The Gravedigger’s Secret by Anna Villegas

The casket holding my brother’s body does not fit into the gravedigger’s hole.

The community of mourners who followed the hearse through our Gold Rush town, marching up to the cemetery accompanied by a soundtrack of vintage Dylan songs, has paraded back down Center Street to the Town Hall for the slideshow and the catered lunch.  Just a handful of us have stayed behind.  Under the oak tree gracing my brother’s grave with shade from April’s abrupt heat, we would not be mistaken for picnickers.  We make merry in the mid-afternoon light dappling my brother’s burial box, as he would have wanted, but we are all only two steps away from breakdown.

The casket won’t sit squarely on the earthen floor of its chamber.  The lid of the coffin, worked lovingly in rough-sawn local pine by three of my brother’s oldest and dearest friends, has bitten the grave’s clay walls, preventing my brother from settling into the still repose the last fifty-five years of his life never allowed him.  We all think it’s Jeff, that he’s hanging on to these shortening moments before present turns past and memory splinters into history.

Should we?  Jeff’s pallbearers ask each other.  Yes, they decide. Two of them step gingerly into the hole to stand on the casket.  They look at each other, shrug, and stomp on the lid, crushing the strewn poppies garnishing it.  There are jokes about helping the worms; there is laughter.  The casket resists.  Our voices, lifted in mirth a shade short of delight, pay tribute to my brother, who seeded these very poppies but whose curiosity about the role insects play in the process of decay would have trumped fidelity to funereal sobriety.   Pine boards crack; the box holding my brother’s body settles into its clay cradle.

Who wouldn’t cling to this day?

In spring, California’s Mother Lode can break your heart with its beauty.  April in our foothills, as my brother wrote in a poem just months before he died, “beats St. Peter’s streets of gold or any other ground.”  The town Jeff loved beyond reason has made an underdog’s scrappy comeback from a late wet winter.  The soil celebrates its win from behind with knee-high grasses jeweled by lupine and wild peas. A canopy of oaks guarding the funeral scene boasts polished leaves, new medals earned in combat.  In two more months, when the oaks’ darkened leaves are dulled by a powdery veneer of dust, hiking through these hills will reap only a harvest of burrs and foxtails.  But today, at my brother’s graveside, the negligent god in charge of final rites has blessed the ceremony by paying attention to details at long last.

The only flat note is the rude rust-red ground beneath our feet, poisoned into bare submission.  During one of his respites from shoveling, the gravedigger, a lanky, well-spoken man in his forties, will explain to my daughter and my sweetheart and me that the savings on graveyard gardening are too persuasive to resist.  Poisoning from the get-go is so much easier than tending grass, which is certain to disregard propriety and spread itself willy-nilly among the headstones where it’s not wanted, causing trouble for the living who, truth be told, just want to shake their heads, shed their tears, and move on.  The gravedigger has an uncanny appreciation for the backwards yield from poisoned ground.

Of course the gravedigger does not know this, but our mother was buried fifty-seven years ago on a grassy hillside in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, north of Los Angeles.  There in Whispering Pines, gravestones inset cleverly into a carpet of well-tended lawn allow mowers and sprinklers free play, creating the illusion of a vast athletic field where wholesome nuclear families might set up croquet wickets or volleyball nets and enjoy the manicured great outdoors while paying their final respects.

For a time in his twenties, Jeff had devised a plan to retrieve our mother’s body, to bring her back to Northern California in a cattle truck and bury her again in the town where her children could find her.  With shining eyes and a goofy grin, Jeff laid out to me how it would happen.  The scheme, which never saw lift-off, carried him through a manic phase, insulating Jeff from the psychic torment.  As a practicing attorney, my brother had to have understood the shortcomings in his plan couldn’t be overcome by shovels and strong arms.  Head bowed at my brother’s graveside, I recognize now that precisely because they are never enacted, the most enthusiastic designs for repair chart a life course more steadfastly than do those one does undertake.  Our mother, who still lies in her grave in Whispering Pines, has been with us every day of our lives since her death.  Her absence ensures the constant contemplation of her presence and of how different our lives—we—would have been had she lived.

