Kerry Weber explored the “bury the dead” work of mercy by talking with a grave digger—mainly because health and safety codes prevent a person from actually participating in a burial.
Then I see an older man waiting near an official-looking truck and wearing khaki and green. I walk up to him and ask what he does at the cemetery, although I am fairly certain I know the answer. He smiles and confirms my suspicion that he is, in fact, a gravedigger. He tells me his name is Stanley, and that he is sixty-three and from Poland.
“Does your job make you think about death a lot?” I ask.
“No, everybody have to die,” he says through a thick accent. “You don’t know when. You are young so you don’t have to think like me. Sixty-three years old is different.”
. . . “Do you feel a connection to the people whose graves you’re digging?”
“No. I never think of this because you work so many years. You have your job. You work your job; I work my job. Same thing. You secretary, you work as secretary. In my job, digging graves and fill in graves. I just do my job. You have to be careful because when digging grave maybe one body is already buried. You can’t touch other caskets.”
. . . “This seems like a good place to be,” I add.
“It’s not bad,” he says. “But you have to like this job. Some people cut grass. They like cut grass. Some people don’t like cut grass. You know.”
“The grave digging is your thing, huh?”
“The grave digging is different. You dig and then you have to relax; wait for the burial. Come in. People go away. You go to fill in.”
Stanley seems like he’s itching to get back to his truck, so I let him go and thank him and keep walking. I wanted him to say something profound, something that conveys the spiritual significance of what he does.
There’s a grandeur to the whole cemetery that seems bittersweet. I wonder how many of these people have relatives living today. How many are thought of by people other than those who cut the grass or drive by? And so I take a moment to think of them, to consider the fact that each of the stone markers before me represents a once living, breathing person: native New Yorkers, immigrants, old, tragically young. Everyone with a story to tell, a story I would never know, and yet know intimately because it is the story we all tell.
Maybe my typical day and Stanley’s weren’t so different after all: You dig in; people come and go. You try to relax and enjoy the beauty around you. And in the end you just hope you’ve done what was asked of you and filled it all up as best you can. (Mercy in the City)
What does it mean, today, to “bury the dead”?