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.