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February 13, 2010

After the funeral we all followed the truck to the burial site, back on the hill behind Mom’s house. The mortuary was finished with their duties when the brought the body to the church. The family was responsible from there on. I don’t know whose truck was used to transport the body back the rough rutted road to the burial site, but we all followed along behind it. The road was not one that most anglos would remotely consider driving their vehicle on, but the Navajo lived with roads like that one. It was normal.

The “boys” (Louie’s nephews that he had practically helped to raise) and the other men in the family had already prepared the grave. Most white people have only a vague idea what happens after they leave the cemetery and the body is buried. We did it all ourselves–from digging the hole to filling the grave.

There was a pine box laid on two-by-fours across the hole. When we arrived the men lifted the casket off the truck and lowered it into the box with wide straps. They pulled the straps out and nailed the lid on the box. Each one worked until tears obscured his vision and another took his place. When the lid was fastened, the straps were placed under the box and while six men lifted the box, the two-by-fours were removed. It was lowered carefully into the grave. Each one who wanted to stepped up and dropped a handful of dirt into the grave and then the men attacked the pile of dirt furiously. It seemed that they were taking out their grief and anger at Louie’s death on that pile of dirt.

It takes a while to fill a grave shovelful by shovelful, but no one left. A couple of the ‘boys’ worked the whole time, as if by wearing themselves out they could somehow compensate for their loss. Even a few of the women, took the shovels from the men and tossed several scoops into the grave.

There is something so very final about watching that grave fill. It is cathartic at the same time. All of the grief and heartache and frustration and pain and anger are flushed from the system as the dirt piles up on that box with the beloved remains.

Every anglo funeral I have ever been to was concluded with gentle words spoken at the graveside by the minister and flowers laid on top of the casket. We never see the rough pine box that encloses the casket. We never see the box lowered into the ground and we never never see the remains actually covered with dirt. The next time we visit the grave site after this day we find only the green sod replaced, the gravestone in place and everything is peaceful. I think we, middle class society as a whole, deprive ourselves of much of the release that the actual burial process can give when we leave the body at the graveside amid piles of flowers and a velvet carpet. There is a lack of closure.

We stayed until the bitter end. There were tears in abundance, hot scalding, sobbing tears, from men and women. No one, not the strongest man or most macho boy, even tried to hide them. There was anger portrayed in the force of shovels driven into the ground and dirt thrown on top of the box. There was finality when the last shovels full were piled on the gentle mound and pounded into place. The grief was deep and bitter, but when we finished it was exhausted and the remnants flushed from our systems.

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