The other day, I helped my friends Yvonne and Kristen bury their dog.
Yvonne had called the previous afternoon, frantic because O’Ryan was nowhere to be found. “He never wanders off,” she’d told me. Later, some of their guests (they run a bed-and-breakfast) had found O’Ryan in the bushes near the house. Apparently, he’d simply lain down and died.
It was Friday when she called again to ask my help burying him. I usually work at home on Fridays, but this seemed more important. So I loaded a couple of shovels and my boots into the back of the station wagon and drove to their place. It was a hot, humid day — not that there’s ever good weather for digging a grave.
I went to the kitchen door, feeling strange without O’Ryan there doing his fierce-guard-dog performance. Yvonne and Kristen, puffy eyed and sniffling, were preparing breakfast for their guests. I hugged them both, then asked, “Have you made a start?”
Kristen took me to where Yvonne had begun digging the night before in the pouring rain. The spot was near the house, but that’s what she wanted. “I’ll dig some more,” I told Kristen.
She went indoors to finish serving breakfast, and I went to my car to put on my boots and cover myself with mosquito repellent. The long grass was still soaking wet. I brought my shovels to the grave site and marked out a larger area. O’Ryan was a big dog, and I knew that a hole always gets smaller as you dig down. It was hard going. I developed a rhythm, but had to keep stopping to lift out the stones. I hoped my back would not give out.
I’d gone down a couple of feet when Kristen came out to help. She worked while I rested. Then we tried digging together — one loosening the earth with the fork, the other shoveling — but it was hard to stay out of each other’s way. So we went back to taking turns.
As I rested, I imagined my friends digging a grave for me. What hard work it would be, particularly since they would all be old by then. Or maybe they wouldn’t be. Perhaps it would be a good idea to dig my own grave in advance so that the others would be spared the work. But what would I do with the hole in the meantime? It would fill up with water and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
By now we were four feet down. Yvonne was also helping, so we were making better progress. We went a little further and decided it was deep enough. When we went back into the house, the guests had gone. We sat at the dining-room table eating the fruit that was left over from breakfast, and I heard again the story of the search for O’Ryan the previous night.
“Do you want me to help with the next part, or do you want to do that by yourselves?” I asked.
“I’m scared,” said Kristen. “I’d like you to stay.” Yvonne agreed.
Kristen told me they’d put O’Ryan on the garden cart in the garage. I asked Yvonne to find a sheet we could use to lower him. Then I went to get the body. In the garage, I drew aside the blanket that covered the cart. O’Ryan, a beautiful golden retriever, lay peacefully on his side on his green-plaid dog bed.
When Yvonne and Kristen were ready, we pushed the cart over the bumpy ground, under the dripping bushes, to the graveside. I stopped the cart a few feet from the edge and spread the sheet on the ground between it and the grave.
It all went very smoothly. We didn’t have to tumble their beloved pet into the grave but were able to lower him gently, still lying on his bed, covered with his blanket. I climbed down to make sure he was settled in nicely. Then I got out, and Yvonne arranged his toys around him.
We all stood there for a moment. I waited for them to decide when they were ready. They cried and laughed as they reminded each other of good times with O’Ryan. Then they took some earth from the pile and began to gently cover the blanket with it. Slowly we shoveled until the blanket was no longer visible.
“Imagine, people used to do this for their family,” Kristen said.
“Yes,” I said. “It was considered the last duty you owed to someone you loved, to see them properly buried. And now you’ve done that for O’Ryan.”
Thinking back on it now, I ask myself, Couldn’t we still dig graves ourselves? Couldn’t we gently lower our loved ones into the earth still wet with rain, dew, and tears? Wasn’t that one way we knew the earth was sacred, because with our own hands we had buried our dead in it? Why do we give our beloved dead into the hands of strangers, who may not love them?
I went by a few days later. Yvonne and Kristen showed me the dogwood tree they had bought to plant on O’Ryan’s grave. They would be able to see it from the bedroom window.