artist - musician - craftsman
and furniture maker
[May 2, 2021]
simply revland: grave digging blues (1972)
It was an unusually wet spring in 1972, and Grandpa Revland had recently passed away at the age of 86. I had just returned home from a buying trip at our local Kmart in my yellow 1952 V6 4-door Ford Fairlane. I had just purchased my very first pair of Red Wing steel-toed boots, 3 pairs of denim coveralls, and a 10-pack of industrial-strength, rubber-coated work gloves, as per instructions by my friend, Lee.
The next day, I was prepared to begin my first full-time job as a grave digger at Sunset Memorial Gardens on South Highway 81. Not something you’d want to admit to someone you just started dating, but it paid well at $2 an hour, and I could only assume this experience would foster an adventure or two. Well ... that was a gross understatement.
As I was driving south for my first day of training, I was thinking of different terms or monikers I could utilize to explain my terms of employment, as I probably seemed more concerned about my reputation and ego than I did about payment compensation, which in turn would result in moving into my very first bachelor pad. “Yes, I’m a landscaper,” which was essentially true. Or, “I’m a performing musician,” which was half-true, sort of. Or, “I’m digging graves while I write music and prepare myself for my career as a furniture maker.” That essentially made the most sense, but I unfortunately didn’t understand how prophetic that would actually become.
As I pulled into the cemetery grounds, I was greeted by my friend, Lee, and given a tour. What I didn’t see coming, however, was a period of “initiation,” which lasted about a week. Prior to that, I was greeted by my boss, Scottie, a tough, demanding old bird, and Ambrose, who appeared right out of central casting for the "Beverly Hillbillies." I never saw Ambrose without his weathered smoking pipe between his lips, which in turn, meant he was a man of few words. Last, but certainly not least, I was introduced to Louie (aka “Digger”), a lifelong professional grave digger, who claimed he could recall the name of every soul he laid to rest. Louie was profoundly full of bullshit, a toothless, hapless character you’d most likely see in a cartoon strip. His hands were like sandpaper, scarred and laced with callouses. Regardless, a kind, fallible, flawed individual. Probably miss him the most.
As I mentioned earlier.... it was an exceptionally wet spring, and the grounds were remarkably soaked, with standing water everywhere. Burial interments were on hold, as pulling a 2-ton John Deere diesel-powered back hoe into position would greatly tear up the surrounding turf. It was a delicate dance that the grounds crew had impressively mastered over the years. While waiting for drier ground, bodies were stored in our “vault,” in caskets of course, and in some rare circumstances, the graves were dug by hand ― as with a shovel ― which just happened to be a portion of my “initiation.” My first task was to stake out and dig a grave by hand, directly next to a spouse who had died years earlier. This was no fraternity prank. And the crew knew exactly what was in store for me. This was the real deal. An all-day sucker, and then some. I will spare you the details.
The “dreaded vault," as I called it, was a double-doored, concrete-block, garage-like structure, originally built in the 50s when the cemetery opened for business. This was the most puzzling and disturbing cemetery policy discovery that was really hard to wrap my head around. This storage policy didn’t seem to phase the other grounds crew members, as I assumed this was “old hat” to them. All this being said, during wet periods and extreme cold in the winter months, this is where we housed these precious souls for future burial. In a tiny unheated warehouse. It didn’t seem very dignified to me, but it was the arrangement the cemetery had with the funeral homes. A rusty old padlock is what kept other folks out, except for the grounds crew, which included me. The key hung on a rusty old nail in the shop and every time I walked past it, I had to turn my head.
You see ... unfortunately, and my employment timing was obviously impeccably cruel, my grandfather was in that vault, as was my third grade teacher, and a high school classmate who had taken his life. I couldn’t shake the thought of seeing their faces and thinking how lonely it was inside this cold, dank, house of death. I understand that there is nothing funny about this ― and my apologies go out to friends and family members reading this for the first time ― but this was real, and part of my life experience. At the time, and even today, some 50 years later, it seems like a dream
Eventually, my grandfather, Carl Palmer Revland, was laid to rest, and I was proud and honored to facilitate that process. It is something I will never forget.
And before long, primarily using a shovel by all of us, the vault was empty. This adventure lasted for about two years. And again, I won’t bore you with hundreds of creepy tales from the dark side. Use your imagination. Actually, I’d honestly recommend not using your imagination, unless you prefer to close your eyes and imagine a coffee house performance I made two to three years later.
I will close with a chorus from one of those original tunes performed that night, titled “Everlasting Grave Digging Blues,” housed in my personal memory “vault” forever:
I’ve got them everlasting grave diggin’ blues.
I’ve got mud stickin' thick to my shoes.
I’ve got blisters on my hands for my dues.
I’ve got them everlasting grave diggin' blues.
Ironically, almost 50 years later, I sit on the Board of Directors at Sunset Memorial Gardens, and the other members of the board “quiz” me on a regular basis. Most important, the “vault” sits empty. Perhaps one for the ages.