The grave must be dug the old-fashioned way, by hand with pickaxes and shovels. One scoop of earth at a time. Three feet by eight feet by four and a half feet deep. Six feet is just an old western tale. No need or want to dig that deep.
The toughest graves to dig are at the bases of big oaks and maples. The upside is that it is typically a very old person to bury if the tree had time to get that big between buying the plot and needing it.
Trying to be delicate with the old tree is important. Those precious roots are holding up a lot of weight that can drive nearby granite markers into the ground if the tree is undermined. Starting with a few dozen swings of a pickaxe helps identify big roots and separate little ones from the soil. The most experienced hand makes a call on which large roots to nix. Only enough to shimmy in the concrete vault box. Operating a chainsaw below ground isn’t good for machine, human, or tree. Dirt grits up the chain lube quick and if she kicks back or nicks a rock, impact with face, leg, or neighboring root is immediate.
All that effort, sweat, and blood to roll out AstroTurf that hides the dirt and exposed roots just in time for the procession. Four kindly gents stand behind a powder-white hearse and catch a shiny metallic casket painted leisure suit blue. Thankfully the vessel is aluminum and the life inside has aged away to practically nothing, so weight is not a challenge when navigating a dozen yards of muddy sod to rest on unleveled rollers.
The pallbearers dissolve into the background to stand with the gravediggers, leaving a handful of old women and men who outlasted the tree-aged corpse. A few share somber reflections of the nice man and his service to the community. Now is not the time to dredge up war stories, or unspoken family drama. Solemn words shared, they dodder off leaving foot and cane prints in the mud.
The fourteen-year-old with a face full of pimples stands a few rows back through the service and after everyone is gone. He won’t move until told what to do. He’s only been to one interment before he started working at the cemetery; his grandfather’s. He doesn’t know that day’s decedent or their family. He thinks he should feel sad, but in reality he feels disconnected from it all. He is more worried about his first day on the job and excited to be making $3.25 an hour.
The winch whines as a concrete lid covered in gold colored spray paint is lowered onto the vault and with a thud it seals in the tree-aged decedent for a few thousand years of worm-and-water-free decomposition. A quick signature from the gravedigger on a clipboard, an envelope, and a handshake are all that is exchanged before the vault guy departs with his crane truck.
The burly gravedigger with a hint of grey at his temples takes a light and practiced step over the edge of the grave, a few feet down to the top of the vault. With a wave of the shovel, he beckons his son to join. There is no on-boarding or training program here. Just a father handing his son a shovel and pointing towards the hole to begin a career in the family business.
“People are dying to get in here. Come on and join the party,” the father says with a smile.
The oldest dad joke in the business is lost on the boy as his heart seizes at the thought of his next step. Standing on a vault encased casket? Not even two feet above a dead body?
The father begins to slash at the dirt pile with his pointed shovel, dragging dirt into the hole. Without looking up, he says, “He won’t mind, you know. Better that we get the roots covered up before they get even more damaged.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy says, trying to steel his nerves.
The father looks up and pats the side of the large oak tree they are working under. “The old man picked this spot himself, you know. Grandpa sold him the lot when I was younger than you. They both loved that the oak has grown large like their families.”
The father’s outstretched hand travels from the trunk towards the boy.
Taking his cue, the boy executes an inept leap of faith over the edge of the grave towards the vault box. A fatherly iron grip on his shoulder is the only thing that keeps the boy from sliding on the fresh golden paint into the narrow space between the loam and the box.
“One scoop at a time, son. Make sure you fill all the way around.”
“Yes sir,” the boy responds.
The cemetery is silent, save for the sound of coarse dirt scratching metallic shovels, and the woosh-thud as the earth is made whole once again. His shoulders ache and sweat stings his eyes as he tries to match shovelful for shovelful with his father. Before he realizes it, they are tamping down a mound rising several inches from the grass line.
“Good job son. How about some lunch?”
Is that it? Signed, shoveled, tamped and done. Maybe six bucks in his pocket? Guilt washes over him at his own lack of feeling for the loss he has helped bury.
The pimples fade over seven years of part time work, mostly mowing grass and trimming around headstones. He becomes quite proficient with a shovel, mower, and string trimmer, but never the chainsaw. At some point, he loses count of the number of people he interred, but the guilt still gnaws at him as he thumbs through the pocket money his efforts generate. By the time the boy is a young man he has yet to admit to his father that the cemetery is not his calling. The family business is left unspoken the day he boards an aircraft for places and cultures far away.
In the decades since his first funeral, the maple tree on the boy’s own family plot in the cemetery has grown large. With each passing year his fear grows that he will be called to visit the site of the family business he abandoned. He knows they wouldn’t expect him to pick up a chainsaw or shovel on such a visit, but that doesn’t assuage the guilt that he lacks the skill and duty he would have had if he stayed. He should be the one to choose the roots to nix so his father’s vault will fit in its appointed spot and leave the old maple whole enough to look after his family for another generation.
About the Contributor
Joshua Bealson is a Washington, DC-based bilingual and bi-cultural author, gardener, and traveler. He seeks to help people discover a world outside their own through fiction, cross-cultural narratives, history, and stories about our place in the world. He was the Hugo Awards Ceremony Director at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki & will serve the same role at Worldcon 77 in Dublin.
The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho
A friend gave me a copy of the book just as I was setting out on a literal and figurative life journey and wondering which roads, trains, and paths to take on a two month backpacking trip across Asia and Europe. It was the long way home and gave me the time and space to figure out what my future and career would be in Washington, DC. She inscribed the book to me with "Read this and you will never get lost." I read the book on my travels and have since turned to it whenever I've experienced personal loss or needed to find my way again.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals