Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grave Matters

Digging someone’s grave is an intimate thing, and I’ve done it twice now in just over a year. I’d buried pets like frogs and turtles when I was a boy, and a dog when I was an adult, but never a human being. I’d asked the caretaker at the small, private cemetery what rules or regulations there might be, which were very few. So, I loaded a couple of shovels into my truck and drove over the day before the funeral last spring.

My brother, Dan, died in Florida during March of 2012 of a chronic disease we both struggled with for years. He had lived a long time in North Fryeburg and, knowing death could come soon, told his wife of his wish to be buried there. He’d been cremated and she flew up with his ashes, so I didn’t have to dig a very big hole. She’d asked me to make a box for his urn and that, too, was a solitary, intimate experience.
Mark Woodbrey at Lovell Lumber

Once I had the urn’s dimensions, I went to Lovell Lumber and bought a ten-foot, one-by-twelve pine board. The mill owner, a fellow about my age, silently wrote out the slip for my meager, one-board purchase. “That’s all?” he asked, so I explained what I was making. He paused and looked up at me with a surprised expression and told me he had done the same thing for his brother.

“Hmm,” I said.
St. William's School Tewksbury, MA
Back in my garage, I thought about the carpentry projects I’d done for my brother because it wasn’t one of his skills, being in the plumbing and heating business. This would be the last. I wondered if he were observing me while I worked. He was my little brother and we shared a bedroom for many years. I protected him growing up in the neighborhood. As adults we perceived world quite differently in many ways and there were subjects I’d learned to avoid discussing while he was alive. That didn’t matter any more. “Ashes to ashes,” we were told by the nuns at St. William’s School, “dust to dust.” He had come to it sooner than I did.

My Uncle Joe's funeral last year

I’d been to professional funerals where artificial turf covered the excavated soil and edges of the hole, and with a stainless steel frame onto which the casket was placed and lowered by pulleys into a concrete vault. Backhoes dig those graves these days. I was doing it the old-fashioned way, alone with a shovel. Geese flew by in single-line flight, honking. Nature’s seasons mirror life’s seasons. Many poems, many songs compare them. My brother died in what should have been the autumn of his. His wife asked me to deliver his eulogy as well and I pondered that as I made the box and dug the grave. I knew that would be the hardest task because remembrances of my brother would not longer be my own private thoughts and feelings. I’d have to speak them in front of everyone.
This past spring, his son and my nephew, Danny Boy as we called him, died suddenly, also in Florida. The postmortem showed an enlarged heart. My wife and my sisters remembered how sensitive he was as a boy to the needs of his many younger cousins in our extended, Irish-Catholic family. Enlarged heart indeed. He was very gentle, and the world has a way of eating up those whose hearts are too big. The hundred-year-old Irish-American song “Danny Boy” is about a boy leaving his father in Ireland for America and how they may never see each other again. I thought about those lyrics as I dug still another grave uniting Dan and Danny Boy in death.
The area around the cemetery is familiar. I’d collected artifacts there over the years - remains of Indian occupation going back several millennia. If they buried their dead there too, evidence would have disappeared long before. That wasn’t likely though, given that the site was in the Saco flood plain and would have been under water in springtime, so their occupation was likely seasonal. All that’s been found were stone tools, hearths with charcoal, and calcine animal bone preserved by fire.
Cemetery on left, Old Saco on right

Conscious of that, I scrutinized each shovelful of soil but I found nothing in my brother’s grave last year. When I dug his son’s grave right next to it two weeks ago, however, I found chips of Mount Jasper Rhyolite from Berlin, NH just under the turf. That told me it was a toolmaking site many, many centuries ago. Both graves looked just like test pits we’d excavated four years previous within sight of where I was digging with a team of archaeologists and students.
Students in the test pits

British colonists and we Americans who derived from them have been in this area only 250 years or so. Artifacts I’ve found on that side of the Old Saco River go back about eight hundred, probably left by ancestors the Abenaki. Others have been found across the river going back several thousand, and we know relatively little about the people who made them. All civilizations eventually fade away and ours will as well. We’re all going to die of something, sooner or later, and being mindful of that enriches each new day. How we live those days determines how we’ll spend eternity. Meanwhile, a bit of a respite from graves, funerals and eulogies would suit me.


John Rogan said...


Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks John.