Death Becomes Her

A gravedigger’s daughter mourns the passing of an era.

Death Becomes Her
Photo by Stephanie Colgan
Rachael Hanel spent childhood days playing in cemeteries as her parents worked.

When I was growing up, it was understood: You go to the funeral. You can’t schedule it. You don’t know when it will be. But if you’re a person of honor, you go to the funeral.

Little did I, or anyone, know that funerals might go, period. In 1965, less than 4 percent of people were cremated. These days, according to the Cremation Association of North America, nearly half of all deaths result in cremations. With cremation comes flexibility— no need to deal with a seven-foot box that has to be buried ASAP—and with flexibility we have a new era of memorial services, remembrances, and ash- scattering family cruises.

Do you always go to the cruise?

In We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, Rachael Hanel writes about a childhood spent in the boneyards. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, it’s a remarkable portrait of life and death in southern Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Dad controlled a grave-digging monopoly in and around Waseca, a small town in the middle of south-central Minnesota’s fertile plains,” writes Hanel. Her dad dug graves. Both parents mowed lawns, tended flowers, watered sod. Hanel went with them and played while they worked.

“I definitely wanted to evoke a certain time and place, a time and place which has passed,” Hanel says. “My dad saw himself as working in a very important job, doing an important task that carried with it a lot of responsibility. Families used to want to know from the beginning of the process to the end—from the first meeting with the funeral director to the end, where my dad would put the bodies in the ground—that somebody cares.”

Showing care extended to visiting cemeteries on family vacations to see if any particular innovations could be brought home. “When we would travel as a family, that would be the first place we would stop: the cemetery. When I travel now I usually make that the first order of business,” Hanel says. “I was just in Boston and visited Mt. Auburn. It was so familiar.”

Mt. Auburn in Cambridge was one of the first city cemeteries designed as an artful park; it inspired Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. “If you go to cemeteries in different cities, in different towns, they do have that familiarity. It’s nice to know that you can go to any city and still have that feeling. You should go to River View in Portland—it’s beautiful.”

I looked it up online. The pictures are beautiful and familiar. To people like me. But what about those who grew up with cell phones?

“When I was growing up, everyone had a wake, everyone had a funeral, everyone was buried. My father was one of 16 kids. All our family was within a drive, an easy drive. Now everything has changed. A lot of people today are not comfortable going to the wake or not comfortable going to the funeral.

“Death is a subject that people don’t like to talk about—especially in terms of children,” Hanel says. “I always hear, when somebody does die: ‘I don’t want to take my kid to the wake. I don’t want to take the kids to the funeral; it will make them sad.’ Understandably, you don’t want to make children sad. But then I think something does get lost, and the kid grows up and you have someone who has never been to a funeral until they’re 25. Now what do they do when there is a funeral? I can’t imagine what it would be like if you had gotten used to extending sympathy through Facebook, while multitasking.”

Do you always go to the virtual funeral? Life may adjust and change enough that the answer to that becomes understood. Until then, we are left to consider the memories of how funerals used to be, through one of memory’s full flowers, the richly textured memoir of a gravedigger’s daughter.