GRATEFUL FOR GRAVEDIGGERS       

 

A TALE FOR HALLOWEEN

 BY DALTON NARINE

 

                       Ah ketch him hanging out like a bride and groom

                                with a female jumbie inside a tomb

 

Lord Christo, Jacob From Panama (1956)

 

It is very much alive, the cemetery, gravediggers and all making a quarry there day after day to inter the dead. By and large, though, they’re taken for granted by those outside their sphere. And they put up with a lot from the classless of the living, too.

Imagine that! Gravediggers worry that their beloved workplace is under erosion as a burial ground.

Just stick around Lapeyrouse any evening and see for yourself. And long after the sun dies catch the late show. Watch a parade of spooky characters storm the gate. It’s the carnival of the dread drifting in, a ratty play on Danse Macabre.

lapeyrouse
THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO LAPEYROUSE CEMETARY ON TRAGARETE ROAD , PORT OF SPAIN

Cemetery management refers to this grungy band as “livers.” No death certificates required of them. But they carry Get-out-of-hell-free cards that provide a portal to the raised tombs where they hang like bats.

All the jigsaw elements of the carefree nightlife come together here for “The Graveyard Shift.” Bandits on the run, vagrants with mauby pockets, jagabats, illegal immigrants, homeless male hairdressers, dried-out pipers and sex fiends on the wicked weed.

Ah, boy, see how the dearly departed must tolerate such uneasy bedfellows making mischief among boutique graves?

All that acid jazz. All night long.

In the cemetery of God, mind you!

And after the night has shaken its dark side, even during the swelter of day, even amid the hush of the dead, the graveyard remains haunted, I find, unable to rest in peace.

My appointment at the cemetery is with Ishmael, a graver. Soon, I’m strolling down muddy furrows, uniform as a school of ants.  Past idle headstones and weedy plots that take me through that thin ghost of light between dark and dark; through the last breath between life and death. And I feel out of sorts in this field of graves pinched by grief, mouldy and fresh; in a field of naked wreaths, and mausoleums that reach to the High Priest as if privileged.

Ishmael and his coworkers are at home, of course, in a cemetery whose medieval spires and fluted columns recall the romance of bygone eras. As “earth technicians,” they have reason to pat themselves on the back. They belong. Technically, they are gravediggers. For eight, 10 hours, their business is a hole in the ground. Six feet under. Sometimes nine.

Way down yonder, no wonder real IDs are burrowed among the dead. Gravediggers at Lapeyrouse share the anonymity of the numbered streets with no names. Once you get past the ambiguity, though, theirs is a profession as precise as the departure of the soul. Mind you, an inch here or there could very well throw off graveside ritual.

And that’s a bad sign, man.

“When you’re lowering the box,” Ishmael says, “you can’t let it touch the dirt. On no side. No way.”  He doesn’t say it, but his voice trails a colloquial echo, “Yuh mad?”

Ishmael, barefoot and three feet down the jaw of a mucky hole, talks with eyes dancing about the unmarked grave. They rest on a shovel. Having pitch-forked to this depth he has to spade the yellow-cake mud over the side. A pickaxe lies idle on the street. An hour or so ago it had loosened the earth. It will be needed again when Ishmael “meet a box.”

Sometimes, alone in the hole, the graver with the dancing eyes would face down the residue of tenants long gone and liquefied. But now a death’s-head with scooped-out sockets stares back. It is smiling, literally and figuratively out of its skull. A nasty gold-tooth grin.  Ishmael, unfazed, dredges up three more skulls, dentures, bones, fragments of bones and other mouldered relics. Thirty years spent in the hole have bought Ishmael that rummy glow of insulation from the grim keys of the past.

In a country of megadeaths, Ishmael and the rest of the Lapeyrouse gang may have a lock on their jobs, but that’s mainly due to their professionalism. Gravediggers are as essential as obstetricians. You could say life runs the course between midwives and gravediggers, yet both occupations aren’t mutually exclusive. Burial is still vital and sensitive labor. (At burial, the head faces east or south, unlike in 14th Century London when the head pointed to the west, in perfect alignment for Judgment Day.)

Frank Gray, a cemetery keeper 2 who manages Lapeyrouse, explains a gravedigger’s job in physical detail, citing strength and determination. Noble Khan, a senator, community activist and public affairs specialist, whom gravers call their patron saint, recognizes them also for their honesty, dignity, respect and humanity.

