in that grave with them. Our sweat had created a final earthly home for them. We were always with them in the earth and they are always with us in our hearts. There was peace.

I’m not sure if I will ever have the chance to physically bury a loved one again, but I hope I do. Taking that time and physical effort to dig their final resting place was a true catharsis. Emotions about their passing that I’d not even realized I had were let out through physical labor. I found a beautiful peace and will never forget that beautiful hillside surrounded by fields where I helped lay them to rest.

Comments on My first time digging a grave (and why it hopefully won’t be my last)

  1. Wow, I had never considered this connection. It reminds me of how yoga can connect your physical and emotional body. I can absolutely see how cathartic that could be. Thanks for sharing!

  2. My first time digging a grave was for my family dog. It was so. fucking. hard. and even more cathartic. Pouring all my heart break into that hard work, and alternating between digging and crying with other people who loved Ayla as much as I did, was the best way to process her death and start the healing. And it also felt like I was putting her to bed one last time. I highly recommend it doing something like that at least once.

    • Yes, we buried our first dog in our garden a couple of years ago (R.I.P. <3 ). We didn't plan to, but the vet came over to put him down quite late in the evening. We somehow thought the vet would take the body with him so we could cremate the dog or whatever, but he said they weren't allowed to do that. We could call a cremating service the next morning, if we wanted to. But no way in hell could we go to sleep with our beloved dog's body just lying around in the hallway until the next day.

      So we went outside and dug his grave. It was already dark, and starting to snow, so it seemed kind of out of a movie or something. But it really was so, so carthartic. Also really hard because our ground out there is basically clay mixed with little stones from previous constructions. But it helped us so much process that we had just lost him, and we could really say goodbye to him when we lowered him (as gently as we could, which wasn't easy) into the hole.

      Aw, I'm getting a little teary-eyed as I write this.

      But despite the very sad circumstances, it was a very positive experience and I'm sure we'll do the same thing the next time around – but I very much hope our current dog lasts maaaaaany more years! <3

    • I agree. It was an amazing way to process and connect. I’m sorry you lost your dog but glad you had that time with friends and family.

  3. Love this. I go to a monthly open mic about stories dealing with death and this would be just the kind of thing the regulars would love to hear about if you’re ever in SF.

    • I’m in Chicago these days but will let you know if I do end up there. In the mean time, feel free to share.

  4. This is a great essay. I have not dug a grave, but participated in a few burials at a wonderful green burial ground operated by a land trust in Washington State: Helping to gently carry and then cover a strangers body with soil is an amazingly intimate experience and one I will never forget. Compared to the one funeral and burial I have been to that was more traditional (ie. hardwood casket, concrete vault, manicured lawns), it felt so much more sacred and honorable. Our final act of dying can be such a gift to the earth by helping preserve land and feed the soil.

    • That sounds so cool!! Burial is a sacred act and I love that you got to be a part of it. Every time I pass a traditional cemetery I remind my husband that I don’t want to end up there, a place like that in Washington sounds ideal.

  5. That is awesome and so empowering! The physical work coupled with experiencing the process with your family is powerful. You honored your grandparents wishes as well as your own emotional health.

    I can’t picture one of my family members caring enough about me to replicate such a painstaking tribute. You are a blessing, thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you. It was a precious time and I hope that you will find a community that would do the same for you as you continue to grow. Blood family is good but community can keep us alive.

  6. In Jewish tradition the family and community help bury the dead. I haven’t helped dig a grave (besides my family cat’s) but I have helped bury during a Jewish funeral. It is considered one of the greatest mitzvahs because the person who you are burying can’t reciprocate. I haven’t yet done this for a loved one, only for other members of my community, but there is something very cathartic about this process. It also physically gives you something to do at a time where you don’t always know what to do but feel there is a need to do something. Any frustrations, anger, or sadness can be channeled into this act and the family also witnesses members of their community helping them through this time. For lack of a better term it is one of my favorite rituals.

    • I was going to post something along these lines. The first time I helped cover in the grave was for my grandfather, and it creeped me out (I was also 19). Since then, I’ve learned to appreciate this tradition, and the beauty and respect included in it. My spouse is often called upon to go to funerals for people where all the surviving relatives are older, and so they need someone to do the “heavy lifting” for the burial. Again, it is a beautiful tradition and he’s honored to do it. I go with him when I can (he has a flexible self-employment work schedule, I do not).

      • Thank you both for sharing theee traditions. Judaism has some beautiful rituals and traditions that I’m coming to appreciate as I learn more of them and mature as a person. I love the idea that it is the greatest service because it can’t be returned. Physical work has a way of moving and purifying emotions.

  7. I’ve dug graves for animals and have realised the same thing. Sometimes when you’re grieving physical labour can really help. Any exercise, such as going for a hike or lifting weights, would probably be beneficial; but with digging a grave you’re doing something useful and directly related to dealing with the death. When you’re floundering and don’t know what comes next it anchors you to know that what comes next is you put the spade in the ground again and haul out another load of earth. It gives you a clear purpose, and is also easy enough to do even when you can’t see properly and your body’s shaking because of the tears.

    It can also be an easier transition to physically dispose of the body yourself, rather than the loved one being alive and then suddenly not there anymore and not even any body. It helps you to process the emotions. Obviously it’s not always possible to dig a grave, especially for a human since there are more laws and the hole needs to be deeper than for most animals. But if it is an option, I would recommend it.

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