Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Digging My Friend's Grave

I dug my friend’s grave in the morning, and in the evening, in the dark, I laid him to rest. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to dig that grave. There is probably some rule or law that prohibits it. Maybe there is an opening or closing fee. I didn’t ask anyone. I just grabbed my shovel and went to work. Most of us have heard the expression: “He dug his own grave.” My friend could not do that for he had died a few hours before I started digging. He had no say in the matter. I actually dug two graves. Trying to excavate the first spot, I chopped up tree roots and battled my way down to a rock which would not budge. If only someone had placed a “Do Not Dig Here” sign on that spot, it would have saved me a lot of sweat. I gave up on gravesite #1 and tried to imagine a nearby spot that contained no underground tree roots or large rocks. Utilizing my x-ray vision, I found one and began again. The ground was softer and contained fewer obstacles. I had found the right place. As I worked, I asked the questions that anyone in my position faced: “How long, how wide, and how deep?” I hadn’t measured the body of my friend. It would have been unseemly. The very thought of it reminded me of the undertakers in those old Westerns who would casually stroll up to the likely loser before a gun battle and calculate his height for the coffin that would be constructed. So I dug a hole that I hoped would be longer and wider and deeper than needed (just like God’s love). What happened to my friend? What was the cause and circumstances of his death? He had died in his sleep. No autopsy was performed or needed. He was old and he had cancer. Both he and I had had tumors removed from our legs. I was lucky – the growth in my leg was not cancerous. My leg healed and I moved on. My friend was not so fortunate – his tumor was cancerous, and as the surgeon said, “I couldn’t get it all out.” He was given seven months to live. That prognosis was delivered in the spring. My friend rebounded, but we all knew he had been in the last season of his life. I was out of town at a clergy retreat when news of my friend’s death came to me. I packed up my books I was planning to read and hurried home. In a twist of irony, his death came five years to the day that news reached me of my mother’s death who had passed on in her sleep while I was on a clergy retreat in Arizona. I don’t know what it is about clergy retreats, but I have been called home from other events because parishioners have died. Future publicity material for these events may consider adding this warning: “This retreat may to hazardous to the health of those close to you.” I had planned on laying my friend to rest soon after digging that hole, but Holly – who was also out of town – changed her flight plans to arrive home that evening. She wanted to bid him goodbye. We both loved him. Just as I had wept when I first saw his body, so did she. She embraced him for the last time. We knew he was suffering, but we didn’t want to let him go. He had meant so much to us – more than we could have imagined when we first met him. We wrapped his body in a sheet I had had since my college days. It had a nature pattern and seemed appropriate. I had bought it as a twenty year old thinking that it would display my sense of chic. He wore it better than any old mattress ever did. I thought I saw his side move when I went to pull the sheet around him. Was it a miracle, a revival? No. Just a false hope. I wrapped him in his shroud and thought of the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani who wrap their dead brothers in plain coverings before they bury them directly in the ground with no coffin or vault. Like the monks, my friend lived a simple life and enjoyed uncomplicated pleasures. It didn’t take much to please him. I carried his body out to the newly dug hole. He was lighter than he had been when he was healthy, but he was not weightless. I had a headlamp on my head and Holly carried a flashlight. It was dark. I had my last embrace during that short walk, but finally I laid him down. I was thankful that the hole was longer and wider and deeper than needed. What would anyone have thought if they had come upon us in the dark? Would they have seen the shovel and the hole and yelled, “Grave robbers” and accused us of crimes against nature? If the authorities had been called, I guess we would have said, “We are making a deposit, not a withdrawal.” But our work was undisturbed by any others. We said a prayer and our goodbyes, and we went about the work of covering his body. We would never see him again. After the work was done, Holly retrieved a beautiful mum that a friend had dropped off, and she placed it on the flesh dirt. Afterwards, we drank a toast to our friend, our pug, our Captain. He was a good dog, a very good dog. If you believe that God prepares a room in heaven for each one of us no matter what kind of scoundrels we might be, it is hard to imagine a heaven worth residing in without all of our friends, human or otherwise.