"Six Foot Deep" In Trouble

As promised, here is a light-hearted cemetery story about the fear we all have: someone being buried in the wrong grave.

One of my ministries is to work with people in selecting their grave sites at Dry Creek Cemetery. I’ve found that this is a time when we can really help people. I call it the “open window of opportunity.” Whether it’s a kind word, a hand on the shoulder, or a whispered prayer, people are always open to help during their time of grief.

“Six Foot Deep” in Trouble

The openness of people to being helped is because the loss of a loved one, and the accompanying grief, brings forth such strong emotions. These emotions may vary from tears, regret, anger, and sometimes-even laughter. Because the emotions at this time are so raw and close to the surface, anything that creates extra stress can really affect people.

For many years my partner in grave marking was Mr. Jay Miller. He took me under his wing and taught me how to find the corners of a families’ grave plot and reminded me of how families were kin to each other and where they should be buried. Last November, Mr. Jay was buried in the very cemetery he loved so greatly.

He had died in a way that touched everyone who knew and loved him. Early on the morning of his death, he went deer hunting with his daughter and pastor. After putting each of them on a stand, he was walking to his deer stand when he fell dead. I heard several men in Dry Creek say, “I can’t think of a better way to go than how Mr. Jay did.” He was healthy at eighty-three, with the ones he loved, and able to be still doing what he enjoyed most.

I miss him, especially when it comes time to mark a grave. I depended on him for his experience and wisdom in handling touchy matters at the cemetery. However, most of all I miss his friendship. I still look for his red truck to pull up at the post office like clockwork each morning at precisely 8:30.

Mr. Jay’s grandson, Mark, has taken his job as the grave marker. Mark is great and we’ll enjoy working together on this, but we both know that so much knowledge of this cemetery left us last November.

Probably because of that, we’ve both been concerned to get each grave in the right spot. We have a deep fear of messing up. And if you mess up on the placing of a grave, real trouble and pain can result for the families involved. So, these anxious thoughts came to me last Thursday when I was called on to mark not one, but two graves. Both of these burials were to be on Saturday, with both being handled by the same funeral home, Labby Memorial of DeRidder.

The thought hit me that it was essential to get each grave marked clearly so there could be no confusion. In the back of my mind, I imagined what it would be like if they got confused and put one of the deceased in the wrong spot. It was not a pretty thought to entertain as I imagined the chaos and chagrin that would result from a mistake like this.

I used special care in marking each grave. After driving the markers down, I put flagging on each one with the family names on each one. To be sure everything was right, I called Mrs. Labby and explained to her exactly where each grave was located. She said Roy, their usual gravedigger, was off work on Saturday. She informed me that Roy’s helper, Willie, would be coming.

It’s a country tradition that normally they don’t “open a grave” (that’s what they call the process of digging a grave) until the morning of the funeral. This is to avoid problems in the event of rain. I think it’s also to avoid all of those stories about people falling in open graves.

A fictional story has always been told of a village which had a shortcut path through the local cemetery. One evening, just at dusk, an elderly farmer was walking this path just as night fell. In the gathering darkness, he got off the path and fell right into a freshly dug grave. After much effort, he realized he couldn’t get out of the six-foot deep hole. Finally he gave up, sat down, and waited for daylight and rescue.

Eventually a second man, the town drunk, staggered along this same cemetery path and he fell into the same grave. In the darkness on this moonless night, the drunk struggled with all of his might to get a toehold and climb out. Finally, exhausted, he also sat down to wait for help the next morning. It was at this precise moment the old farmer put his hand on the drunk’s shoulder in comfort and said, “There’s no use trying, neither one of us can get out of here.”

Yet, the farmer was wrong, because the drunken man, fueled by both fear and adrenaline, climbed right out of the grave and ran for his life as he stumbled over headstones and markers. I smile slightly as I remember this story. It is one more good reason not to dig these two graves until Saturday, the day of the funeral.

On Friday, the day before the two funerals, I go to the cemetery just to check the markers. Everything is just exactly as I’ve marked it. Just to be sure, I call the funeral home one more time and double check ensuring that we are all on the same page.

It is at this point I make my biggest mistake- I relax and tell myself that it’s all straight and taken care of. With all of my calls and clear markings at the cemetery, there is no way they can get it confused. Therefore, I don’t feel I need to be present for the grave digging the next morning.

That Saturday dawns as one of the prettiest days of the year. March always has some of the best weather in Louisiana. The dogwoods and azaleas are in full bloom. On this day, the sky is a perfect blue and a cool pleasant wind blows.

At the Camp where I work, we are hosting a Deacons Conference. It’s an event I’ve really been excited about having. After breakfast I join the men for the morning’s first session. It is a wonderful time as these men share and pray together.

It’s about mid-morning when Linda Farmer, one of our cooks, calls me out of the meeting. I think to myself, “Now what in the world could be so important right now?” Linda’s words shock me and send a literal chill down my spine: “They’re on the phone from the funeral home. They think their man has dug the grave in the wrong spot.”

My son Clint has my truck today, so I’m on foot. I quickly borrow Linda’s van, grab my cemetery map from the office, and rush the two miles to the cemetery. As I glance at my watch it is already 10:45. The first funeral, at a church about thirty miles away, starts in fifteen minutes.

As I approach the cemetery, the first thing I see is the bright orange grave marker and the opened grave, and instantly I can see it’s been dug in the wrong spot. The grave has been dug one row to the south from the spot I originally marked it. There, right next to the grave of my Papa’s best friend, Luther Spears, is a yawning six-foot deep by seven-foot long grave. It’s dug right in the spot where my beloved first grade teacher, Mrs. Ora Spears, will one day be laid to rest next to her husband.

