We wanted to dig Dad’s grave by hand, but that turned out to be unrealistic in our part of the Shenandoah Valley, where close under the topsoil lie ridges of shale. Our old friend Bill Mantz had been secretly wishing to dig the hole for Dad with his backhoe. My son Nicholas and I joined him at the site and were ready with shovel in hand in case we were needed for anything. As the bucket scraped away the earth, and then shale, I began to reckon with burial.
How deep do we need to go? Just what dimensions does it need to be for Dad’s casket? Through sights, sounds, touches, and movements I was coming face to face with the reality of the last goodbye.
We’ll Make It, Mom
Mourners arrived at the cemetery to find a standard forest-green tent erected over our hole. Nearby were piles of dirt. Bill had set aside the topsoil to be put back last. Mostly we had tan hard dirt that easily broke into a powder, and chunks of grey shale.
The children all wanted to peer in, toeing right up to the edge. Some were shooed away or pulled back by their parents, but one stood out: a girl of perhaps five who for a long period stood nudging her Sunday shoes up to the edge of the hole, in turns staring down and looking up again.
We carried the casket from hearse to grave side. The casket was solid chestnut, handmade from reclaimed barn lumber by our friend Mike Schmiedicke. Strong straps looped through the handles on one side, then over the top and through the handles on the other side. The pall bearers gave a heave and carefully moved to straddle the gaping hole.
As we hefted the casket, my mother gasped, “Dear God.” We lifted it too high, as if there were an invisible rim to clear. I whispered in her direction, “We’ll make it, Mom. We’ve got Dad just fine.” A brother, three sons, son-in-law, God-son, and two grandsons eased Dad into the ground.
The prayers were brief. I invited the hundreds gathered to join us in backfilling. My brother handed a shovelful to my mother. Supported by my sister, she dropped the first bit of dirt that would seal in the ground the body of her husband of fifty-seven years.
Slowly, surely, the mourners came forward. It was as though they were playing a role they had played before — which, as far as we knew, was not the case. Everyone seemed to understand and be drawn in. One young mother, nursling in arm, didn’t wait for a shovel, and grabbing a handful of earth tossed in her contribution. Children were as engaged in the filling as they had been in marveling at the hole. One young man shared with me as he shoveled that he remembered working for my father clearing ground many years ago. He said it was good to move earth with him one more time.
We Needed More Help
The mourners having done their part, the hole was less than half-filled. We would need more help to finish the job. I asked any willing young men to step forward so that by spelling each other we could get the job done quickly with three shovels and two rakes. Throwing earth into that hole with a purpose, I was soon soaked with perspiration. Gasping for air, I handed my shovel to my nephew. The dry earth could not be moved easily. It divided itself into hard clods which handled like gravel, or escaped into the air as a fine dust the consistency of flour.
After a short break I took up a rake and scratched at the earth with a passion unlike any my garden has ever seen in me. As my body wearied, I experienced a strange energy surge through my limbs. “We’ll get it done, Dad. We’ll get it done.” And so we did.
John Cuddeback is professor of philosophy at Christendom College. He is the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness and has written for Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and The Review of Metaphysics. He lives with his wife and six children on a homestead where they raise heritage breed pigs. He writes the website Bacon From Acorns . “How Deep Do We Need to Dig When We Bury Dad?” is adapted from his “Touching Death,” published on Front Porch Republic.