It was a big hole, deep, long, narrow. The dirt that had come out of it mounded some distance away, nearly black against the equal mounds of snow plowed from the roadway. He stood at its edge, just outside the brass rails that would soon hold the casket. Wondering.
How had they dug that hole? His imagination filled in the scene with laborers, beginning in heavy jackets, zipped against the sub-zero air, picks rising and falling as they attacked the frozen ground. He imagined the thuds each time the picks fell, sharper than in summer.
How deep does the earth freeze in winter, he wondered. Eight inches? Seems like he might have heard that. A foot? How hard did those laborers have to work before they were through the ice-permeated soil? How long?
Then they switched to shovels, soon shedding their jackets to work in vests, zipped partway up. There were two, immigrants, little English between them, like a few copper coins at the bottom of a pocket. They could pool it to communicate with their bosses. At home they would be rich, rich in the warmth of their families, in the flowing currency of their native tongue.
They worked back-to-back. Of long practice they had a rhythm that allowed them never to bump into each other or to tangle picks or shovels, but, like a see-saw, one was up when the other was down.
All that practice, it didn’t take them long. They pulled themselves out, leather work gloves flat on the frozen turf. These were short men, one had to boost the other up, then the first lent a hand to his comrade.
Did they think about the purpose of the hole they had just dug? Yes. These were good Catholic boys, dozens of generations of devotion in their genes. They stood at the graveside reverently for a few moments, always tossed in some memento of good luck to help the soul on its journey. Then, immobility making them aware of the chill, they donned their canvas Carhartt jackets, picked up their tools and trudged back along their boot-made path.
A touching scene, he thought, staring past the shining railing to the darkness beneath. But this is the twenty-first century. Never use a human if a machine will do. He wondered what the vehicle that had really made that hole looked like. Some specialized mini-steamshovel, with tiny teeth for the detail work? The hole’s sides were straight, the corners crisp, which spoke against machinery. How to save labor and yet have this result?
The casket had arrived, he noticed, though he hadn’t observed its coming. It rested on strong metal slats within the brass-railed enclosure.
The other mourners were gathering, stamping in the cold, gloved hands tucked into pockets, their arms held close at their sides. As they passed, some murmured condolences or touched his arm, his shoulder. No one risked much breath to the frigid air; silent, they stood in a tight group. The minister, as reticent as the others, took a long moment, then launched into rote scripture. She had not known his wife.
He imagined a yellow machine rolling over the graves of the other departed, coming to squat at this virgin space, like a carrion bird about to hatch an egg. A stainless steel framework, exactly the width and breadth of a grave, slowly descended. Its sharp edges bit the frigid ground as it shivered and pushed.
When it had sawed grooves to the correct depth, the operator pulled one of those globe-topped levers, paint worn off the shaft from the way he wrapped his hand around the back, and the contraption lifted the heavy box of earth whole from the ground. The operator drove it away, to be stored until it was time to fill the grave, after.
What would they do with the extra soil? Take the block back to the shop and lop off a couple of feet while the funeral droned in the distance? He envisioned a shed at the far end of the cemetery, stacked high with huge bricks of dirt. Maybe they cut them down to reasonable size and sold them to green builders for insulation.
Everyone wants – needs – warmth. No one wanted to stand long in the cold. The minister, a stranger to him, but caring, wrapped up quickly and the mourners trod carefully back to their cars lining the roadway. It was a big funeral – she’d been loved.
The staff waited on the sidelines to lower the casket. Nothing like his imagined laborers, these were large men, strong, dressed in black. How would they do it? Was there a machine for that, too? Or would they wait until everyone was out of sight to remove their crisp suitcoats? They’d pull out coils of rope, hitch the casket, and lower it by muscle, sweating and calling to each other to be careful. He worried about that young, thin one – could he do his share? He didn’t want his wife’s last earthly experience to be getting dropped on her head.
He felt a hand under his elbow, another on a shoulder. His daughter and her husband, who gently, silently, pulled him toward the limousine. He allowed himself to be led, heart as frozen as the ground over which he stumbled.
Cyndeth K. Allison lives and writes in a Victorian fixer-upper in Denver. She is an essayist and poet who occasionally dabbles in fiction.