On Digging Up Graves

Where is a granddaughter anthropologist when you need her?—off in Indiana or Illinois (hard to keep up) at a dig other than the one at her own grandparents’ cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I don’t know if Ashley could have applied her special skills to unearth the bones that had been interred for only thirteen years and that were wrapped in a synthetic blanket that refused to be destroyed by the elements and time. But maybe her scientific attitude would have made us feel better about the whole experience.

When I taught a humanities class, I learned that at some level of development, prehistoric man began burying their dead, placing a tool or other item into the grave with the body. This of course indicated a belief in a life after death as well as grief over the loss. And I know now why such sites are considered sacred.

As a result of yesterday, I now have a clearer understanding of why families react so badly when someone wants to exhume a body, even though that body would probably be in a casket—not poked and prodded by a shovel or grubbing hoe. I especially appreciate the Native Americans wanting their burial grounds to be left undisturbed—as they certainly had no caskets or synthetic blankets to survive and protect (to some degree) the remaining bones of their ancestors.

The event occurred because my husband needs to build a shed on the wooded hill across the road from our cabin. There is a very limited piece of land that fits the required setbacks. The grave, covered with rocks to mark its location, was in the way. Does that make him insensitive? No, quite the opposite. Thirteen years ago, he drove for three and a half hours to bring the body here and carried all sixty-five pounds of it up the hill full of rhododendron and cat briar, no path yet cleared. Of course he was younger then, only 70. He dug the grave, through dirt full of roots and rocks, by himself. So, I let it be his decision about the action to take before construction of the shed begins.

We could have just poured concrete over the site and maybe put a sign up that said, “Below this slab is a bag of bones.” Of course, we would have added sentimental things such as dates, a name, and relationship. Instead, we decided to dig and move our old friend’s remains to another location where there is also room for two more future graves.

It is amazing how many roots can grow over a body buried only two feet deep. And although the blanket she was wrapped in was synthetic, it was still woven. So, the roots grew through the weaves, locking the blanket in place, creating a protective shield, and making our task more wrenching, both physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, there was something good, something reassuring about nature’s way of accepting and embracing our dear pet’s bones.

It should have been a daunting task for an 83-year-old and a 75-year-old, but we spend most of our days outside doing physical labor. When the roots were finally cut and the blanket bundle lifted away from its resting place, we decided to leave it unopened, to rebury it (as is) in the new grave. I didn’t want to look at her remains but rather to remember her whole and beautiful. For the last thirteen years, whenever I passed by the stones that marked her resting place, I briefly thought of her with an ache in the place Coco still holds in my heart. I am sorry to have disturbed her but glad there will be another defined place to remind me of her.

Our two smaller pets have few years left, although like us they still seem pretty darn spry. Yesterday was a meaningful reminder of the brief time we have with our devoted friends and with each other—a reminder to live in the moment and to make the most of every day and every friendship we have.

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