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by Shannon Applegate

Before yesterday I hadn't thought about how much dirt is leftover after a grave is dug.

This uplifted ridge, shaped like an earthen wave rising from gently tilting valleys, is a perfect spot for a cemetery. It affords the truly long view:  From here it is possible to contemplate the distance between this world and the next. Yet, as I wait for the men to arrive who will dig Elsie Patton's grave, I am not moved to consider the possibilities of the Hereafter, or even of the here and now. This May morning, I am reading the epochs of the Great Before, trying to decode the ancient signs written in ridge, rock, and sediments rhythmically laid down over the course of millions of years.

The impulse began yesterday when I spoke with a funeral director who told me gravediggers were going to bring the vault that Elsie Patton's family had ordered for her burial. The graveside service is scheduled for Saturday, and the gravediggers wanted to install the vault this afternoon. The funeral director said he was aware that things were changing at our cemetery; he wondered whether we would continue to deposit our "spoils" in the same place.

"Our spoils?" Terrible images sprang to mind.

The voice, low and smooth, became faintly patronizing. "That's right, you haven't been at this too long, have you? The spoils:  the dirt that is leftover after the grave is dug. A vault displaces quite a bit of dirt and the gravediggers will want to deposit it in the right spot."

"We haven't changed that," I said briskly. "They can put it where they always have."

But the fact is, before yesterday I hadn't thought about how much dirt is leftover after a grave is dug. I've only had the experience of dealing with a few burials, and one of them was not a burial but what, according to the law, is an "inurnment." The family took care of actually burying the ashes in an urn.

Now that I know about "spoils," I understand that the pile of dirt, so surprisingly red, deposited in a low part of the cemetery near the southeast corner, is not merely fill dirt but instead the residue from numerous gravesites over the years.

As for the vault:  my sense of what that might be is pretty vague. I came up here to see whether it lives up to my Gothic imagination, and to introduce myself to the gravediggers, who know their way around this cemetery better than I do.

This red dirt:  it seems disrespectful, and even profane, to refer to it as "spoils." When wet, it sticks to the shoe, and although it is always red it is distinctly redder after a deep rain. The exposed part of the ridge where I am standing wears red dirt like an old topcoat, or more aptly, like a fireman's dusty windbreaker.

I am picking up a handful of red dirt, ruddy from a smidge of iron and millennia of oxygen. This dirt tells it all. Along with the tinge of minerals, I am holding sea sediments and the pulverized evidence of volcanism at work. And as I let go, feeling it spill through my fingers, this dirt testifies fathoms.

But if this truth concerning primordial waters seems a bit abstract, I can always go back to Fred Applegate's find of a decade ago. Just a few miles from here, he found a fossilized "seashell" atop his sheep hill. Yes, a seashell on top of a sheep hill. How fast can I say it?

When Fred died, the fossil was not among his effects, so we will never know whether the mollusk Anomia, Acila, Crassastella, or Solena was the decapod that made him shout, "Eureka!"

And now Fred is up here in the cemetery awaiting future geologic epochs, resting in red dirt.

From Living Among Headstones, by Shannon Applegate. Copyright © 2005 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thunder's Mouth Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group.

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Articles in this Issue

The Death of the Dream, by William G. Gabler
Here, by Crystal Gandrud
Katrina's Art, by Alan Huffman
Geology, by Shannon Applegate
Prelapsarian Studies, by Connie Corzilius
Group Psychology, by Simon Leys
Writing Systems, by Erik Rhey
August 2006


Shannon Applegate, also author of Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family's history and Lore, is the chair of Oregon's Commission on Historic Cemeteries and an active member of the national cemetery preservation movement. She lives in Yoncalla, Oregon.

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