People are better once they’re dead.
The sun beats down, melting the sweat out of the man. He pauses, shoves the blade into the dirt at the base of the hole, and stretches. His back hurts more these days, but it’s worse today than any time he can remember. He perches on the manicured emerald at the edge of the hole, takes a swig from his water bottle, tepid now in the midafternoon heat. Doesn’t help much. He leans on the grip of his shovel, calloused brown hands big as dinner plates supporting a face grizzled gray with wear, and peruses the words etched into the granite stone one plot to the west.
Our loss — Heaven’s gain.
He chuffs, shakes his head against the dizziness of sweltering July, and goes back to work. The inhabitants of this quiet corner of the universe, they were just like everybody else. They hit their wives, drank on the sly, slept around–or maybe they were more ordinary sinners, gossiping, talking behind their best friends’ backs. But one and all, they became saints soon as they drew their last breath.
Sure, he’s a cynic. He’s seen too much of life in the years he’s spent here, digging holes, filling them in, trimming, mowing, to be fooled by the prettiness of a whited sepulchre.
Whited sepulchre. What a great phrase.
He thinks of the notes he’s pulled off stones, anchored by rocks, wreaths or roses, confessing betrayals decades old. Better yet, laying out the laundry list of the poor stiff’s sins. That very stone he just read, in fact–hoo-ee, the malice contained on that little slip left there last Memorial Day! What do people think, when they leave things out on gravestones–that nobody’ll ever give into the temptation to look?
Then again, seeing as how they can’t accuse the poor bastard to his face, maybe it’s just how it goes. Either way, he, the inheritor of all this dirty laundry, has learned to view dignified etchings with skepticism.
Man, but it’s hot. Heat presses in on all sides. Breathing feels like sucking in Jello. And his back hurts. He tosses another shovelful out of the deepening hole, ignoring the way the world seems to be undulating around him…until he can’t anymore. Belatedly he realizes it isn’t just the heat squeezing his chest till it hurts. He drops the shovel and tries to pull himself out of the hole. He manages to swing one leg onto the jewel-green grass before the pain cripples him and he tumbles, prone, to the floor of the rectangular pit. He looks at the soft brown walls rising above him and can’t escape the irony: he’s dug his own grave. Ah, well, at least it’s cool and shady, he thinks as the world retreats. What will they etch on his grave? Perhaps:
He died lived as he lived.
They find him hours later, lying in the hole he dug with an ironic smile upon his face.
The gurus at Write On Edge asked us to come up with new characters this week, so I obliged. I wanted to try my hand at writing somebody curmudgeonly and bitter, but I feel it necessary to add that I read an article by a guy who used to dig graves, and his perspective on a man’s thoughts as you do so is much more praiseworthy than his fictional counterpart.