I Was a Teenage Gravedigger

The last person you'll ever see.

They lay in their graves, eternally contemplating their situation, worms and maggots slithering effortlessly twixt bone and putrefied flesh. . . they were the Dead, and I was their Keeper.

I was seventeen and this was my first full-time job after high school. I was a long-haired pothead with a different pair of shades for every day of the week. My buddy and mentor was Ron, a six-foot-three Ramones punk from a local kegger group. Our boss was Ship, son of the church rector and a calm, steady hand at the shovel. The year was 1982, and most of our clients had been deceased for many, many years in that South Amboy, NJ graveyard.

But the nature of Death being what it is, we were always busy interring the newly Dead. They had names like Dadovic and Maliszewski, good eastern European Christian stock with nothing to lose in their blue-collar world but their lives.

And lose them they did.

One by one they came to my workplace, and the last thing their still ears would hear was me and Ron’s jabbering voices as we tossed shovelfuls of dirt onto their expensive, graceful coffins. Admittedly, this was a strange job for a kid right out of high school, but it was a truly memorable time of my life. I reflected daily on my mortality and contemplated the philosophical questions of Forever.

The customer is always right.

Ask any gravedigger what they think of their job and they’ll probably reply, “It’s a living, but I wouldn’t want to die there.”

We’ve seen the modern cultural approach to Death. The sorrowful survivors, the penny-pinching funeral directors and the ambivalent clergy. We’ve recoiled at the waxen faces of the embalmed and shook our heads at executive caskets. We’ve watched tombstones age and wither, long-forgotten markers of a family who have moved on and left the dead alone in their graves.

No one wants to ruminate about Death. It’s too painful. Many of us have lost people close to us; I certainly have. I’ve even witnessed someone die an agonizing, violent death. I’ve smelled the ether of Death in the air around me; the stillness and silence which mutes every mouth and casts nervous eyes about the scene.

It’s very, very powerful.

I still fear Death, but I have grown rather analytical and fascinated with it. What else was a young gravedigger to do?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

I know it’s surprising, but being a gravedigger isn’t very glamorous. Most of your day is spent mowing lawns, trimming grass, keeping up with flowers and compost and generally working your ass off. Then, when a new customer is scheduled to arrive, you really kick into high gear: plotting the grave, digging and setting the headstone, coordinating with the vault service and church, etc etc.

It was hard, visceral work.

One day, I was advised by our boss Ship that we were going to have an “Eleanor Rigby” at 2:00 pm. I didn’t dare ask what “Eleanor Rigby” meant, so I just set about moodily preparing the gravesite. The backhoe showed up around 9:00 and Ron and I hastily plotted the site. It was a cheap site and the tombstone was small and plain. Ron began plunging a long steel rod into the earth to find out who (or what) was next to the grave site so the backhoe could dig without disturbing a neighboring coffin.

I set about digging a hole for the tombstone. I went down about two feet and filled the hole with rocks and then covered them with cement. I mashed it all down as hard as I could and smoothed it over, checking the evenness with a level.

Ron, still working the vault probe,  plunged deep several times till we heard a clink! noise. It was the tell-tale clink of a burial vault – Eleanor’s new neighbor. Ron shifted over a few inches and plunged deep, this time finding nothing but soil. The neighboring burial vault ended right there. Eureka!

He plotted the site along the edge of the neighbor’s vault. The backhoe moved in and Ron and I smoked some weed while John Deere did all the work. The vault company arrived and we scraped the edges of the new grave with flat shovels while the vault guy, Gregg, set up the lowering equipment and astroturf. This was our first all-in-one-day job, and I was proud. It was noon. Time for lunch.

Another satisfied client!

We got some pizza and Ship gave us a six-pack of Budweiser. We drank greedily in the hot New Jersey sun. But from atop Boot Hill, coming in around Raritan Bay, were ominous, black clouds. In the humid Jersey summer, this meant “thunderstorm”. We were pissed. We hated burying stiffs in the rain. It was wet, muddy and…depressing. Ship waved his arms around at the clouds, yammering some meteorological weirdness while Ron casually popped another beer.

“Well, it ain’t all bad,” Ron said, “at least it’s an Eleanor.”

Ship stared skyward. I pensively peeled the label from my beer.

By 1:30, the sky was a wall of black and steel gray. The clouds hung low and had puffy white underbellies. Not a good sign. We went back to the site on the tractor, Ron riding in back with some dirt and faded flowers. Gregg had the site ready and my tombstone was standing proudly against the breeze. Ron unloaded the tractor and started placing shovels and tamping blocks against a tree at the site.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled to him. (It’s really bad form to leave grave digging equipment at a funeral site. It freaks out the Bereaved. I learned this important lesson at my first dig…)

Ron cast a “You idiot!” stare and me and said: “It’s an Eleanor, man! Ain’t nobody gonna show!”

