I raked a grave last evening.
It was twilight when I got there. Little time was left to work. It was just enough. The race against sunset and total darkness was a welcome distraction from the ache of tending a grave that had to be dug too soon. Ground was opened before the actuarial tables approved and assented to it.
I brought two rakes with me. The steel one is hardy, needed to scrape away pebbles and the imbedded straw of winter’s decay. A bamboo one has delicate tines, better to smooth the packaged top soil I carried along. My blend of grass and clover seed would take more readily if it were raked lightly into fresh dirt. A small-leafed, low-growing perennial, this mini-clover makes a good helpmate for ordinary turf grass. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, a favor to lawns left pretty much on their own. I was pleased with the mix, glad to be getting it down before an expected rain.
Friends ask: Why do you bother? Is there no groundskeeper who can look after things? There should be a maintenance contract, you know. You really ought to have one.
Yes, I suppose so. But a modest little country cemetery is not up to offering the lawn services attached to the price of that peculiar piece of real estate: a burial plot. There is a groundskeeper. He lives on site in an old white frame house just beyond the Civil-War-era graves. Now and again, he rides a tractor mower around and is careful to put flags by the headstones of veterans. But that is the limit of his gardening.
I like it that way. A few towns over from mine, a sprawling, popular Catholic cemetery announces its landscape policy in tones better suited to leasing a safe deposit box:
For reasons of uniform beauty as well as safety and insurance concerns, only employees or licensed contractors with permits from cemetery management may cut, fertilize, and add chemicals to the landscape.
So wooden. Such an absurd curtsy to liability. And, as night follows day these days, environmentally exquisite. Please, no illicit daffodil bulbs; no unlicensed doses of Miracle-Grow.
Spare me the embrace of the managerial mind. Uniform beauty be damned. This is not Arlington, not a military cemetery honoring the collective bond of service that exacted its price. Each gravestone here is an emphatic marker of a singular death; each one declares the mortal dissolution of a distinct individual. Every grave holds a specific, dappled history, one that ended in its own particular suffering. Polite, homogenized uniformity would not keep faith with the separate griefs solemnized here on a road into town.
I can no more abandon a dead beloved to a licensed contractor than I could the living person. I resent the thought of a nameless, impersonal caretaker. The final consequence of a mechanical custodian is the forfeit of any dread of that inexorable slippage into the void signaled by a headstone. Besides, it is good to put your hands in dirt from time to time. It is the stuff we are made of; the stuff that one day reclaims us—an elemental memento mori superior to all others.
At every Mass we pray for the dead. Yet only a grudging second is allotted to them. Time is gone before we can summon more than a single name. How do we call for heaven’s eye onto Grandpa Powey himself, toward Great Aunt Kitty, Uncle Jack, a dear sister-in-law, all those many others who once were close? No length of silence is left for them. We must hurry to get on with things. The dead we remember today—a quick phrase for an abstract category.
The dead are a write-off at morning Mass. Their names are a deflection from the unctuous litany of petitions drawn from last evening’s news. How kindly of us to take note of distant victims of the universe’s disinterest: the plane crash here, the hurricane there, a train derailment somewhere, earthquakes half a world away. By contrast, the dead at our own doorstep are too stern a bewilderment to linger over.
We purchase Mass cards, send names to the Purgatorial Society, enter the names of the deceased in perpetual enrollments. These are good and gracious things, precious in themselves. Too often, they are all that is available to us. But it is not our own knee that touches the ground to beg, “Forsake not the work of thine own hands, Lord.”
Hands. The labor of remembrance requires more than memory. Our hands want something to work. We need to know what to do with them, how to give them loving purpose. It matters to have something to touch, to stroke or knead. We crave anything that might transfigure memory into sweet solidity.
Writing of his life as a widower, Julian Barnes recalls rubbing oil on his wife’s back. She had had dry skin and could not reach around herself. Retrospective now, and in mourning, he rubs oil into the oak of her grave marker to keep it moist and protected against the weather. It is something.
There is still work to do for those we have loved. The effort does not end with death. Only the texture of it changes.
H. L. Mencken was fifty when he married Sara Haardt in 1930. After not quite five years of marriage, she died of meningitis. Five years later, Mencken wrote:
It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life and almost every hour of the day. Whenever I see anything she would have liked, I find myself saying I’ll buy it and take it to her, and I am always thinking of things to tell her.
Four years into his own widowhood, Barnes, an admitted atheist, could still confess:
What those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but it doesn’t mean that they do not exist.
So I talk to her constantly. This feels as normal as it is necessary. . . . Outsiders might find this an eccentric, or “morbid,” or self-deceiving habit; but outsiders are by definition those who have not known grief. I externalize her easily and naturally because by now I have internalized her. The paradox of grief: if I have survived what is now four years of her absence, it is because I have had four years of her presence. And her active continuance disproves what I had earlier pessimistically asserted. Grief can, after all, in some ways, turn out to be a moral space.
• • • •
Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay! Will you then bring me down to dust again? Did you not pour me out as milk, and thicken me like cheese? With skin and flesh you clothed me, with bones and sinews knit me together. Grace and favor you granted me, and providence has preserved my spirit. (Job 10)