Tag Archives: death

The Backstory: Gravedigger

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

It was 1986 and late June, not long after my parents’ wedding anniversary – not that I ever saw my parents celebrate their anniversary, ever.  My last surviving grandparent, my maternal grandfather, had died after years of declining health, endless hand-rolled cigarettes, severe alcoholism, and abusive behavior toward many in his life. (My #metoo story of sexual abuse stems from the few months my grandfather lived with us. I was 3; he was always drunk; his had went down my underwear when I was sitting on his lap one afternoon. I told my parents what he did;  he moved out within a few days.)

Now Grandpap was dead, and we were left wondering what to do about it.  It was a little more complex than I’d expected, this being the first family death I’d been party too. There were late-night calls and quiet discussions centering on whether my grandfather’s children were willing to take part in his death rites. All of this was news to me, and much of it I learned eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations after I’d “gone to bed.”  What I overheard broke a lot of my childish illusions about my extended family. Ugliness lurked under the surface, very real despite the way no one talked about it in my presence.

My youngest aunt, who’d born the brunt of my grandfather’s abuse, wasn’t interested in anything related to the funeral. (I wish I could go back in time and send her a therapist. She desperately needed one.)  My other aunt and her husband didn’t really want to be involved, though they probably had more money than anyone else in this story. Like many family deaths, the money issue was a sharp divider. Our family was struggling, barely surviving my father’s disability and ensuing unemployment. The price tag of a death was beyond what we could bear at that point.

My uncle and my mom conferenced to see if there was any money to address the obvious needs: bury him, pay for the coffin, settle his bar tab at the ancient watering hole in Scottdale where he’d drink with his buddies.

I had to ask someone to explain the term  “pauper’s grave” after hearing it thrown about by a relative. Turns out that was still a thing in Scottdale in the ’80s. But I guess  family pride kicked in, and Mum and my uncle weren’t going to let it come to that.   No money to buy fancy clothes, and Pap didn’t own any, anyway.  Dad went through his closet and found a nice navy suit that he couldn’t any longer fit into, given the massive breadth of his shoulders and chest after spending the past 4 years cutting firewood.  The local VFW (I think) helped supply the flat brass plate that served as his grave-marker.

Granpap had a $5,000 insurance policy, probably from his Navy days. It was enough to buy a basic coffin, pay for the embalming, and set up a graveside funeral. But it wasn’t enough to afford an extra couple thousand for the concrete vault required by the large “nice” cemetery where my grandmother was buried. That’s not  even to consider the shade thrown by mom’s other siblings at the idea that he would be buried next to her.

Family gets weird when someone dies. Grudges that didn’t provoke action from the living are waged around the dead.

Another conference around the kitchen table.  Several calls to local cemeteries: can we bury someone in your ground without a vault? And what do you charge to dig the grave?

In the end, it was Mount Tabor Cemetery tucked up in the mountains where I lived, across the ridge and near Indian Creek, that offered terms we could collectively afford.  And so it was on that wet, warm morning in late June that my dad, my half-brothers, my uncle, and his son stood on our porch with their collection of tools to tackle an age-old tradition: digging a grave.

It took them several hours. They were in for hard work, and they knew it.  Under the lush black dirt of the mountains would be sticky yellow clay, the kind that could bounce a pick right up into your face if you weren’t careful.  And worse, it had started to rain. Not a gully-washer, but a humid drizzle that threatened to produce bigger showers.

The men returned mid-afternoon hungry, tired, and dirty – but satisfied they’d dug a good grave, and seemingly appreciative that they were contributing to a good burial for a man they didn’t fully admire, but whom they were willing to claim because of blood.  But they were also concerned – although they’d covered the hole, the impending thunderstorms threatened to fill the grave with water, a puddle that the clay soil would preserve, delaying the planned funeral.

In the morning, a couple of them headed over to see how things stood. My dad returned with heartfelt news that the hole was completely dry. It shouldn’t have been; the men all knew it’d rained enough overnight that they should have been dealing with a mess. But that’s not what they found, so dad offered his thanks for the Providential surprise, and went to put on the only dress clothes he owned which still fit him. My brothers changed into their finery recycled from the 70s (my own wedding photos a decade later would confirm that one of my brothers bought his only suit around 1975 and saw no need to put money into an updated one). The family and a few associated friends assembled for the service.