“What?” I said.

“It’s an Eleanor Rigby, man! It’s just you, me, Ship, Gregg, the funeral director and the Reverend. Oh, and the client, of course.”

Elenor Rigby
Died in the Church
And was buried
Alone with her name…
Nobody came.

Ah, look at all the lonely people...

It had never occurred to me that anyone would be buried alone. After witnessing so many parades of grieving survivors, I never thought anyone died alone nowadays. As was usual at the graveyard, I had to do some job before ruminating long about the situation. A hearse and a limo pulled in past the spiked iron gates and rolled slowly up the winding dirt road around Boot Hill. Thunder peeled across Raritan Bay. Rain had begun to fall.

Showtime!

The Rev and funeral director (some fat guy I never liked) came out, bracing against the rain. “Let’s do it!” Ron yelled to Ship, who by now was looking greedily toward his warm, dry office. The rain began to pour. We unloaded grandma from the hearse (I can’t recall her name; I often imagine I should have, but it still escapes me. I’ve remembered others, but not hers…rather strange…) and placed her coffin onto the straps, suspended above her last resting place.

The rain began to pound down onto our heads. The skies had opened up on our hard-earned site, and my reserve dirt was becoming a muddy swamp. Lightning flashed and lit the site like a strobe, causing the funeral director to mutter to the Reverend, “Let’s move this along, shall we?”  The Rev immediately did his thing.

“And so, on this day, as we gather at so solemn a place on so solemn a day, blah-blah-blah.”

Gregg the Vault Guy sat in his truck, smoking a Lucky Strike. Ship was slowly backing off toward his office. The director clutched his collar against the rain, arms in close to his enormous sides. Ron glowered into empty space. Ron hated God, especially when God was making him stand in the rain while our dirt pile got soaked. I looked at the director, and knew he would be pushing us to dig real fast. It’s common practice for funeral directors to remain with the deceased until they are fully interred, and none of them liked doing it.

All in a day's work.

I alone thought about Eleanor and strangely, I smiled. She was really old (ninety-something) and her scumbag relatives didn’t bother to show. Those fuckers! At least she was free now, free to sew doilies in heaven with Vishnu and Ghandi, free to sip wine with Moses and Christ, free to play hearts with Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and Sharon Tate. Then again, maybe she was a bitch and was twittering down into a fiery hell. . .

Who knows? As an atheist, I wasn’t vested in which scenario might hold sway, but even atheists can’t deny the occasional tug to ruminate about the afterlife. Yet still, here on Earth Eleanor was still just a corpse. Nothing more, nothing less…

“And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil…”

Those words were music to my ears. Our small funeral party was utterly drenched, and Ron and I would be the last ones to leave and find shelter. The Rev finished his little sermon and immediately dashed off to his limo. The director barely had time to yell at us to finish the job when Gregg the Vault Guy appeared and quickly lowered the casket into its burial vault. Her coffin fit beautifully into the vault, and we hurriedly lowered the heavy vault lid over the top.

Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands
As he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Then Ron and I began to dig furiously into our dirt pile, covering the vault with goopy piles of muddy earth. We saved some of the muddier stuff for the top. Then we tamped it all down with heavy iron tampers to mash down the dirt. We overfilled the grave with more dirt and tamped down again. Finally, we tossed the director’s feeble pile of flowers onto the grave. The whole operation took about ten minutes. We were sweaty, wet and filthy. The director tipped us the usual $5 apiece, ran into his hearse and sped off through the gates.

Off they went, a tiny entourage, back to their well-appointed offices. Ron and I picked up our tools and rode the tractor back to Ship’s office. Thunder still rolled across the bay, but the rain had let up. Ship gave us the day off, and Ron snuck me into his favorite watering hole where we spent the balance of the afternoon drinking beer and playing pool. Our friend Quaalude showed up. He used to be a gravedigger but got fired for being an asshole.

“So you guys had an Eleanor today, huh?” Quaalude asked.

“Yeah,” Ron replied, “it rained like crazy. I usually like Elenors. But this one sucked, man.”

He was right. It did suck. But it sucked even more for Eleanor.

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?


2 Responses to “I Was a Teenage Gravedigger”


  • Shout out to the nice people at The Good Funeral Guide for linking to this story:
    http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2011/02/cheap-trills/

    They have some amusing anecdotes and news stories about the funeral biz.

    (They sent a comment, but it was suspiciously formatted and almost eaten by the spam filter.)

  • For some reason, I kinda figured you for a gravedigger person at some point in your life.

    That’s sad about “Eleanor.” Do you think that she was a lonely person in life just because of the way she was put to rest? Maybe not.

    I sure hope she’s not sewing doilies in hell.

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