Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Interview with a Gravedigger"

"Interview with a Gravedigger"

Photo copyright bg&emese's
Okay, first, the Hollywood version...a dark rainy night, thunder and lightning, one or two shifty looking guys with shovels, smoking cigarettes. The 'thunk' of the shovel, the howl of the wind, the rumble of thunder. Lightning flashes! A wolf howls! --'Got goosebumps yet?
This movie scene is often the kind of image that arises at the mention of the words 'grave digger'. Fortunately, I found someone who can give us a more current (and less scary!) picture. David Haisman is a pleasant, easygoing man of many talents. He's an advocate of home funerals and green burials, and he digs graves for his living. (though when asked his profession, his wife sometimes prefers him to say he does "Excavating")
Dave and his 24 year old son, Brian, do this work together in their small town of Durango, Colorado. When I asked Dave how he got into this work, he said it sort of fell into his lap when an old friend, a cemetery manager, was in a jam and called one day saying, "Hey Dave, do you still have that backhoe ?"
Turns out the area’s only grave digger had quit and they were desperately seeking a replacement. Dave was able to purchase the fellow’s 'setup' of essential equipment, (a sort of 'gravediggers starter kit’!), and armed with this and his backhoe, he was ready to begin providing "Graveside Services". The total number of funerals he’d attended in his life at that point was…two.
Two years (and 100 graves) later, Dave has seen the FULL spectrum of experiences. "Let me tell you," he says, "There's no 'typical' funeral!"
Below are highlights and a Q&A with Dave.
How long does it take to dig a grave?
“ From the time we arrive at cemetery, to unload equipment, dig the grave, setup chairs, a canopy and ground covering, and be ready for the ceremony...we’ve gotten it down to one hour.”
Do mourners see what you do?
“For the first year, we’d [leave] nothing in view at the cemetery. But we've come to learn that for people, it's all part of it, to see the equipment etc. We were getting carried away with being too ‘sterile’. People know why we’re all there-- to dig a grave, honor and bury someone.”
Are you there during the service?
“ Yes-or at least nearby. Because we have opened the grave, we feel responsible for the safety of the people involved. We can assist pall bearers if needed, if the soil isn’t stable or if they are struggling with the weight of the casket. Sometimes we just do the lowering of the casket.” (they have a device for this)
Ever had any ‘e.s.p.’-type experiences at a graveside?
“I would say there've been a few times...especially when you pause to take in what you've just been part of. Everyone's gone, you’re alone and there is an 'awareness' that you are in area where maybe things exist beyond what we can see.”
Are you ever scared?
“No--we have no sense of fear around this. Maybe that comes with our respect for the work.”
I liked Dave’s true wish to accommodate people’s needs. While some mourners leave after tossing handfuls of earth into the grave, there are those who want more involvement. Dave has worked with many Native American families who want to fill the grave in by hand themselves. Knowing this, he’ll make sure to have extra shovels to provide for them. “We try to work with the family and respect their wishes…doing what they want us to do.” Sometimes, quite poignantly, this includes being handed personal objects of the deceased to place into the grave.
“People often tell us; 'We're so happy that you fellows are doing this'. Maybe it’s because we take our job seriously and we feel like it's an honor to be serving families that have a need- and to support them in a life-altering moment.”
The last thing Dave told me was a story about a recent funeral attended by a large family. There was a lot of snow on the ground and he was touched to see the balance between the family’s grief, and the children’s natural exuberance as they played in the snow, throwing snowballs and such. He said “When the service was over Brian was getting on the tractor, making ready to fill in the grave. I saw one of their kids...about 12...a typical, curious boy, really checking out the machines. In fact I’d noticed him looking into the grave beforehand too. So I asked if he'd ever been on a tractor. ‘No!’ was the answer. I asked if he'd like to get on the tractor and he looked at his mom...who said something like 'Oh you don't want to bother'. I said, 'It'd be no bother, he'll sit up there next to my boy.' and so the youngster climbed up and sat next to Brian, and he helped to move the earth. Now, he’ll have that memory for the rest of his life, that he helped to fill in his grandfather’s grave."
Isn’t that a wonderful story? One which reflects the earthy, warm kind of comfort and ease that Dave radiated during our entire interview –as I’m sure he does for all the folks he’s worked with. 'Til next time...
This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell, February 16,, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Graveyards, Tombstones, and the Friends of Lone Fir

