Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Grave Matter

For twenty-five years I’ve been taking care of properties around Kezar Lake in Lovell, Maine. At first, I would do most of the work myself, but now I make sure things get done by others. I’ve done carpentry, plumbing, wiring, tree work, and so forth. I’m not that great at any of them but I know enough to recognize quality work by those who are, and I know which tradesmen are dependable. Getting good people for clients is pretty much the service I provide now.

Some jobs, however, I still do myself and one involved digging up a grave. The property went up for sale and a family member named Ernest was buried on it. My clients, Ernest’s adult children, wanted his remains and his stone moved a town cemetery and I said I would take care of it.The grave was in a grove of large white pines with extensive root systems and Ernest had been down there for about twenty years. The previous caretaker, an older man named John, had shown me around the property and he had really liked Ernest. “He was the greatest,” said John.

John explained that the family had purchased a grave stone in the shape of a bench, engraved it with Ernest’s vital statistics, and had it set up in the pine grove. Then they gave him an urn with Ernest’s ashes in it and asked him to bury it somewhere near the bench. They also told him they didn’t want to know exactly where he put it. “So I took it in there, dug a hole, and buried it,” he explained.

“Hmm,” I said, never knowing that I’d be asked to dig it up some day. If I had, I’d certainly have asked him exactly where he dug and how deep.

John was a gregarious guy and he told me he’d been asked to do this kind of thing several times. “One family sent me some ashes and asked me to spread them on the lake, so I did. Then they called to say they were coming up to have a little ceremony in the boat as I sprinkled them.”“Uh-oh,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, chuckling. “So I just spooned some ashes out of the wood stove, put them in the urn, and did it again while they said nice things about the guy. Nobody knew the difference.” While out checking his remaining properties a short time later, John died too.

I was thinking about all this the first June morning after school got out. Still, I didn’t think I’d have much problem finding Ernest’s urn. I put a long-handled spade, a pick, and a steel rod in the back of my pickup, headed over to the site, and figured I’d start looking right under the stone. It was sunny and already humid as I lifted the three segments of granite bench and set them aside. The steel rod was an old axel with one end sharpened, and I used it to gingerly probe beneath the surface hoping not to damage Ernest’s urn. With the second probe I clinked on something solid, so I took the spade and dug carefully. About twelve inches down I found a stone the size of my fist.

Examining the sides of my shallow hole, I didn’t see evidence that anyone had ever dug there. The strata of humus, loam, and mineral soil were intact, so I took up the pointed rod and started probing in an ever-increasing radius. I chopped through lots of roots, swatted hundreds of mosquitoes, and got soaked in sweat as I dug a dozen virgin holes and found a dozen fist-sized rocks. I went back home for lunch in frustration.The afternoon was hotter and more humid. I did more probes and dug another dozen holes with the same results, until the last hole showed evidence that someone had dug there before me. Then I noticed streaks of a light, gray material mixed on the edges of the hole and the pile next to it. After finding still another stone at the bottom, I realized that Ernest was urnless. That was him in the gray material scattered around, and I wondered how I was going to explain this to his surviving family.

I got a tablespoon from one of the houses and carefully extricated as much of Ernest as I could from the soil into which he was mixed and put him into an old mason jar. I brought the gravestone to the new family plot in the town cemetery and set it up. Back home, I put Ernest’s mason jar in a place of honor on my mantle piece and called his daughter.“I found Ernest’s ashes,” I said, “but there was no urn . . .” I told her the story as earnestly as I could. She came up to Lovell shortly after and I gave her the mason jar. She and her brothers took Ernest to the town cemetery and buried him again. This time, hopefully, for good.


Anonymous said...

I can 'dig' it.

Anonymous said...

Truly "ashes to ashes"...I can wish for no more caring disposition when I depart this world.

Anonymous said...

"I found Ernest’s ashes," I said, "“but there was no urn . . ." I told her the story as earnestly as I could.

...No pun intended eh Tom? Beautiful pictures again, I use them as wallpaper for my desktop.



Rhonda said...

Beautiful story! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

When my mother sold her house she said to leave my step-father's ashes where they were, he was always happy there. And then she emptied her Martine glass on the spot.