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Touching Death: Mourning Physically through Burial

Justin K Thomas/USN

John Cuddeback - Front Porch Republic - published on 11/29/13

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Mourners arrived to find a standard forest-green tent erected over our hole.  Nearby w
ere piles of raw dirt. Bill had set aside the topsoil to be put back last.  Mostly we had tan hard dirt that easily broke into a powder, and chunks of grey shale.

Children were fascinated.  All wanted to peer in, toeing right up to the edge.  Some were shooed away or pulled back by their parents, but one stood out: a girl of perhaps five who for a long period stood nudging her Sunday shoes up to the edge of the hole, in turns staring down and looking up again.

Having carried the casket from hearse to grave side, we knew the moment had come. The casket was solid chestnut, handmade from reclaimed barn lumber by our friend Mike Schmiedicke. Strong straps looped through the handles on one side, then over the top and through the handles on the other side, gave a sturdy if demanding way for the casket to be lifted. The pall bearers gave a heave and carefully moved to straddle the gaping hole.

As a practical note, if you ever are lowering a casket by straps, do not wrap the strap around your wrist. At least two of us made this mistake. It is important to let the strap slip free if something goes wrong.  We also lifted it too high, as if there were an invisible rim to clear, instead of just a crisp edge in the grass.

As we hefted the casket, the tension in the crowd was palpable, and my mother gasped “Dear God.” Through my strain I whispered in her direction, “We’ll make it Mom. We’ve got Dad just fine.” A brother, three sons, son-in-law, God-son, and two grandsons eased Dad into the ground. And so the final committal was underway.

The prayers were brief. I stepped up to address the hundreds gathered and invite them to join us in backfilling. After the widow and the family, the guests were welcome to come forward and shovel earth in the hole. My brother handed a shovel-full to my mother. Supported by my sister, she dropped the first bit of dirt that would seal the body of her husband of fifty-seven years in the ground. The hollow thud was bracing.

It is very difficult to capture what happened over the course of the next half hour or so. Slowly, surely, the varied group of mourners came forward to do their part. It was as though they were playing a role they had played before—which, as far as we know was not the case: few had ever filled such a large hole and perhaps none had enclosed a coffin.

Everyone seemed to understand and be drawn in. The atmosphere was a unique blend of sorrow, communion, and hope. One young mother, nursling in arm, didn’t wait for a shovel, and grabbing a handful of earth tossed in her contribution. Children were as engaged in the filling as they had been in marveling at the hole. One young man shared with me as he shoveled that he remembered working for my father clearing ground many years ago. He said it was good to move earth with him one more time.

The mourners having done their part, the hole was less than half-filled. We would need more help to finish the job. I asked any willing young men to step forward so that by spelling each other we could get the job done quickly with three shovels and two rakes. Throwing earth into that hole with a purpose, I was soon soaked with perspiration and, gasping for air, handed my shovel to my nephew. The dry earth could not be moved easily.  It divided itself into hard clods which handled like gravel, or escaped into the air as a fine dust the consistency of flour.

After a short break I took up a rake and scratched at the earth with a passion unlike any my garden has ever seen in me. As my body wearied I experienced a strange energy surge through my limbs. “We’ll get it done, Dad; we’ll get it done.” And so we did.


Occasionally I speak with my father. Since the burial I have gone back to visit the site a few times, but I find that I don’t say very much to him there. There is a certain ease and comfort for me at the graveside, as though nothing more need be said.

The act of burying is an act of piety that is fitting for the dead. It is also an act of mourning that is fitting for the living. Our fellow-mourners who blessed us with their presence that overcast Saturday afternoon have expressed what a profound experience my father’s burial was. I think that we all experienced it as a gift: a gift that rends the heart, giving a healing and closure that lays it open to the consolation of new life beyond the grave.

John A. Cuddeback is professor of Philosophy at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. His website dedicated to the philosophy of household is

Originally published by Front Porch Republic.

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