I was just a summer employee. The cemetery’s full-time, year-round employees did the core work. They dug the graves; they lowered the casket after a service; they filled in the hole; they landscaped after the burial. Only once in a while, usually on a weekend when enough of the full-timers were not on call, did I assist. On one Saturday when I was helping, I was waiting for the mourners to leave the grave site so that we could shovel in and level the soil. Then we would be finished, and I might have time to make my baseball game. But two or three mourners lingered and lingered. I must have indicated my impatience, and one of the full-time workers quietly but firmly told me to have respect for those still there. That struck me. This physical laborer, who must have seen a comparable scene many times, could see beyond himself to the humanity of those others. His was not just a job to feed his family, but also one to serve those others. I was embarrassed for myself.
On another Saturday, after the family and friends had left, we went to the grave to do our tasks. The casket was suspended over the grave by one of those machines with canvas stretchers. A crank lowered the casket to the bottom of a six-foot hole. Normally the stretchers were detached from the machine and pulled under the casket and up to the other side. Then the soil that had been put to the side of the grave was shoveled into the grave, and the ground raked. A few days later, after the soil’s settling, this raw ground would be landscaped. But this time, after the lowering, the canvas strips got stuck.
The full-timers tried this and that, but the canvas was not freed. Finally, the crew chief looked at me, pointed at the hole, and told me to deal with the situation. Either free the canvas or toss the loose end back up so the casket could be raised, and the process started anew. To this fit youngster, seemingly no big deal. But, and it was a big but, the grave was only a few inches wider and longer than the casket. I was not really jumping into a six-foot hole; I was really going to leap onto a casket. In an instant, an image stuck in my mind. My feet would crash through the casket, and I would be standing on a dead person. Or I would go through the lid, slip, and be lying face to face with a corpse. And other variations on this theme.
Of course, these were false worries. The casket was not a pine box loosely hammered together. It was one of the Cadillacs sold by funeral homes to those who probably could not afford them. That lid could handle a lot more than my 148 pounds. It was going to hold more than that when the grave was filled in. I jumped, quickly freed the stretcher, and clambered out without incident. But those images were stuck in my mind. I had nightmares for days, maybe even weeks, and I won’t be surprised if in writing about this, I have nightmares again.
A few weeks later I was called to the cemetery office. The manager was there with a tiny, old man. A small box was on the counter. It contained the ashes of the man’s wife. The manager instructed me to carry the container to a specified place in the cemetery where a hole for the box had already been dug. I was to lower the container and then help the man fill the hole.
I lifted the container. It was heavy. Very heavy. I stumbled a bit, but then moved on. I had never before carried human ashes, and I wondered how they could weigh so much. The man started to talk about his wife as we shuffled on. I half listened, and as I did generally with adults, I tried to say as little as possible. Although I attempted to hide them, he may have seen my struggles with the box and said that it was lined with lead. I wondered why he would have his wife cremated and have the remains in the kind of container meant to prevent decay. He talked more and more about his wife. I could almost touch his love and longing for her.
Then he started to talk about her death. It had been a slow, wasting disease. I could tell it had been awful. He said that by the end he barely recognized her. She did not look like the person he had been in love with for over sixty years. He said that he had wanted an open-casket funeral, but . . . Cremation had not always been the plan.
I had learned some stuff earlier that summer. I was a teenage boy and (therefore) a wiseass, but I had been taught that I should respect the grief of others. But I still had more to learn. After the man had tossed a handful of soil on the box and as I was about to shovel in more, I finally said, “I guess you are going to miss her very much.” He said nothing. He only cried. And I did not know what to say.