On the other side of the grave is a three-foot high pile of sticky red clay. I’m thinking to myself that we’ve got a lot of work to do to get out of this mess.

The gravedigger, Willie, an older black man, is standing right beside the grave. He is nervously jumping from foot to foot as if he is standing on hot coals. Next to Willie is a younger man who is leaning on a shovel. Willie, sweating profusely, begins explaining how the marker was placed right against the Spears headstone. To prove my point, I show him where I had originally placed the marker.

Over and over he repeats himself, “I just dug it right where the marker was!” I answer back with, “Well, it’s sure not where I marked it!” Quickly I realize that we’ve got to stop arguing, think fast, and work together. Looking at my watch, I’m shocked to see it is now after 11:00. The first funeral has started. Mentally I try to estimate the time needed for the service, family time, and twenty-mile trip to the cemetery.

I put my hand on Willie’s shoulder and say, “Look, it’s neither one of our faults this grave is in the wrong spot, but we’ve got to work together to get it in the right spot. You need to start digging the grave in the right spot. We’ll fill in the other hole. Do you think we can get it ready?”

Willie shakes his head doubtfully. “I’m not sure there’s enough time. And then I’ve still got to dig that second grave.”

I try to comfort Willie by saying, “Look, I read in the obituaries where the 11:00 funeral was going to be led by four preachers. I’ve been around preachers enough to know it’ll be a while before they get here. We’ve got plenty of time to straighten out this mess if we work together. Then, the second funeral is not until 3:00 anyway. We’ve got time.”

I think to myself, “I’m sure going to be here when you start on that second grave over in the northwest corner.”

Then I say to Willie, “Let’s pray about this.” There right by the open grave we pray. Willie holds his hat in his hands and passionately “amens” every sentence of my intercessory prayer for these two families and our task in front of us. Then we go to work.

Willie gets back on the backhoe and pushes some of the red clay back into the open hole and quickly moves to begin the new grave site. I get the other worker to help me and we begin filling in the first grave with our shovels. Over in the other corner of the cemetery two of the caretaker’s sons are weed eating around graves. I call for them to come help us. Gladly, these two strapping Mennonite boys come over, grab a shovel and go to work with us.

I can’t help but occasionally look up to check on Willie. He really is an artist with the backhoe. He expertly maneuvers the scoop up and down until a deep rectangular grave begins to emerge.

Willie is still sweating heavily, and it’s not really a warm day. Every once in a while, above the noise of the backhoe, I hear Willie saying, “Help me Jesus. Lord, help me Jesus.”

From time to time he nervously takes a sideways glance toward the entrance road. I know he is fully expecting a big black hearse and a line of cars to come around the curve at any moment.

The other worker keeps the sides of the grave straight. He puts his shovel handle into the grave to mark its correct depth. Soon the grave is finished. We all help move the funeral home tent and they begin setting up the equipment and boards for the coffin to lay on.

Willie moves his backhoe across the cemetery to the 3:00 grave site. I stand under the tent and sincerely thank God as to how this mess got straightened out before either family arrived. My head hurts just thinking of the chaos there would have been if they had arrived and found a grave in the wrong spot.

Right there I came up with a plan. From now on, in addition to the marker, I will use a can of spray paint to outline a grave on the exact spot where the grave is to go. In addition, I’ll write the name of the family inside the rectangle so no miscommunication can take place.

Seeing that Willie is now happily digging the second, or if you want to be exact, third grave of the day at Dry Creek Cemetery, I’m satisfied that this day of calamity is going to turn out all right in the end. Finally, after watching Willie long enough to feel comfortable, I leave.

I drive back to work in my “stolen” van. Back at the camp I don’t even think they even noticed I was gone. I’d like to slip back into the deacon’s meeting, but I have to go to the kitchen to tell Linda and the other cooks this story. Some things, especially those embarrassing to you, need to be shared so everyone can enjoy it. It’s so important for us to laugh at ourselves, because everyone else is already laughing at us anyway.

That afternoon, the funeral procession from the 11:00 service doesn’t get to the cemetery until 3:00 PM. Someone told me it was a wonderful service celebrating a rich life lived for God. Instead of four preachers speaking, there were eleven speakers!

The second burial took place at about four o’clock without a hitch. Neither family even knew about our close call with calamity, and that is all right with me.

The next day, Sunday, I woke up with my head hurting. I’m not talking about a headache. I’m talking about the pain of what I quickly realized was sunburn. Right on the top of my head, where I once had hair, was badly sunburned. I asked myself, “Now, how did my head get sunburned?” Then I realized that yesterday in my dash to the cemetery, I had left my trusty baseball cap behind. Even though I was not in the sun more than two hours, it was enough for a hairless scalp to burn pretty bad.

As I dressed for church, I looked in the mirror at the sunburned top of my head. I thought to myself, “I’ll never hear the end of it about my sunburn when I get to church.” The thought of Sharon Swisher, one of our deacon’s wives, made me cringe. Every Sunday morning she greets every one of the bald men in our church with a lipstick-smeared kiss on the peak of their head On this particular Sunday, I don’t want anyone touching or kissing my painful crown.

Going out the door, I looked in the hallway mirror for one last inspection. I
realized that my head and face was really pretty red. However, they weren’t nearly as red as if
we’d buried someone in the wrong grave…on that beautiful spring day at Dry Creek
Cemetery when we were… “Six foot deep” in trouble.

This story is from The Old House by Curt Iles Copyright 2002 Creekbank Stories

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