It dripped rain on us as we stood on an unusually cold June day on the steep slope of the Pennsylvania Appalachians in a cemetery which now seemed quaint. A minister who’d known my mom’s family found something kind to say over my grandfather’s bones. Pap had been a machinist at various points in his career interrupted by bouts of drunk-induced unemployment. But a few of the old men in the town remembered his skill with a tool, and with rolling a good cigarette, and serving in the Navy during World War II. The minister salvaged what he could of my grandfather’s life and drew our attention to the shortness of human existence.  As my adult self, I can appreciate now that the minister wasn’t one of those guys who had to turn every moment into an altar call or threaten us with hell if we didn’t confess Jesus. It was a simple service, simply delivered, matching the simple way my grandfather’s hand-dug grave would accept his body.

And there he lies to this day.  He was the only one of my grandparents that I remember.

His wife, my maternal grandmother, survived breast cancer long enough to hold me, then died a few months after I was born. I am named for her and for my mom’s youngest sibling, the one who suffered the most in the unhappy household my mom grew up in.

My dad’s parents were gone by the time I came along.  His father, an evil man, died screaming in his bed and was laid out in their family parlor in 1964 for viewing –  that’s a story my dad told with great consistency. His mom lived to see my dad get married to my mom, but passed shortly after.  We had a photo of her in the family collection, sitting in their living room staring into the camera in that frank way old people look at the world, next to photos of my mom’s family.

Grandpap retained his place in the family photo collection. Whatever he’d done to his family or to her, it wasn’t enough for my mom to cut him out of her life.

An eloquent, gut-wrenching, beautiful exposition of grief

Find a handkerchief and, for the love of all that matters, please read this.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. A month ago, her husband David, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died in an abrupt accident.

Here she unpacks the past 30 days of mourning and teaches all of us how to grieve and how to love those who hurt:

In Memoriam

Today, my friend Jesse lost his father.


I have walked this road, though not exactly in this form, and I grieve with Jesse tonight at the loss of his dad, and for all the people who knew Frank.

Frank was retired from the Navy and his passionate hobby was studying railroads. I hadn’t spent much time with him over the years, despite knowing Jesse since he (Jesse) was a high schooler.   He and Jesse’s mom were always very hospitable and friendly, and I have good memories of heading to their house for one of Jesse’s awesome house-recitals. (The boy can play piano, just sayin’.)

Over Christmas this year, Jesse was spending time at our house and Frank stopped by several times just to hang out with “his boy.”  For the first time, I really got a chance to hear Frank tell stories about his Navy days — those were great stories! — and about the history of railroads in South Carolina.  I wish I’d had time to hear more; Frank was faster than Wikipedia will ever be and far more interesting as he unfolded tales of the little Due West to Donalds Railroad with its odd-gauge track (for example). He even had a good country theory for how the little town of Due West got its name, including an old man in Donalds, a faded map of 1700s “indian territory,” and some military-grade compass skills.

Death is not a welcome visitor in this world, and it was never meant to clip human existence. But while we wait for the redemption of the body, at least we can die well.

I’m sorry, Jesse. We love you.

You never stop missing your parents once they’re gone. You just realize how much more you could have learned, and long for the reunion in Aslan’s Country.

Sorrowing with those who sorrow: wise words of advice

A fantastic column in the New York Times today offers timely and thoughtful, real-world suggestions for people who stand just outside the circle of grief or tragedy – those of us who wonder what we can do to help, but often walk away because we don’t know what to do.

It’s a short piece but well worth your time.  The Woodiwisses offer simple and effective suggestions based on their own experiences of tragedy.

The columnist, David Brooks, writes:

[S]uffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom is quite useful.

via The Art of Presence – NYTimes.com.

Don’t miss the original post that sparked the NYT column:

The New Normal: 10 Things I Learned About Trauma
written by Catherine Woodiwiss, who was hit by a car last fall while riding in DC on her bicycle. She marches on through a long hard road of recovery.

Uh, so I’m pretty much bawling over here.

To Feel Like a Kid Again.

^ That.  That post.  Nails it.