“They show empathy for family and friends of the deceased, no matter the person,” says Khan, who often recites the fatheha, the opening lines of the Holy Quuran, at the family grave. This morning his voice comes high, to compensate for the forks clawing the damp earth and shovels sinking into files upon files of human remains.

“There’s no discrimination in the cemetery,” adds Khan.

Some diggers tell you there’s class discrimination despite their critical role in society. Sooner or later, they figure, you, too, will be dropped off at their way station.

So proud, these diggers. In the vein of an old maxim that hyped the working class as the gravediggers of capitalism, the crew at the cemetery, the most prestigious, pumps up itself as the working class of gravediggers all across the land. The self-validation goes with the territory, Lapeyrouse also noted as Trinidad’s first sugar factory.

For obvious reasons, such confectionary tidbit ought to make gravedigging at Lapeyrouse psychologically less distasteful than it appears. Consider that a hole gets excavated by a lone digger in an eight-man rotation. That solitude, entwined with claustrophobia, can bring a digger to croon carols in August. Or, Happy Birthday to the dead. Good that when things get tight a buddy system helps out. But not all is sweet in the pit.

For example, chronic skin rashes and the occasional scent of death pester Ishmael. Cemetery-issued soft-cloth gloves trick the mind. They’re membrane-thin. A dust mask turns into a puny colander that allows the aroma of death and fumes from decomposing bodies to leak in without mercy. Gray has some bad words for nature’s deviant perfume. He defines it “the stinking stink.”

Unbearable, something to keep away from, Ishmael says. Sprinkling Limacol or Dettol on the inner skin of the mask may be mere pappyshow. So offensive, the smell, you’ll turn your back on your own lunch.

“A drink would help,” Ishmael says, brightening at the thought. “You build back a different head that way.”

For any dig, anywhere, the head’s got to be just so.

The right depth is key. It depends on the family or loved ones of the deceased. If they request a six-foot hole, it’d be a daylong dig and a six-year recycle – seven at most cemeteries.

Sometimes, when you’re short, “you just pelt a fork and that’s three inches right there,” Ishmael says, the image conjuring up with much less ease than he lets on.

Two men, one digging and the other bailing out the dirt, can finish the job in an hour and a half.

A nine-footer (for steel boxes) can take up to two days to fork out, but it can accommodate another casket 24 hours after a burial.

As fastidious as they are about depth, so they’re particular about breadth. By rule, gravers are generous to the deceased of ample girth, offering an extra-wide berth, three to six inches more than a regular size casket.

“If you have plenty money,” says Eddie, a foreman checking on things, “and you never give your mother nothing in her life, then this is the time to do it. A big, wide casket.” Skinny Eddie summons up a hearty laugh and Ishmael rolls with the punch line.

Certainly, the art of digging is not cut and dried. Problems arise, as when the lunacy of lunar influence lands diggers in a hole of a different sort.

“I don’t know if the earth sweats or what,” says Spongy, a graver who has stopped by to lend Ishmael a hand, “but you get more dirt during a full moon.”

Using deceased calypsonian Spoiler’s logic and the mystery of the Pitch Lake, a six-foot hole could be really four. And that entails more men to finish the dig. But, time on their side, diggers resume excavation the following day when the moon has shaved.

Another concern is safety. In developed countries, a mechanical excavator and water pumps are listed among tools of the trade. Likewise, hydraulic equipment for guarding against possible collapse of the sides of the grave. Local diggers instead employ stakes and plywood sheets to prevent a cave-in.

Spongy recalls a friend’s recent experience in a nine-foot hole that had collapsed. Until his rescue the digger was unable to wriggle out of the chest-high dirt. “If he was bending down,” Spongy says, “[the grave] would have taken him.”

 

Gravedigger

                                            when you dig my grave

                                            could you make it shallow

                                            so that I can feel the rain

Gravedigger

 

Dave Matthews Band

 

More prevalent than unstable soil during the rainy season is overspill. And a graveyard hole serves as a natural receptacle for a downpour.

Ishmael: “If it rains a lot and water gets in the hole, I’d say, boy, she ain’t ready to come down here. Maybe she’s a bad person. Or, it ain’t his time. He don’t want to go.”

The men, mindful of rain, begin to batten down. They button up a hole with sheets of galvanize, which they secure with 10-foot steel pipes that are laid out like long, slender graves for macajuels. The family has refused to pay costs for a tent. They don’t even get tarp. Galvanize for them.

“You won’t like to see the deceased go down in a watery grave,” say Samuel David Simpson, son of “Simpson, the funeral agency man.” His office is situated in the same district as the “water-based” rain-drenched Laventille cemetery. The government had no choice but to close “Laventille.” That’s why Mountain View was plotted as a graveyard, Simpson says.

