Walking Among the Dead

MARGARET L. BENNER

July 06, 1992|By MARGARET L. BENNER

I am just patting down the topsoil over the newly-planted alyssum in my garden when I hear the sound of the backhoe. My ears scan the air past the strip of backyard grass, across the wire fence, crooked stream and green thicket of trees, into the graveyard for the sound that is whirring and clicking in a steady rhythm. Someone is digging a grave.

I listen -- hard. Living near a cemetery, I have heard this sound before. But today, I want to see it. Besides, I tell the hesitating side of myself, I need the exercise.

I walk around to the road and up the steep hill to the graveyard entrance. From here my ears lead me. The uniform tempo of the backhoe has been replaced by the intermittent scraping of a shovel against dirt and rock. When I reach the sound, I am met by a man in his 30s, wearing overalls and wire-rimmed glasses. Only his head and torso are visible: he is standing with a shovel inside a deep, fresh grave.

Hello. I heard the backhoe and wanted to see how you do this. Is all right If I watch?

He smiles and nods.

I notice the clean, straight ridges of raw, red-brown dirt on all four inside walls of the grave, the random nubs of exposed roots sliced crisply by the backhoe. I ask him question after question, and he patiently explains how a vault will be fitted inside the grave, the casket placed on a sort of cradle and lowered, then a 900-hundred-pound vault lid, lowered by a special crane. Finally, he will fill in the rest with dirt.

Then comes the hardest part, he says, because it takes the dirt so long to settle -- with rain and all, sometimes a year and a half before it's packed down so it's ready for topsoil and reseeding.

I ask him if I may walk around a bit, and he amiably agrees, but warns me that he usually has to keep people out. You wouldn't believe the vandals. They come in here with shovels and metal detectors, with pizzas and beer. Once they knocked 200 tombstones over.

I thank him for his kindness and continue my visit. Here, flowers cover the top of a new gravesite. Ahead, my neighbor's son's tombstone, marked 1954-1990, remembers him as ''loving husband, daddy, son, brother -- friend.'' Its top left-hand corner bears two intertwined hearts.

Here, in this cemetery, my heart feels a strange closeness charged with a curious freedom. I think about my mother's tombstone, which will probably be placed on her new grave at Arlington National Cemetery in about a year and a half -- when the ground has settled. I remember how my heart beat hard when the six brass-buttoned, white-gloved soldiers standing at rigid attention in the road moved in precise clicks and whirs to lift her casket from the hearse and bear it solemnly to its cradle over the lime-green grass carpet covering the freshly dug grave.

I remember looking out the limousine window as we left the cemetery and seeing -- for as long as I could still see the gravesite -- one uniformed soldier still standing at strict attention at the head of the cradled casket. I remember feeling grateful to him for showing my mother so much respect.

And now, here, walking among the dead and having talked with the gentle builder of their homes, I begin to understand how opposite forces must first clash before they finally unite when the ground has settled. It is this new understanding that will cradle me this summer each time I water the alyssum.

Margaret L. Benner directs a writing program at Towson State University.

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