Jack has been a dear friend of ours for quite a while now.  I think his post about the death of his father manages to capture the empty feeling that lingers on through your life once a parent is gone.

And it’s also a beautiful and touching description of a holy moment – the separation of the veil between heaven and earth. Aslan’s country. Further up and further in.

I lost my mom 17 years ago, fresh out of college and naive to the world. My dad followed 3 years later. I still feel like a child sometimes.

You can live without your parents. But I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten over losing them.

My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.

On Life, Brief yet Abundant

It’s certainly been a thrill ride of emotions these past few days. I’m not sure whether the swirl of thoughts will slow down for me to tame them, or this exercise leaves me chasing the whirlwind.  Guess you’ll find out along with me (if you’re willing to take the ride).

Our live are short. Ecclesiastes tries to pound that point into our stone-hard brains but I figure life itself must serve as the teacher for such a remarkable lesson.

My friend’s dad has died.  We all knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept when it finally came. Cancer is an evil beast, a scourge that I hate. “Dying well” has a great ring to it until one comes to the dying part.  Getting to enter Aslan’s country (“further up and further in!”) must be a remarkable journey, but this is still the valley of the shadow of death.  Not full darkness, but definitely a deep shade.  The hope of the resurrection lights our walk through that dark place, but it doesn’t release us from the hard task of trudging through.

So my heart has been heavy for them.

On Sunday morning, a young man at Erskine took his life. It is a tragedy that shook us all.  Recent memory cannot identify a similar incident in the college’s history; if it’s happened before, it was back in the days before Kodachrome or radio.

My office, being the hub of “communications” (so says my job title), found itself wrestling to come up with the words to say to “everyone out there.”   Though I didn’t know the victim, I could not help but be moved by the deep sorrow of our entire Erskine family. Death is not a welcome visitor in our world. It was not meant to be here.

I went to a crisis counseling workshop hastily planned for the day following the student’s death. Any faculty or staff who wanted to understand how better to help the grieving community were invited to attend, and I found myself there. Not really sure why, to be honest — I’ve spent my times in the foxholes of tragedies.  But there I was, listening.

And then the waves started — unbidden memories flooded my brain of every tragic upheaval that rolled through the NCS world during my years there. The work was so relational, so communal, that those experiences are ground deep into my soul. I didn’t expect them to show up for this meeting. I was emotionally unprepared.

It’s November. Even as a fringe member of the Clemson community, I pause and remember Luke Perry two days before Thanksgiving. Every year.  I remind myself of the hard and painful lessons we learned as a faculty in the wake of Luke’s death – that you need to pull grief into the open where it can be faced, named, embraced, eventually reduced to something a little more manageable.  It’s like physical therapy but in the emotional realm – and no one recovering from an injury loves their physical therapist. Not when the therapy itself is causing more pain than the original injury.

Erskine takes criticism for not being as Bible-y as a Christian college is supposed to be.  Nobody stands around and takes attendance at chapel; the dorm staff don’t keep tabs on who went to church last Sunday and where. But there’s a vibrant spiritual life on campus, one that has risen to a flood and washed over the campus in recent days.

There’s nothing like seeing young people rise to the challenge and love one another. I hope that any struggling student, alienated and alone, will now have the hope that someone at Erskine truly loves them.  You don’t have to face life alone.

I went to my Barth class today as usual, but feeling even more behind at work than usual. (It gets ever harder to walk away from my desk on Wednesdays at 12:50, knowing I won’t be back till 4:00p.)

Mind. Blown.

Seriously. This was one of the most intellectually rigorous days in the course, the day we marched at rapid pace through Barth’s doctrine of revelation. The one that gets him shot at by liberals and conservatives alike.

What I actually have found, having waded through more pages of Barth’s dogmatics than I’d like to count (but way fewer than assigned – I keep leaving my reading for the last minute, and then keep falling asleep over it at 11:30pm on Tuesday nights), is that Barth’s view of the 3-fold Word of God is just stunning.  It’s a masterful, beautiful reflection of Trinitarian truth, the power of God, the immense Grace of God.

And terrifying. But that’s another post.

Barth wailed away against the Modernism that cut the legs from under revelation at every turn in the 20th century (to be fair, this was merely the just fruit of the Enlightenment run rampant). Barth was no friend to the rationalist, empiricist hubris that insists God get inside the test tube before the Enlightened man will believe. As if God can fit in our test tubes….