Not surprisingly, Mountain View ran out of space. Eventually, funerals in the area were shunted to the Tunupuna cemetery. However, in short shrift, Tunapuna cemetery has become the Arima market of the underground. Dwindling space there has created rife opportunity for gravers to skimp – re-digging holes after five years instead of seven.

Laventille lays blame on the water. But it well could be the spirits, in spite of our emancipated views about tradition regarding cemeteries. For sentimental reasons, perhaps, some visitors cross themselves before they enter the graveyard. Then they walk out back to front. Haven’t we outgrown taboos?

“That’s like outgrowing religious beliefs,” says Simpson. “Everything is tied into the spiritual, from birth to death.”

Artist LeRoy Clarke reasons that turning around and confronting the spirit enables it to go its way while you go yours. “You don’t want to bring that spirit in your house. You don’t know which one it is. You may be bringing in wicked spirits.”

Clarke says that when you walk backward from the gravesite, “it’s like shutting off the spirit world.”

According to Simpson, we don’t really seal it off. Because, how to analyze bizarre behavior preceding death? How to analyze the bawl, the wail, the mumbling about fire somewhere, as if hell dares to leave the window open for death?

Simpson: “I hear that some of their last words are, ‘Look, they’re coming for me, the demons.’ Some people will get up and run from death. You can tell by how the funeral goes, too, the lifestyle of some people. The road to the cemetery is blocked. The hearse has trouble on the road. The priest is late. The grave would cave in on a hot, sunny day.

 

It was dark, dark, dark

                                          In a big big park

                                          I felt like a king upon the throne

                                          Me and Imelda lying alone

                                          When I heard a talk and a creaking walk

                                         As I looked around frightfully

                                         We was right in the middle of a cemetery

 

Lord Kitchener, Love in the Cemetery (1965)

 

So, death is strange. Well, then, death’s hangers-on. OK, groupies. The lovers; the men and men; the men and women; the social corbeaux who drive through the cemetery to cherry-pick a quiet street to park, ole talk, do it, shimmy the car, shake convention, then smoke a little weed, oblivious or not to gravers nearby.

Ishmael: “People under drugs would do anything. Lapeyrouse is not alone. All cemeteries have smokers and pipers.”

So strange is death, on occasion dignity decomposes at the gravesite. Enough spillage to fill the hole with the small, useless matters of life.

Like the scene at an afternoon burial when an upper-class woman ’bused another over who gets the family’s inheritance. “I’ll catch you in church,” the “abused” shot back. Ha! Church?

Like grave rage. The family of a deceased bandit fist-fought among themselves a moment after they’d warbled “Nearer My God to Thee.” The coffin was being lowered at the time. As usual, the dust-up was over property and inheritance matters. It involved several young children the deceased had fathered with several young women. But police at the site quickly brought the family back to earth.

Like the bold-faced bravado of a mourner who pulled a gun on a digger under a threatening sky, the hole still agape. The graver got lucky. A friend of the deceased grabbed the digger’s shovel and decked the assailant

Like the day Ishmael had “to sink a fork” before a family allowed diggers to lower the casket. The reason for Ishmael’s correction? A family member of the deceased had sent a tape measure down the hole and declared the depth was three inches short. The man satisfied, the casket went down without a fuss. Then the member motioned for a mason to cover it with cement. After that, diggers began pouring on the dirt. The mason covered that, too. Diggers back-filled the grave. The mason poured cement on the grave. The family piled on the wreaths. The mason topped off the site with cement. The family member began to write: “Here lies (name)…” A relative pointed out that he had missed a letter in the middle of the name. Not to be bothered, the member nonchalantly added the ‘r’ at the end, and wrote: “We didn’t get much education from you but you sure taught us how to make money.”

****

The death rattle finally falling silent, the cemetery empties, the gates close.

The gravediggers move on, their shovels spent, their sacred day gone.

As usual, night, profane as ever, sneaks back in the yard. And, quicker than you can sing Christo’s lines. “Ah ketch him hanging out like a bride and groom with a female jumbie inside a tomb,” the fresh souls will realize they have plenty of company. The erasures of the burial ground. The living dead. Mystical, mysterious and misaligned, like the stars that usually drop by to check in on these misfits.

Uh-oh, hear that wail? The new souls are already catching hell.

Dead with fright, the cemetery. And that troubles gravediggers. Not a soul wants to put a hand.

 

     A version of this article was once published in the Trinidad Express Newspaper

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