This I Believe

Joel - New Buffalo, Michigan
Entered on October 2, 2006


This is one of those sharp February days where the sun is crisp and unfortunately so are your bones, like crackers in desperate search of soup. Riding a chipped yellow paint tractor, a modern functional dinosaur, is a strong man with a big smile, Kirk Schrader, Harbor Country gravedigger of 21 years. He seems as solid as the metal legs that holds this tractor in place. Imagine the ever grinning merry old King Wenceslas of children’s tales on steroids, or feel a benevolent tree trunk, this is Kirk.

Under his skilled control the rusted jaws shimmy and jerk scooping out the moist earth for a new arrival. It’s Thursday at the Riverside Cemetery in Chikaming Township and he’s preparing for a funeral on Saturday; a lady who was terminally ill for some time. She made it through the holidays, lived up a street or two away from the cemetery.

He is hard at work digging a fifty inch deep grave. There is no romance in this only determination, accented by the diesel hiccups of the John Deere.

He explains to me he is digging a grave fifty four inches deep “You used to have to dig six feet, so when the casket rotted out you needed dirt above it so it wouldn’t cave in. But now they allow room for the cement vault.” Never would it occur to me to allow for the dirt above. Something that slipped my mind.

Kirk works for Chikaming township doing the upkeep of Riverside and Lakeside cemeteries which involves working with several area funeral homes in New Buffalo, Three Oaks, and Buchanan . I suspect the market for gravediggers is better than the one for freelance writers.

At one time he was working in the established family business of Septic tank service, doing the drain cleaning, renting and selling portable toilets and grave-digging but “it got to be too much.”

I can understand this since I am generally paralyzed and exhausted just from having to choose a flavor of pop-tarts.

Kirk leaves the tractor and is now in the grave digging by hand. Suddenly he is a smaller, man, swallowed by the earth yet I am struck by the immensity of Kirk’s rubber boots, industrial webbed feet, Wal-Mart juggernauts. The insects and worms must cry “Uncle” long before he has arrived.

His Father has been in the area for some seventy odd years. In his Dad’s garbage hauling days he had permanent grooves in his back from carrying the metal can down long driveways. (I wish I had a story to match but my palms are too damn soft, perhaps there is a divot or two in my brain from overwrought contemplation. Maybe a lounge chair imprint in my heart from excessive leisure)

I am struck by how the grave seems almost all sand, as if a different kind of beach.

Because of its tendency to cave in, he lines the grave with boards.

He passes on a story he heard from a funeral director of how the ground surrounding a grave once collapsed and the mourners temporarily joined the beloved. The “woosh” with which he describes the ground giving way is particularly juicy and alive. You have to wonder what the first words of attempted composure the funeral director throws out there, right after this incident “Now where were we” as people brush off dirt and sand.

I ask Kirk if he has ever buried people he has known and he tells me he’s buried three family members. I then remind him how he once told me he buried a friend who committed suicide. He knew because he saw the death certificate.

“Was that strange or weird for him?”

“No actually it wasn’t that big of a shock knowing him and knowing his background…

I interrupt him in-between dirt tosses “No I mean was it strange burying him?”

“Actually I don’t mind doing it cause they are a friend. Who else would do it for a friend or family member. That way I know its getting done right.”

Done right. Done right. That gives him some comfort and me as well. This is the man I want to bury me. I wish everyone in life cared this much. Paid this much attention to detail, took this much pride in their work, that nobody will ever really see. That is the real test of everything.

Not sure there is too much more to ask in life than a warm man lowering you into a cold earth. Hot babes as gravediggers only seem feasible on an MTV.

It’s not the rabbi or priest who delivers you into eternity, it’s the gravedigger. He is the ferryman across the Harbor Country Styx (the river not the band) that sends you on your mythological or existential way, depending on your mood or your religion.

As I take a truck ride with him to dump the sand he has scooped up, he tells me how things don’t always go perfectly. Sometimes in winter the ground is frozen solid. Bigger cemeteries have propane heaters that they will fit over the gravesite. But Kirk has to “dig a little hole and chip through it, undermine it and start breaking it down”

For a second I wonder if he is talking about grave digging or interrogation at abu ghraib


Another problem he encounters is running into water when digging. “Concrete vaults will float. Turns into a boat” This may require a pump. I am thinking of a kind of burial in an inadvertent sea. There is a definite poetry in his cadence, choice of words and images.

The oldest part of Riverside cemetery has graves from early 1800’s.

I ask about infant burials which before I can even finish saying the words I am cringing at. The hole is smaller, three feet by two feet. The casket is smaller as well.

From ten years old and up it’s a standard casket. The youth of all this is distressing to me so I am quick to change the subject asking him about any unusual stories he has heard from funeral directors.

As he continues to line the grave with boards Kirk tells me how he has heard in bad parts of Chicago, funerals for gang members often involve partying right at the grave site.

While he and his family are well known in the Lakeside area, Kirk’s recent claim to fame was hitting an Amtrak train on his way to “The Whistle Stop” convenience store for morning coffee. (Definite overkill on the irony) He is quick to admit it was his fault accenting this truth with a chuckle. If he arrived at the crossing maybe a second or two earlier he would be leaving behind a wife and kids.

“Yeah who buries the gravedigger?” he adds with one of his patented grins. After the Amtrak stopped several blocks away one of the conductors walked back and shook Kirk’s hand casually saying “I don’t get a chance to do this often”

Kirk’s truck didn’t survive but he did with not even a scratch, only to bowl later that day. I kidded him asking if his journal entry for the day read “hit train, dug graves, bowled.”

As he finishes securing the back of the flat bed truck he nearly falls into the grave but he keeps his balance. His matter of fact-ness about this tells me this has happened before. I ask him whether he views death any differently since he deals with it so often.

“Part of life is death I guess” his voice trails off into laughter. This is not a nervous laugh the kind I would make. This is a laugh of acceptance.

“People that know me know that I will do the job right, they feel better about it too.”

I deal with my mortality with the kind of calm that three cups of Starbucks produces. But at the end of the day with Kirk I feel a strange peace. For me to say the words “death is part of life” have meant nothing. It’s a strange desperate consolation prize muttered from the depths of anxiety, a desperate velcrove patch of meaning. But having spent this time with him suddenly when I hear him say that now I am begin to understand what those words mean. To know the guy you throw horseshoes with, a solid, good spirited, kind family man with a life affirming smile (and a beefsteak rye hearty guffaw to boot) will be the last being, the last craftsman on earth that lays you to rest, well that makes me happy.