The Day We Buried Our Father


The Day We Buried Our Father

By J. Boyce

There, in the sunny cemetery, my senses felt unusually alive. I smelled the mound of dark, freshly dug earth. I heard the shovel slice into it and lift. I saw the earth twist and tumble in the air and fall into the grave. The weathered shovel handle chafed my hands and sweat began to trickle down my back. I felt alive.

I remember my sister asking over the phone, “Do you think I am crazy?”

She had just proposed that we bring shovels to our father’s burial, that we fill the grave ourselves.

He had died three months before, after spending 61 days on a respirator. We had time to think about death while we stood by his bedside and watched him be attached to an increasingly complex web of tubes and wires and then, when the end was certain, be dismantled from it, tube by tube and wire by wire.

The irony of his suffering was that our goodbyes were said long before the funeral. As we stood aside and watched someone else give the eulogy, carry the coffin and look after the funeral duties, I wondered if anyone knew that death had been a relief. The hardest part was always the watching.

We had time to think about death after the funeral, too, as we waited for the ground to thaw for the spring burial.

I returned to university, back to a class on field research, determined to write about death, my father’s funeral and my reaction to both. I read books criticizing Western society for masking death with makeup and embalming fluid and euphemisms: We hold a service (rather than a funeral) for the departed (rather than the body), and then open (rather than dig) a plot (rather than grave) to inter (rather than bury) the casket (rather than the coffin).

Death, it was argued, had moved from family home to nursing home and, as society shifted from rural community to the city, become a large and profitable business.

With the guest book from my father’s funeral and visitations, I began creating a map of the relationships of those who had attended, and I tried to find where our small-town ritual fit among these greater trends. Throughout it all, I continued a journal I had begun when my father was placed on the respirator. I wove all of these things into one essay.

I gave a copy of the essay to my mother, brother and sister. I also gave my sister some of the books I had used to write it. One was by Leroy Bowman, who described a past where families were intimately involved in the ritual of death. For our family, most of the ritual had been completed, but one responsibility remained: the burial. Mr. Bowman wrote that in the past “the coffin containing the body was carried by family members, neighbours and friends to the church; and those closest to the deceased… filled the grave after the coffin had been lowered.”

When my sister phoned and asked if we should bury our father ourselves, I was not surprised. I had been hoping for the call.

The undertaker found our request atypical, but said it could be accommodated. So, on a brilliantly sunny and cool day in May, I drove to the cemetery with my sister and brother. We walked about as we waited for the coffin to be brought to the grave. We recognized names on the tombstones. Flowers had already been planted in front of many of them. Footstones from another century lay framed in the grass. It was a peaceful place.

Eventually, the coffin was brought to the grave and I helped the cemetery workers lower it into the vault. The coffin swayed lightly as it descended, the rope burning my hands as it slipped through them. Then it settled inside the vault. It seemed so cool and shadowy down there compared with the bright and increasingly warm spring day. We stepped aside and a tractor was used to lower the concrete vault covering, sealing the coffin. Then we were left alone, a man I half-recognized saying sympathetically, as he walked away, that he would finish the burial if we were unable.

We got our shovels, chose places near the grave and began to fill it.

It was that simple.

The earth tumbled down and thumped woodenly onto the vault, dark and rich against the pale concrete.

Thump, thump, thump.

I watched the space on each side of the vault fill and then the top began to disappear under the earth. With each shovelful, I wondered when it would disappear forever. For a while, I protected a corner by throwing my earth out into the middle. Then I dropped an entire shovelful onto the corner and the vault was covered.

Thump, thump, thump.

My senses felt unusually alive: the earth, the shovel, the sun, the sweat.

I thought of the many arguments my father and I had had, the countless hours he spent throwing me ground balls in the yard, the helplessness I felt as he slowly died in the hospital and the gratefulness I felt for having those extra weeks — and the time he spontaneously took us to the gas station and bought us kites that we flew for hours on a windy fall day.

Thump, thump, thump.

The grave was more than half full.

My brother and sister took off their jackets.

I thought of how beautiful the weather was, of how my father would be proud of us doing this, and how proud I was of us doing this. My sister said if he were alive, he would probably say she was shoveling the wrong way. We laughed. Probably.

We were nearing the bottom of the mound now and, with a few more shovelfuls, the grave was covered. We spent a few minutes standing and looking at it. We broke up the larger chunks of earth and flattened them out. Then we hugged each other and left. It had taken us less than an hour to bury our father.

During the preceding months, I had thought of my father lying in his hospital bed. We had stood beside and watched, unable to help. As we left the cemetery, I had an image of my dad as he looked before: resting on the patio after dinner with a crossword puzzle in his lap. I think that with our hands and shovels we buried more than our father that day; we became a part of the ritual of death and left our feelings of helplessness and our grief behind.

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