As young adults, we visited our mother’s grave but once.  As a mature man, Jeff returned to Forest Lawn with my frail father to install the gravestone marking the dates of my mother’s life, a gravestone whose completion had been overlooked for more than fifty years.  For fifty years, our mother lay in her premature grave, unmarked and unvisited.  How much Jeff wished for her I can only measure with my own yearning.  How much her loss shaped his life I can only assess with my own longing.

Months after this day has passed, when my brother’s grave is soaked by rain and the oaks’ leaves have blanketed his grave, I will upend my study looking for a packet of poems Jeff had sent me decades earlier.  There in an untitled poem just three verses in length, I will be reminded that my brother appreciated the reign of absence in our lives far better than I:

Often dreams deny the thought:

of possibility

Paradise, the island, lies

beyond our humble sea.

Every soul the sparkled sand

Now touching, covets more;

Many be the fantasies

that die upon that shore.

Were it mine to minister

I’d rather time not teach.

Elysium, to be perceived,

must dangle out of reach.

Jeff was only two years old when, four days after my birth, our mother died. As we bury my brother, his youngest daughter, the daughter named for the grandmother who didn’t live to raise her own son, is also two.  I don’t need attachment theory to tell me that losing her father at this crucial, poignant age will utterly transform my niece’s character and will determine the choices she will make for the rest of her life; my brother’s life is an archetypal narrative of the quest to heal separation anxiety.  But Jeff would only ever address matters of the deep heart’s core with a wacky banter meant to lull himself and his listeners into a faux emotional easiness.

Once, during a rare shared weekend about seven years before his death, Jeff applied his wry insight to his untidy, untended personal life.

“You know the best way to handle your problems?” he asked with a sideways smile.

Pumping his fists like Wile E. Coyote prepping for take-off, Jeff answered his own question: “Run from them!”

Grief on behalf of each of the three children disinherited by my brother’s premature death will come, complicated, no doubt, by my own loss.  But today all I can bear is to put one foot in front of the other.  Seated on somebody else’s slab above Jeff’s grave, the sun high and hot in the brodiaea-blue sky, now I cannot even do that.  I do not want to step away from this quiet site, as gently beautiful as it is.  I do not want to be the last one to abandon my brother, who only ever asked to be loved as a mother would love.

The coffin finally bedded, Jeff’s pallbearers climb out of the grave, their duty to their childhood friend executed.  The empty hearse has wound its long way out of the cemetery.  Laughter has ceased; the public ceremony is complete.  One by one, everyone except us rejoins the living congregation.

For centuries, others more talented in the language of loss have described what the animal senses know when the slow beat of dirt on wood commences.  The sound of the earth hitting the pine boards proclaims an untempered mistake, cruel words spoken for too long, words for which the unluckiest speaker never learns to atone.  An open grave kindly allows for delusion.  A closed grave no longer resists the consequences of death and their relentless implications for the living.  A coffin is a hollow box, after all.

The gravedigger, shovel in ungloved hand, materializes like a stage hand who’s waited patiently for the audience to exit before stepping into the aftermath of some mock mayhem.  He must have approached the grave site on foot because no motor has disturbed our meditation.  He can’t have attended the funeral: he’s wearing a well-washed T-shirt and threadbare jeans.  Even in our folksy little town, such attire would disrespect the dead—in this case, the dead whose all-time favorite outfit comprised a lime-green ball cap and an oversized Hawaiian shirt.  Beyond the call of duty, I think to myself, that a grave-digger should have to suffer through the last rites for every one of his mute clients.

We greet him.  We tell him sure, it’s okay for him to begin work.  Numb with our own separate sorrows, each of us stares at him.  The gravedigger did not expect to be the final act in my brother’s memorial ritual, but he approaches his task with decorum: not as solemn as an undertaker, not as sloppy as a ditch-digger.

Shovel by shovel, the gravedigger paces himself.  It’s an honorable livelihood, burying the dead with the sweat of the living.  As Jeff would have been, we three are drawn into conversation with him.  Yes, he tells us, he dug the hole by hand as he’s been doing for twenty-five years.  In a pioneer cemetery perched on a river canyon, there’s no room for the maneuvering of a Bobcat.  Respect for the previously dead is demonstrated by the tidy pile of excavated dirt he’s now restoring over my brother’s body, my brother’s box anointed by crushed poppies.  I witness this truth: It is possible to shovel dirt with reverence.

