Passing a cemetery, I noticed fresh soil piled high next to a blue canopy protecting a rectangular hole in the ground, where, later in the day, someone would be lowered into the earth, covered with dirt, and left forever. A life perished, a memory born.
No one was visible. I wondered where the gravediggers were, the ones who prepare the ground. I looked but could not see anyone. My mind wandered. What do gravediggers do when they are not digging? Is gravedigging a full time job? Do gravediggers dig at all of the cemeteries, or just one? Is there a gravedigger’s school where one goes to learn the trade? Who pays gravediggers? Are there gravedigger jokes? This answer I knew—there are. Never make a gravedigger mad—they have a shovel and a place to put a body.
I pulled off the main road into the cemetery. Gravestones glared as I drove down the lonely boulevard. I stopped the car and walked to the grave site. As I glanced into the earthen tomb, I wondered, do they still dig six feet down? It is a practice from the time of the Great Plague when bodies were buried six feet under in hopes of hindering the spread of bubonic pestilence. But are graves still six feet deep, since the bubonic plague is now relegated to history books? And do they dig shallow graves for urns? And how do they dig? Shovels? Picks? A backhoe? All three?
After standing for ten minutes looking for a gravedigger, I returned to my car. As I began to leave, a hand waved, motioning. I stopped. A young man approached the car.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for a gravedigger.”
“Is this your grave?” He pointed to the disturbed earth.
“No, I just had some questions about gravedigging. Do you have some time to talk?”
“Sure. My name’s Ben, I’m on lunch break, I’m a gravedigger, what can I do for you?” Ben was a tall, lean man of 28 years, with a coif of short-cut light brown hair, bronzed arms, and toned muscles.
“Why did you become a gravedigger? I asked. And how long have you been digging graves?”
“Four years. Lost my job during the bad economy, started doing this. Not bad work, kind of creepy at first, but you get used to it, it’s a real service we provide. When I’m not digging, I’m doing lawn care and maintenance around the cemetery. Cemeteries take a lot of upkeep. The bodies may rot, but we gotta keep the grounds looking nice. You can’t see the bodies, but you can the grounds.” He chortled. “The digging part depends on the number of people being buried. Some weeks, I don’t dig any graves. On the one hand, that’s good, less people dying, but on the other hand…well, you know what I mean.” His shoulders shrugged.
“Okay, but what about the grave itself? How do you dig the grave, how long does it take, and how deep is it?”
“I dig graves with a shovel and backhoe, but the backhoe does most of the work. If I’m on a roll, I can dig it in 30 minutes, but sometimes it takes longer. Depends on if it’s dry or it’s been raining, and how supportive the ground is. Then, once the grave is dug, I have to set up the support frame, that’s the structure that holds the casket during the ceremony. And then, once the ceremony is done, I help lower the casket into the ground. I have to admit, that can get kinda’ sad—I’ve cried before, and I don’t mind admitting that.”
A fellow gravedigger beckoned to Ben. They had to level the soil, place green artificial turf around the grave site, and anchor the frame for the coffin; the mourners would be arriving in a few hours. And with that, Ben was gone.
I slipped into the car and pulled to the main road, and waited as several cars passed. The rhythmic tap of the blinker hypnotized my thoughts. As I turned, in the far recesses of my right eye, the area between 20/20 and 20/delusional, I saw an old man in a black overcoat standing at the front of the cemetery gazing at me. Or at least I thought I saw a man. I glanced again; he was gone. Just then, my “Check Engine” light flashed. Check Engine, Check Engine, Check Engine, an epileptic caution that would not stop.
As I hurried down the road, merging into a steady trail of traffic, the living rushing past the dead, I thought of the unanswered question—how deep are graves? Then I thought about the old man in the black overcoat. Then I thought about the Check Engine light. Then I thought that maybe, just maybe, we need to keep graves six feet deep—or deeper.
Paul Rousseau is published in sundry literary and medical journals. He is a lover of dogs, chocolate, and books, and on a good day, staring at a trail of ants. He is currently marooned without a personal flotation device in Charleston, South Carolina.