November is a month dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory and a common practice in the Catholic Church is to visit the graves of loved ones and to pray for the repose of their souls. It is a “Spiritual Work of Mercy” and is generally an “easy” work to accomplish.
What is probably harder to do for most people is the Corporal Work of Mercy of “burying the dead.” Most people recognize the various steps of burying a loved one (buying a casket, making funeral arrangements) to be a part of this work of mercy, but few people realize that the act itself of burying a deceased person is also a holy act of mercy. I only understood this reality after working at a parish cemetery for six years and it has brought me a new perspective on how to view the necessary work of gravediggers.
There is a common saying in the Catholic Church that most Catholics only come to church for “baptisms, weddings and funerals.” These three major points in life are experienced by a wide variety of people and bring family and friends together in a unique way. Funerals are certainly the saddest event to celebrate, but it often brings to church relatives who haven’t stepped foot on holy ground since childhood.
This is why the compassion and love shown by funeral directors and cemetery officials is extremely necessary. The person is grieving over the loss of a loved one and the last thing a person needs is an irreverent gravedigger who speeds down the cemetery in his tractor, not caring if he hits headstones along the way.
Sometimes one of the hardest parts of working at a cemetery is meeting a family who needs to buy a plot for the burial of a husband, wife or child who died unexpectedly. It is never an easy task to bury a child who died three months after birth, and the need to be compassionate and kind in that moment is extremely essential. Someone could be driven away from the Catholic faith forever if they have a bad experience at the cemetery.
What was interesting were the times when families came to the cemetery to purchase plots before death. It is a necessary part of life (we have yet to find the “fountain of youth”) and everyone will need to purchase a plot at some point. Planning ahead for your own burial brings up the topic of death and when working at a cemetery I discovered that people have various ways of coping with the reality.
Some who come to the cemetery do so reluctantly; they are worried about death and are not very comfortable thinking about dying. Often these people will not actually purchase a plot and may not ever come back to the cemetery.
Then there are others who cope with death by making jokes. They aren’t necessarily thrilled with the idea of death, but they aren’t going to let that dampen their spirits. These people want to make sure their plot is by one of their old buddies so that they will have someone to talk to when they die.
And finally there are those who need some sort of reassurance that they will be buried somewhere that gives them peace. This might be next to a favorite tree or in a place where the sun hits every day or by a beautiful headstone. They want to make sure their body is in the exact place that they want it to be and imagine themselves lying there for all eternity.
It is an interesting business working at a cemetery (for it is also a business) as the paycheck only comes if there are enough people who buy plots or are buried. Yet, it cannot be looked at solely as a business, as it is a work of mercy. It is a time when the Church can offer a consoling word or hand and give comfort to those who are grieving a loss. It is a time when the topic of death is discussed and the afterlife is thought about. While it may be tempting for cemetery workers to grow dull to what they are doing and simply look at it as their “job,” they need to realize their role as a “missionary of mercy” and encounter people in a spirit of compassion.
In the end, gravediggers have an important role in the life of faith and can be great evangelizers at a time when a family is searching for answers and looking for charity in their time of need.