My daughter and my sweetheart and I tell the gravedigger we don’t have the temperament to sit in the shade and play spectators to someone else’s hard physical labor.  Is there another shovel?  He brushes aside our apologies: It’s his job, isn’t it?  On his days off, he laughs, he grabs a metal detector and mines the foothills for lost treasure—just another kind of digging.  Slow and steady, he fills my brother’s hole.

The gravedigger rests his shovel in the dirt pile at the halfway point for a smoke break.  Someone gives him matches; someone asks to bum a cigarette.  We share a smoke with him, our graveside communion ritual.

Jeff would have.

Among many other eccentric, wondrous talents, my brother had been blessed with a democratic heart.  As a lawyer—a county counsel, a public defender, and finally a district attorney—he never hesitated to speak truth to power, or to the powerless.  But whenever he spoke, whether bearing good news or ill, Jeff’s constant willingness to stop his own words in order to listen to those of others, no matter how halting or colloquial or nonsensical they might be, made him as beloved as only a country lawyer can be.  Entrusted with the desires and the injuries and the secrets of imperfect souls, my brother held his peace.  In my brother’s cosmology, a governor did not outrank a gravedigger.

On the rare occasion when my brother encountered the human being whose behavior had earned exemption from compassion, Jeff applied a typically dispassionate metaphor, an equation explaining human evil that had been inspired by a high school algebra lesson.  He posited that a really bad person was like a negative integer, yielding a value less than zero.  The negative human being, according to my tolerant brother’s dissertation, subtracted from the world by existing.  My brother explained his theory of the negative human integer to me over forty years ago.  I have kept it on a mental shelf next to Of Mice and Men and the periodic table of the elements.  When I need it, I know where to find Jeff’s theory.

Here at my brother’s graveside, seated between the two people I treasure most in the world, I find no sympathy for the negative integers of the world.  It’s my congealing perception that a death, far from ennobling the survivors, brings out the bottom-of-the-barrel worst in people.  I am no better.  My conversation zigzags from the wrongness of Jeff’s death to those who, I calculate, deserve an early end far more than did my brother—negative integers who, in complete violation of justice and morality, continue to walk the earth with a spring in their steps even as my brother begins moldering in the grave.  Names are spoken, relationships revealed, sins recounted.  The f-word’s participial is a frequent adjective, pronounced dry and drawn-out as my brother pronounced it if he couldn’t contain his disgust.

Don’t mind me, the gravedigger says when, slack-jawed, I remember I have an audience extra-familia.  I apologize for my language.  The gravedigger accepts my apology and lights another cigarette.  We wouldn’t, he assures us, believe the stories he hears when decorum ends and the digging starts.  Without making one word up, he could write the longest running soap opera in the world.  Twenty-five years of overheard tantrums, confessions, accusations–the things people say, he sighs, rueful.

I do believe him: Jeff’s own narrative would last ten seasons.

Uh-oh, the gravedigger says, lifting a clay-coated chunk from the dirt pile with a delicate tip of his shovel.

Gravedigger’s secret, he says, and bends to pick up the wooden shard.

We are fascinated: The secret appears to be a remnant of redwood.  It is certainly, our gravedigger tells us, an artifact from an earlier burial.

We ask: You mean somebody else is buried under Jeff?

There are unmarked graves throughout these cemeteries, for sure.  That’s why he—our gravedigger—goes down only four feet.  In the old days, they used to dig six or eight.  If he stays at four, he doesn’t disturb anybody.  We are not to tell anyone.  Gravedigger’s secret.

Because it is a holy relic, my daughter and my sweetheart and I pass the chunk of wood from hand to hand.  We don’t want to leave it; we don’t want to take it.

After the gravedigger has tamped the last shovel of dirt on the new grave and we’ve said our goodbyes, we rest the redwood talisman on the slab uphill from Jeff’s grave.

Jeff would have loved this, I tell them.

Jeff would have stayed here all day.


About the Author:

Anna Villegas, a fifth-generation Californian, has been a full-time college English teacher in California’s Central Valley for forty years.  Her published work includes essays, poems, newspaper columns, and three novels.  A forthcoming story collection set in the Sierran foothills of “The Gravedigger’s Secret” is titled What Doesn’t Kill You.