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December 5, 2013
You get to experience or learn something new all the time. No matter what you’ve already done or how much you think you know or how old you are. I got my shot at something brand new for me a few weeks ago. I helped dig a grave. For a person! I’ve done it for plenty of pets. But this was way different.
I will admit that I didn’t help all that much. But I was there to do a television story about a tradition that they have at the Chapel of the Cross in Madison County where other members of the congregation pitch in to dig the graves of members who have died and are to be buried in the church’s graveyard. But while I was there, the people doing the digging thought I should take a turn and get a feel for the experience myself.
They started about 4:00 in the afternoon. I didn’t count them, but it seemed to me that maybe a dozen men, more or less, took part. Some stayed the whole time; others came and went. Even family members helped. The daughter of the lady whose grave was being dug took a turn, as well as her son. Back years ago somewhere, this would have been a family and neighbor’s duty. I could see it adding to closure in a way little else could.
The grave digging tradition has been going on for several years at the church. A former pastor suggested it as an act of showing love for a member’s family and for the departed. And although it is hard, long work, it seems to be a tradition embraced by pretty much everybody in the congregation.
They dig the graves by hand, with picks and shovels. No machinery is used. It is a slow process. Our grave went relatively fast with recent rains having loosened the dirt all the way down: “down” being a hole 54 inches deep, not a full 6 feet like we’ve heard all our lives. And thank goodness—54 inches takes long enough to dig, up to 12 hours in dry weather when our Mississippi hill clay turns into the equivalent of concrete.
As daylight dwindled, it didn’t seem eerie being in a graveyard after dark like I thought it might. The pizza deliveryman didn’t even think it was all that strange when he delivered supper to the workers behind the church.
I stalled as long as I could before taking my turn with the shovel. But I was finally pressed into it as the process was just a few inches shy of the goal. I don’t really know why, but I was a bit nervous. Digging a grave is kind of a serious thing if you think about it. I mean, there is little left you can do for a person after digging their grave. You don’t want to mess that up. And that deep in, looking at the dirt walls around you, you realize that you’ll have one of these for yourself some day. But then a cheery thought: This isn’t it!
After the grave was finished, the church’s priest, Austin Johnson, blessed it. All the gathered diggers took a sip of Macallan Scotch and poured the rest into the hole with a prayer for the spirit of the departed. (I suppose we Baptists could use grape juice.)
The tradition has meaning for everyone who participates. Feet on the floor of a grave, you are standing as far as you get to go in this life. What happens next is a matter of your faith.
Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” To contact Grayson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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