Friday, July 03, 2015
Digging a grave is a sobering and holy experience.
I have never actually had to dig a person's grave but I have had to dig a number of pet graves -but the mechanics and surrounding sense are undoubtedly the same.
One patiently scrapes away the upper level of soil or grass or mulch and begins to dig into the soil. If the soil is undisturbed or had not been disturbed in a long time one can see the banding of earth as one digs down. You try to get straight strikes down into the soil to make the grave more square (important tip: a square edged shovel is your friend here). You work back and forth from side to side and top to bottom, trying to create a rectangular pit. Thrust, apply pressure with the foot and leverage, lift up and onto the shovel and move it to the side with a soft "plop" as it hits. Scrape across the bottom to get the loose dirt, then eyeball the grave to see where the next shovel set will be.
Sizing and depth are always in your mind as you dig: the last thing you want to have to do is go to bury a beloved pet and discover that the grave is too small. The only human example I have been involved in when the grave was too small was my grandmother, whose coffin was a bit longer that the grave. It was the mountain ghost town where she had grown up, a fairly rural setting: someone got a shovel and my father dug out another foot or so while we all waited. Unexpected and yet seemingly appropriate.
My thoughts when I dig the graves are always the same, usually reflecting on the pet friend I am burying: the good times we had, how I miss them, and the hope that I will see them sometime again. The surroundings usual seem to help: for some reason the universe seems to dull the intense roar of life and wind and weather, leaving a sort of silent bubble of myself and the grave I am digging.
It is shame, I think, that we no longer dig graves as part of the burial ceremony. It is quite sterile now - we drive to the grave site (if we go at all anymore) and there is the grave, all nicely dug and the edges neatly covered. The dirt may be in sight or it may be removed somewhere else.
In failing to dig the graves of those we love - perhaps even the digging of our own graves - we lose a potentially vital connection with ourself and our place in God's cosmos. Grave digging brings us face to face with the reality of our own mortality: as we dig the graves for others, so someday someone will dig a grave for us.
How much more sobering, how much more valuable, if we dug the graves of all those we buried as part of the burial service. It need not be fancy: those suits and ties and somber dresses would be replaced by the boots and workclothes of outdoor work, the solemn graveside words enhanced by the fact that it is we who are digging the place to bury our friends and loved ones, not some impersonal third party who is doing simply because they are paid to. It would bring a sense of peace and closure, one that often seems missing as we pull away from the grave site. And the post-funeral meeting, usually involving food, would be enhanced by the smell of honest sweat and labor, a sort of fitting tribute to all of us whose life is surrounded by such labor in some form.
I know - I am extrapolating all sorts of things from the mere act of digging a grave. But so many they say they want to be closer to nature and the natural world and there is nothing more natural than digging a grave to make sure the one we loved is probably placed and laid to rest in the bosom of the earth.
For when the grave is finished and the body laid down and the earth shoveled back over and the grass or mulch put back over there is little -save a stone - to mark where they lay. What a comfort to know even if we cannot see where they now lay that we actively helped to put them there - perhaps the last gift we can directly give the departed.