"Graveyards, Tombstones, and the Friends of Lone Fir"
Photo courtesy Evan Nichols

I was driving by the Lone Fir Cemetery here in Portland today. I really like this cemetery. I like the scale of it, the age of the trees around it, the fact that it sits right in the midst of the city. I like to look at the tombstones and monuments there. I like how calm it feels to walk around inside the gates. And even though I am sometimes moved to tears by something I find there, I always feel... well, I guess you could call it happy... when I am there. This might seem a strange thing for someone who is such a staunch advocate of natural burials and the creation of woodland burial parks or conservation burial grounds. It's a paradox. On the one hand, I like the idea that my body could simply decompose in the ground, nourishing the local flora and preserving open woodland space for people to enjoy. I like the idea of being 'laid to rest' somewhere like Ramsey Creek- or another of the many new 'green burial grounds' that are opening all over the country. On the other hand, I do find it fascinating and touching to wander through an old graveyard. I like to look at photos of old cemeteries and find the sculptures so evocative, the efforts to honor and remember people in ways that tell their story or reflect their character touch me deeply. Of course, many headstones just sport the (excuse me) 'bare bones' of name, date of birth and death; but tucked in around more quotidian offerings, you can also find humor, anger, bewilderment, grief, hope, and more.
Lone Fir is referred to as a “historically significant green space" here in Portland as our oldest existing cemetery. It is cared for by a non-profit citizen group called Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery and is managed by Portland Metro, our council of regional government.
Their website says that it is "home to every sort of person ever in Portland, from the honored and famous to the notorious, insane, artistic, visionary, suicidal, egotistical, you name it. Suffragettes, leaders in science and medicine, freed slaves, early Jewish settlers to recent Eastern Europeans, all represented." They finish this 'catalog of residents' with an invitation to "come visit; you won't be bored!"
Those Friends of Lone Fir say of this grand old resting place; "A true outdoor museum, Lone Fir reads like a history book on many levels... Sharing stories of Lone Fir’s residents not only provide lessons in history, but also gives perspective on how Portland has evolved over the past 150 years." It's this last that dovetails with another piece of information I ran across recently regarding genealogy research. Tombstones, it seems, are a major source of information when it comes to sorting out family lineage. And since they are easily accessible- they're right out in the open, and they're reliable- you don't usually find "falsified" tombstones; there's a kind of purity and substantiality to them. Finding information about someone from your family online, in a book, in library microfilm, or even in an old photo is one thing, but if genealogy is your thing there's an unmistakable jolt to finding a tombstone over an actual grave of a relative you have never met. Why do you think this is? Friends of Lone Fir say they strive "to preserve headstones of the deceased, the green space they exist in, and the stories of its residents for future generations." I can't find anything 'wrong' with that, in fact, I appreciate and benefit from their effort. I just wonder how this will change as we move into a different way of burying our dead. Here's what I wonder... if we have natural burial grounds, how will information that is currently 'out there' for all to see be managed and made available to heirs or descendants in the future? This is a rather large cultural shift we're talking about, this 'natural burial' idea and it's bound to have layers and layers of implication. One of those layers is this: It could seem that in encouraging one kind of 'do it yourself' project which aims to empower a family, it eliminates another kind of 'do it yourself' family pastime. So, ok, get your thinking caps on because I'm curious to hear from you... What do you think? How could green burial grounds preserve land and provide information for future generations? Please, leave your comments here, and I will explore this issue again in a future article.

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell, February 3,, 2010