Thursday evening the burying ground admissions committee, of which I am a member, agreed to accept the final interment, the body of Sycamore Shadows native and prominent educator, Professor Ila Wiley-Bishop, who died last week in Castor, Pennsylvania. When her considerable remains are lowered, when the sound of a shovel is heard for the last time, when the stone is set and the grass is planted, our beloved graveyard will begin to change. Though it may be many years from now, one day the last person with a loved one in the graveyard will die, and this hallowed ground will cease to be a place of bittersweet memory and will become a historical curiosity, an open-air exhibit of stonecutter art and a reference library for genealogists who gather information they can use to torture their uninterested friends.
Sycamore Shadows still requires hand-dug graves because heavy equipment will not fit inside the yard. No one would have welcomed machinery more than John Worley, our gravedigger. By his own estimate, he has dug and filled 37 graves since 1959, lifting the sod, tossing the earth, dislodging rocks, severing roots, and replanting the grass.
“I’m no romantic,” John says. “It’s hard work and I wish a backhoe could do it. Can’t just lay folks on the ground though.”
According to John, the final grave has been the toughest one to dig since Robinson Hardy’s in 1987.
“So many roots,” he explains. “I don’t know but an ax would work as well. Certainly nothing like Grace Yelton’s [Grace Foster]. Now, there was a nice grave to dig—like spooning ice cream.”
While we talk, John leaps back into the hole and begins straightening out the sides, measuring from corner to corner to make certain the grave is square. He insists on using the Golden Ratio when digging graves.
“Sure, it makes for extra shovel work,” he admits, “but the [golden] mean has an elegance that you don’t get from any old rectangle. The Greeks used it, hurricanes use it, sunflowers use it, even snails use it—why shouldn’t I? Families appreciate things like that.”
Near the edge sits a can where John puts worms he collects while digging. According to local folklore, worms taken from a grave digging have the power to entice even the wariest fish. As silly as it sounds, John sells the worms for as much as $20 per dozen, frequently making an extra $100 over his regular fee.
“You don’t get rich digging a grave,” he explains, “so the worms help.”
I stay with John until he has finished, then accompany him to his home on Creek Road. Soon after the funeral tomorrow, John will begin the laborious process of filling in the hole he so carefully dug this afternoon. He has agreed to leave the last few shovelfuls of dirt until 6 p.m. so that folks may gather to watch, after which he will donate his shovel to the Museum of Sycamore Shadows, where it will be on permanent display.