This Is What Grave-Tending Is.

With dirt-covered fingers and broken fingernails, I know that I succeeded, somewhere.

With dirt-covered fingers and broken fingernails, I know that I succeeded, somewhere.

As I sat in my car, leaning my head back against the head rest and my eyes shut against the bright sunshine, I felt the ache in my muscles. My shoulders and my forearms were calling out for a warm soak and stiffened fingers needed cleaning. As I opened my eyes and glanced down, I marveled at the change in my hands. The few nails that had grown out in the last two weeks were broken and dirty. There were pockmarks left from when I had buried my hands, to the wrist, in blackened soil and overgrown grass roots. On my forefinger, I had somehow managed to rip open the cuticles around the base of my nail and was only feeling the pain from that injury as I looked down at my marvelous, work-soaked hands. And as I marveled at my hands and all of the hard work they had done, as well as all the injury they had received, I knew I had succeeded in doing a job well done. The ache in my muscles, the dirt on my hands, the injuries I was cataloging were all clear signs that I had succeeded in the sacrifice and I could go home pleased.

I don’t really discuss grave-tending overmuch right now. It’s become so habitual that I honestly forget to discuss it outside of a few pointed comments here and there. It’s also become such a devotional and sacred act that, occasionally, the act of writing about it or the act of speaking about it feels, sometimes, to detract from the works that I am doing. It is with glee and joy, with excitement and happiness that I do these things for the land, those interred, my family, and the surrounding area. But, there are some days in which I want to speak even less about the work and more about the act itself. In same vein, there are days where I don’t want to do much more than come home and weep for the destruction the elements cause and that time causes. On days like that, I don’t want to say or do anything to bring it back into focus because it hurts. But some days, all I want to do is snap pictures of my once beautifully manicured hands and say, this is what it is to tend graves.

Yesterday, I went to family graves. I go to them, sometimes, because I need the quick release I’ve come to associate with grave-tending. The act, in and of itself, is like a trip to the mall for someone who needs retail therapy. Only, instead of buying clothes and shoes to fill a closet I don’t have, I snap pictures of the things that I do and of the people that I meet. Some days, I go with an intention bigger than life – to photograph a cemetery with hundreds of headstones and it becomes a project for a few weeks. And soon, I will begin another project like that, but first, I wanted to see to all of my favorites and all of my family before I begin the big things again. So, yesterday, I went to see my father’s family members who are buried nearby. I haven’t seen my grandmother since last year and her grave was covered over for the most part.

It took me a while to clear it of the grass. Roots are tenacious buggers and the grass or sod used in cemeteries is a pain. There are days where I rip off all of my nails as I clear off headstones from the detritus of time and being forgotten. My grandmother was another one of those casualties and I couldn’t even read her name or her dates. I could read the epithet clearly, her laughter was as warm as our memory of her. But, I couldn’t see who she was anymore and I couldn’t remember the important dates anymore. I cut off the grass with spade and chisel, carefully clearing the extraneous dirt into one of the jars I have to hand for such instances. I cut a worm in half, accidentally. I fought the roots. I took a toothpick and cleared away the roots that had infested the etchings. And then I sat back and marveled at my handiwork.

I looked down at my hands and said, this is what it means to grave-tend.

The acts that I provide are a consummate sacrifice. If I’m not sacrificing skin and cuticles, nails and muscles, then I’m sacrificing other things, too. I sacrifice my Saturday mornings to do these things. I sacrifice the rest of my day, actually, so that I can rest up and have a day all to myself – a novelty, really, when you have a five-year-old at home. I sacrifice the money I earn from my job in gas and offerings. Some of these places are a stone’s throw away, so to speak, but many of them are not. And they all deserve my love and my attentiveness. I take that sacrifice to heart and I feel the joy that my heart sings at having done so. Sometimes, sacrifice is easy and other times it is not. In either case, all that matters is that I am willing to patiently do what I can every week to see that these people, biological family and otherwise, are remembered and fed well.

On days like yesterday, I sit in my car for a while and let the stiffened muscles relax for a bit. I left them settle themselves after being put to use. And in those quiet moments, before I’m quite ready to start the trek back home, I wonder. I wonder at my hands, as I’ve shown. I wonder at the graves I have yet to photograph or get to know. I wonder at the things I’ve seen – like yesterday, I saw a hawk soaring above me for 15 minutes – that are outside my normal frame of reference. But mostly, I wonder if there are other people out there like me. I wonder if there are other people who are aware of the heartache and sacrifice that these acts actually are. And I wonder if the people who make noises about being interested in what I do would give it the respect it so honestly deserves.

On days like yesterday and days still yet to come, I sit in my car and I smile with joy at the broken nails, the new wounds, and the dirt encrusting my hands. I smile for the devotional act I can do and willingly do. I smile and laugh and relax. I smile for all the things but nothing so much more than the physical reminder of what I do and why I do it.

This is what grave-tending is.

2 thoughts on “This Is What Grave-Tending Is.

  1. You cut an earthworm in half and you get two worms out of it. Kind of like your grave tending- you get more out of it than you put into it.

  2. The more I read about this, the more I wish it was something I’m doing. I do not have any akhu in the local cemeteries (that I know of, at least), so I have never been comfortable going out and doing anything for them.

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