On Grave Digging…

Jewish Men Digging Grave

I must confess that I have not thought of digging graves for a very long time. In fact, it has been over a decade that I have actually thought about the process of digging a grave.

This morning on a Facebook post from a cousin, there it was, a statement wondering why TV murders always dig rectangular shaped graves to bury their victims. Well, that simple question set my mind to thinking about the actual, physical digging of a grave.

My mind revisited thoughts and images that it hadn’t remembered in several eons. (I am a product of the last century. That may explain part of it.) My mind, simple as it is, brought back scenes and remembrances of graves and those people that dug those graves from years past. It seems that grave digging is no longer a “relationship” kind of event as it was in the rural area in which I grew up. Let me explain, if I can.

When I was a young boy in the rural, Edge community of Campbell County, Virginia, it was common for ordinary people to dig the graves of friends, family members, church members and other people in the community. (It was not only in Campbell County, but in every community.) I can remember my father, Preston Coates and Mr. Melvin Glass, Mr. Russell Dudley, Mr. Sam Farris, the Holland brothers, Mr. Harry Hale, Mr. Joe McIver, Mr. Tom Bomar, my brother-in-law, Phillip Elder, and even my brother, Preston Coates, Jr., as well as others, who would meet at a cemetery to physically dig the grave of a person. (Parenthetically, I realize now that I did not ever participate in the digging of a grave. I wish I had!) These people would do this as an offering of help to the family of the deceased. There would be no payment required. It was done out of respect and love for the individual and the family.

I can remember the group of men had a kind of order to their process. One man would have a couple of picks, another a shovel or two and then one would have finishing shovels (square end shovels as opposed to pointed shovels), one would bring an axe to cut roots and the occasional tree limb, another would have tarps to put the dirt on, still others would just be there to help and encourage. Somehow, when they arrived at the gravesite, the implements that were needed would arrive with the individuals. It was an interesting event. I can hear my dad saying that Mr. Glass was a very good finisher of the grave. (I have no idea why these thoughts suddenly flood my mind, but they do.)

I think you can see that when I called this a “relationship” event, it really was. It was a social event for these men as well as for the family of the deceased. It was a time of cooperation between funeral director, family and friends. It was just the way it was done. I hate to call it a “social event,” but it was, in the good sense of the word “social.”

Occasionally, the funeral home would arrange for a mechanical, backhoe, kind of grave digging. But that was always an added expense, so for the rural area, it was a done by groups of men and women, who saw this as a ministry, if you will, to the family involved.

I could see in these groups of men and families a generational passing-down of a skill and a way of life. Sons would accompany their fathers and even grandfathers to the gravesite and would learn the way of their ancestors. It was an important family dynamic in those days. It taught a certain humbleness and certain respect for life and for each other.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I miss the ritual, but more so, I think we as a generation have missed more than just knowing how to physically dig a hole in the ground called a grave. I’m not advocating we go back to the times of men gathering around a gravesite and throw dirt onto a tarp. That’s not what I’m advocating.

If there is anything that comes from my remembrances this morning, it is that we need to pass along the remembrances, if not the actual events, of our past and not let them die with us. I cannot pass along the actual events to my children and to others, but I can pass along my remembrances and emotions that the events brought to me. What they, or you, do with them, is up to them and you. But I feel an obligation to help preserve some of the past for future generations. Not that a significant amount of people will read this, but who knows, some might.

So, “On Grave Digging”, thoughts have been running through my mind today. They chose to “sit a spell’ and pull me over to the side of the road and have me remember. Maybe they will do the same for you.


As always…The Path Continues…


3 thoughts on “On Grave Digging…

  1. Hammond, I don’t how or why I stumbled on this today, but it brought back wonderful memories of “home.” I never experienced grave digging as you describe it, but it does make me think of other wonderful “home” experiences. Thanks for sharing.

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