The exhibition of paintings by Renaissance masters closes in three days. The only way I can get there is if I skip work.
I skip work. On a cloudless, chilled January morning, I stroll through warm rooms at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
At the museum, I dream of reaching out to touch canvas where the brush of Caravaggio or El Greco or Goya swirled and blended color. I’m subsumed by the dark and the light.
Then, one painting forbids me to move forward. An artist I’ve never heard of—Michael Sweerts. A title, “Burying the Dead.” I stand there for a minute, two, five, because my dad buried the dead. And here, two men doing the same, four centuries before.
In front of this small painting is an empty bench. A bench here all three months of the exhibition, but as I sink into it, I think it’s only for me. Dad’s been dead more than half my life, but the painting transports me back to hot summer cemetery days. The visions are clearer than they’ve been in a long time: flecks of dirt cemented by sweat on Dad’s sun-baked arms. The way Dad could smoke a cigarette without using his hands, inhaling and exhaling and dropping ash while his arms were busy digging. Hitching a ride on the backhoe, bouncing over bumpy ground, Dad a captain—me a first mate—in this ocean of granite and grass.
In Sweerts’s painting, an old, bearded man grabs the corpse under the arms. A younger, stronger man, muscles straining, wraps his arms around the knees of the dead in a postmortem hug. The dead man’s head slumps. Most of his face is hidden in shadow, but the dark hair says he’s young, and his body is toned, not wasted. A death too soon.
This act, this reverent burial, was considered an Act of Mercy by the Catholic Church. Sweets painted the entire Acts of Mercy series: feeding the hungry, refreshing the thirsty, harboring the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and ministering to prisoners. The seven Acts of Mercy are based on Christ’s words in chapter twenty-five of Matthew, verses thirty-five and thirty-six: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Jesus doesn’t reference burial, but it was added to the other six during the plague, when people were buried and buried and buried. In the Catholic imagination, the thought was that any one of these deeds would land you a place in heaven on God’s right hand.
Dad labored over his graves to make sure each one was perfect. He scooped most of the dirt out with the backhoe, but he jumped down into every hole, thousands of them over the years, to carefully carve corners with a shovel, to make the sides precise and straight. When he was finished, he put a piece of plywood over the hole and a green tarp of artificial turf over the mound of dirt. When mourners departed after graveside services, Dad shoveled dirt into the crevice between the vault, which enclosed the casket inside, and the walls of the grave. Then he jumped in again and did a little dance over the dirt, tamping it under his 220 pounds. With the dirt packed in tightly, it would not later settle and cause unsightly sinkholes. Dad replaced the sod on top, and he left the very last job to me. I took the casket spray, the stems of roses and carnations and baby’s breath tucked into squishy green foam, and centered it perfectly (as Dad instructed) at the head of the grave, resting it against the tombstone if there was one. I propped up any flowers that sagged, and I straightened out the ribbon marked with “Mom” or “Dad” or sometimes, “Daughter” or “Son.” Throughout the summer, I helped water grave grass to keep it fresh and green. Within a few weeks, no one could tell a grave had been dug; the ground neatly enveloped its dead. Dad’s task was only complete when his work became invisible.
Dad didn’t actually handle the dead, not like the men in Sweerts’s painting. That job was left for Waseca’s undertakers. But I know he would have if asked. Burying the dead was his duty, his calling. Dad didn’t become a gravedigger until he was thirty-three. Before that, he worked as a farm laborer for the state, earning decent pay and benefits. But when he saw an opportunity to work for himself, he took it. He shed his name, Paul Hager, and morphed into Digger O’Dell, taking the name from a character on the old “Life of Riley” radio show. He slid so easily into the new name, the new role, that you would have to believe it had been waiting for him all along.
The painting makes me realize how I’ve underestimated Dad’s job all these years. He wasn’t the doctor that saved people’s lives. He wasn’t the policeman who offered constant protection. He couldn’t resurrect the dead; the only thing he could do was gently lower them into the ground. But people noticed how he did that. They noticed the fresh, green grass. They noticed how he carefully replaced the sod. They took comfort that he was there, in the cemetery among those they loved and cherished, when they couldn’t be there themselves.
Dad is both men in Sweerts’s painting. He’s the tired countenance of the old man, the same look I saw on his face after long, humid days sapped his energy. Yet Dad is the young man, too, the strong forearm muscles, the bulging, tanned biceps, chiseled from years of hard work. Dad’s middle was a bit doughy, and his thin legs belied his weight, but his arms, his arms were what dug through the earth.
The core of what it means to do this job remains the same. Three men performing a wordless duty, an act of mercy. I see them as kind—kind to the earth, kind to the people going into the earth, kind to people on the Earth. When it was Dad’s time to sink into the ground, his friend, a gravedigger from the neighboring town, saw to it to be merciful as well.
Dad left this world quickly and unexpectedly at age forty-six, but not before he taught me how to be merciful. One of my cemetery jobs was removing artificial flowers from graves after Memorial Day. Dad and Mom also mowed cemeteries, and Dad had to weave around the fake arrangements when trimming near headstones. With the flowers gone, his job was easier and the cemetery looked neater. He and I went through the cemetery, throwing heaps of tacky, plastic flowers into the back of his truck.
We got to the long, narrow section abutting the county blacktop road. In this section, underneath the shade of tall elms, rested the babies. It wasn’t marked with a sign or an archway. No arrows pointed you there. But you knew. You knew by the sudden pattern of flat, tiny markers that broke the landscape of knee-high granite tombstones. You knew by pinwheels blurring whirls of primary colors in the wind. You knew by toys left there, teddy bears and dolls and cars. You knew by balloons tethered to wooden posts. The markers of two dozen babies who were laid here, scattered in and around a few bigger gravestones of adults that formed a protectorate, ersatz aunts and uncles and grandparents who kept watch.
I wasn’t much older than these children, and their trinkets appealed to me. I could take a balloon or a teddy bear, maybe put it in my room. I reached down to grab a pinwheel out of the ground, but I hesitated. Something seemed wrong about taking from the babies. But Dad had told me that everything must be tossed. I continued my reach. Dad turned around and was quick to speak.
“Don’t take anything from the baby graves. Just leave them.”
I straightened up and looked at him. He shook his head. I understood.
I understood that here he would go slowly with the trimmer. He would pause to bend down, move the toys and flowers, trim, pause again, and move them back.