Grave Digging — A Final Gift to a Loved One
We moved dirt on the hill top cemetery by using pick, shovel and a long-handled screw-in post hole digger. After enough childhood Western movies, I held an odd desire to be a short-term grave digger; maybe dig one grave for my bucket list and preferably not my own, because I have metaphorically done that aplenty. I also say “we” moved dirt because I did this with my brother in law Greg and my lovely wife, a strong tall durable woman who shares the German/Norwegian genes of so many others in this graveyard.
My wife’s mother, Janet, had died, not entirely unexpectedly, and it was our duty to inter her ashes, alongside her husband Stan’s, in a remote prairie hillock overlooking miles and miles of patchwork North Dakota landscape. A quick memorial stroll showed this patch of wild prairie to hold graves dating to the late buffalo era of the mid-1800’s and some of the stones were those commemorating Civil War casualties. Historians may marvel but the carpet of plants also told of another era; we walked over little bluestem, rattlesnake master, and prairie crocus with our digging tools.
The old man who ordinarily mows and digs for the cemetery had broken his arm, thus we became deputized grave diggers. Naomi and I actually found a lot of loving meaning in sharing this end-of-life for a woman and wonderful mother who had struggled some herself, especially toward the end, through being widowed, having a faulty heart rhythm, and sometimes upset she was shortchanged of a long and healthy retirement with Stan.
The following day at the funeral a few noteworthy things happened — Naomi delivered a beautiful and heartfelt eulogy while a thirteen-lined ground squirrel sat motionless by the open grave. This little beauty was one of the ilk pursued by the younger boys yesterdays “gopher shoot” which is a bonding ritual of agricultural pest control common across the West. However, this little guy was a quiet and welcomed co-digger of native prairie and clearly more attentive to the graveside words than some of the squirming children.
The prairie wind was soughing and the cloudless sky beaming sufficiently to make the gathering shade of the burr oaks and junipers feel good. My daughter Antonia and I performed a couple of acoustic songs that were comfortably absorbed into the wide openness of the prairie. The Catholic priest gave a mercifully short blessing and an invitation to all to toss anything they wanted to share into the hole before we refilled it. I found that to be a distinctly Indigenous twist to the ceremony and I have seen grave adornments on other “Indian Reserve” (their term, not mine) lands. Old western cemeteries at the confluence of Indigenous and western Settler cultures are fascinating places. The photo below is from a Catholic cemetery on Fort Belknap, Montana, west of Jan’s burial place; coins, full beers, lariats, flowers, weavings, flags, and pink flamingos adorning graves.
I absolutely loved the diversity seed and plant bank that these relictual cemeteries hold!
The Father’s brevity was likely attributable to the bright prairie sun on his full-length cassock and frock. He joked that he didn’t carry sufficient holy water to cool us all off. Then it was time to cover them up so I took time to carefully fill, tamp, level and return the toupee-like sod patch to the gently mounded earth. I thought deeply about these two deceased partners as each spade-full of dirt hit the engraved oak boxes enclosing their ashes. Dirt versus soil . . . dirt is simply “valuable soil out of place” and at various times don’t we all feel deeply out of place? Maybe in the grand sweep of time, our emergence from the soil’s nutrients is like the ephemeral prairie crocus blossom, and our eventual death is made right as we all return to the soil- a beautiful comfort to the ecologist in me.
We had had a few months of flowers, planning, and correspondence to prepare for this family reunion.
And there was some joy along the way.
The gorgeous prairie sky, the fruit laden Saskatoons (June berries to North Dakotans), and the treasure of extended family bonding together for a late night celebration added a great sense of harmony.
Still, grave digging really did feel like an honor and privilege to give one tangible gift of effort, sweat and action to this couple’s salt-of-the-earth existence and provide a virtual family hand-shake to my brother-in-law and an enfolding hug to my beloved wife at this transitional phase.
Rest well Jan and Stan. For the rest of us, let’s continue fully embracing life and love each other while on this upper soil surface.