Last evening, Coart & I took an hour or so to see an interesting show at Centre Stage in Greenville, SC.  Their Tuesday evening “Fringe” series takes a chance on unusual or new scripts. This one, titled Freud’s Last Session, posits a fictional conversation in 1939 between the 80-something Sigmund Freud and the brilliant C. S. Lewis.

Ron Pyle, whom I remember from my BJU days, played Freud brilliantly.  Brilliant!  Really.  He was a delight to watch. The character of Freud serves as the quintessential Modern man, refusing to believe in a God who allowed Hitler, cancer, and war into this world.

C S Lewis, by comparison in the play, never really found his footing (to me). I wondered if perhaps the playwright just could not grasp Lewis’s literary brilliance (which is a totally different matter than philosophical or theological brilliance). Or perhaps this particular production missed the spot here.  I’ll have to read the script to find out. (It’s sitting on my dining room table, patiently waiting for me to get off the computer.)

C S Lewis, who so wisely recognized the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ — a God never bound by Modern Man’s petty demands for “science” and rational proofs — would not have let Freud silence him with the threat of evil.

The Problem Of Evil.  It deserves all caps.

The death of a loved one, the suicide of a young man, the bombs that ravaged London throughout the War with Germany, cancer, the genocides that mar human history, the selfishness that dogs my every step through this world — it’s all related.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.

Our short lives. Our puff-of-air lives. These vapors that linger on the wind for a moment and then dissipate in the sun.

No, if Lewis had met Freud, really — they would have smoked together, with Big Questions About Life hanging in the haze near the ceiling. Lewis understood Abundant Life.

To know the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is NOT to get an answer to all of your questions. Sometimes it barely even gives you the question. But …. it is enough.



Death is kind of like the sword wound of a Nazgul … no matter how much time passes, we never really recover. It’s been a decade since my mom died; nearly that since my dad.  I’ve attended three other funerals since those (not counting Gram’s). They’re all somewhat like digging a scab off a mostly-healed wound.  You start to just bleed all over.

We didn’t make it down here in time to see Gram before she died.  That wasn’t the original plan anyway for various reasons (including travel time, Gram’s apparent disconnection from reality and the people in it, and our job responsibilities).  But I feel cheated that we weren’t here.  We missed it by an hour & a half.

It’s not that I actually want to see someone die … I guess I just feel guilty that I wasn’t there when either of my parents “shuffled off this mortal coil to touch the face of God” (marvelous speech by Ronald Reagan after theChallenger disaster in 1986).

I didn’t get to say goodbye.

My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.

My dad died alone. We’re not even entirely sure when – it was either the evening of June 6th or the following morning.  I kind of commemorate both days … the death certificate reads the 7th.  I guess God kept His promise about “when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will be with you.”   I’m sure He was.

Mom was a different story.  She’d been sick for a while, her body decimated by cancer and her mind robbed of its acute clarity by a cancer- or chemo-induced stroke. The damned disease even took her personality – her grace, her smile, her voice, her sparkle. Those last six months were horrible and ugly and everything I don’t want to remember.

As her health failed, mom’s doctor told the family on a Saturday night “it wouldn’t be long.”  My brother called me at college and told me to start preparing to fly back home.  I couldn’t afford to fly on short notice except on the bereavement fare (which you can’t get till someone has died), and I didn’t think I could get there in time anyway.  I had no car; I had no money; I had just begun a new job; I was about to be utterly smashed by the opening week of my first semester of grad school; I was 500 miles from home and lacking any adoptive “parents”—those adults who realize that 18 to 22 year olds are still pretty stupid and need to be mentored in the ways of life.

So I waited the extra 24 hours till my brother called again to say that she was in heaven, then flew home the next morning.  Mom’s journey into the Undiscovered Country was relayed to me secondhand.

My dad and brother and aunts and uncles gathered around her bed when the end was near and started singing. They sang hymns; they read psalms; they prayed; they sang some more.  She slipped away to the sound of their voices. It was done.  I should have been there.

I was far too dumb at age 22 to realize how much I would regret the extremely practical and sensible decision to wait 24 hours to fly home.