It was a grave mistake.
It was a grave mistake. The crew leader glanced at the words on the paper in his work gloved hands then up at the newly excavated holes in front of him. He turned the paper up-side-down and squinted.
“What’d you guys do?”
They shrugged. “What you told us?”
An auto collision had taken the lives of a family. A young mother, loving husband and their beautiful toddler. A tragedy of winter weather reported on every local news station in the area complete with photos of the smiling family cuddling together just the day before.
“Nah, this ain’t right. The kid was supposed to be in the middle, the lady on the right and the guy on the left. You guys fucked it up.”
“Not if you stand looking this way.” The guy with the shovel scoping in dirt around the caskets suggested.
“Nah. The little one is over here and flowery casket supposed to be the one to the side and the bronze one is in the middle. It just ain’t right.”
“An hour from now we’ll have the dirt smoothed out and then once the sod goes down in a month or two...Hey, they are all together and tucked in snug. One stone...what’s the difference?” The young guy tired and cold explained, “That’s how I see it.”
The sun was setting purple in the west. The winds were picking up. More snow predicted that night. The crews’ breath freezing smokey white on their black hoodies. The heavy equipment already gone from the site. Driven back to the mintenance building hidden from view right before the interment. “They should have lined them up right at the ceremony.” The guy with the shovel mumbled still scraping and packing.
The crew leader scaned the scene. Looking north. Signs of the coming blizzard mounting. “Yeah, whatever. Get them covered up good. Pack it down tight..then let’s get back to the shed and get stuff ready. Looks like we’ve got some work ahead of us tomorrow with the other two funerals and all. Hell of a crash.”
The graves now almost covered. The men filling and tamping the ground firm. “Okay guys just get them finished up. Okay?”
A Grave Mistake
An early arrival
A bell in the air.
The sound that tremors
A frightening stare.
His paperwork done.
Cup of java for fun.
It's time to do his morning
He checked every grave, every plate.
He checked every statue, every entry gate.
He noticed a bag on bench near a grave.
Not a person in site, but words were engraved.
"Here lie Kathrine Moody, a very short lived life"
It ended " If she hadn't cheated, she would've made a good wife!"
He noticed the ending was freshly done.
He grabbed the bag, checked the gate and continued on
his run .
The next morning, the same routine but this time he saw a hat with a bullet hole on the brim.
On the stone it read, "I'm sorry for killing you honey, I meant to kill him!"
He grabbed the hat, locked the gate, and went back to start his day.
He put on that hat, grabbed his coat and slowly walked away.
Facing his Maker
Samuel Griffin, the new sexton at St Adelaide’s, was a relative newcomer to the village, and he certainly wasn’t a person who was steeped in the more arcane rituals of the Church. So how was he to know, unless someone told him, that the traditional burial rites for a priest were different, in one crucial respect, from those of other people?
Father Algernon Beaumont-Ward (‘Father Algie’ as he had been affectionately known by his parishioners throughout his forty-two years of faithful ministry at St Adelaide’s) had died at the impressive age of one hundred and three. He had retired from ‘St Adie’s’ at the age of seventy (and was said to deeply regret the fact that had he been born just eighteen months earlier, the newly-enforced canonical retirement age would not have applied to him, and he would have been free to continue as the parish priest for as long as he had wished). His last service at St Adelaide’s had fallen on February 2nd 1977, his seventieth birthday, and the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Appropriate, given the traditional prayer of St Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, associated with that day: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. Save for his short curacy in an inner-city London parish, his entire ministry had been spent at St Adelaide’s. None of his successors had lasted for more than half a decade; the shadow he had cast during his illustrious tenure had been a long one.
But sadly, over time almost all of the most stalwart members of the parish had died or moved away; fewer and fewer now remained to recall his incumbency, the heyday of the parish. As the congregation had dwindled, so successive reorganisations had seen St Adelaide’s grouped with first one neighbouring parish, then another: the grand if slowly decaying nine-bedroom Rectory that had served as home to Father Algie and his predecessors since the mid-nineteenth century had been sold off; the local church school had been closed as the school roll had dwindled; the post office had shut too, and even the Black Bull was struggling, like many a country pub, as the drink-drive laws had become more stringently enforced. One in three of the houses in Adelaide-on-the-Howe were now holiday homes, standing empty for three-quarters or more of the year. Bit by bit, the village was becoming a ghost settlement, like so many in that remote corner of East Anglia these days.
Only the local nursing home, optimistically and euphemistically named Sunshine Towers, seemed to be thriving; as the local population aged, so the queue to secure places in the home lengthened. Father Algie had lived there himself for the final nine years of his life, but had received progressively fewer visits from the diminishing pool of ‘old-timers’ who remembered his tenure as their parish priest with affection. The Bishop had visited him on his one hundredth birthday; a young whipper-snapper, just fifty-seven years old, with decidedly modern views. Father Algie, his mental faculties surprisingly alert still, even if his eyesight was failing, had not been impressed.
There was no doubt that Algernon Beaumont-Ward was ‘old school’. He had left meticulous instructions for his funeral service. The ceremony was conducted by the Rural Dean, Canon Smallbrooke, not by any of Father Algie’s former colleagues (who had all predeceased him), nor by any of his successors at St Adie’s (now part of a sprawling group of seven churches, currently in an interregnum that had already lasted for eighteen months). The Rural Dean had several other appointments that day - including a funeral in his own parish, forty minutes drive away, at the opposite end of the Deanery. Despite the pressure he felt himself to be under, he’d adhered as closely as possible to the strict requirements Father Algie had laid down for his funeral. The coffin had been draped with the old priest’s ordination chasuble and stole, the same vestments he had worn for his first mass in London, and later for his first communion service at St Adelaide’s, way back on Advent Sunday 1934. The hymns and readings were exactly as requested, and a CD player had been set up to play the Pie Jesu from Faure’s Requiem immediately before the Commendation. However, neither the Rural Dean nor the church wardens had been able to secure the services of someone to toll the church bell in the traditional manner. ‘For whom does the bell toll? Alas, it tolls not for thee, Father,’ Canon Smallbrooke had mused to himself.
The attendance at the funeral was sparse; Father Algie’s sole living relative, his great-niece Miss Evangeline Beaumont-Ward, lived in Cornwall, and was not well enough to travel. The churchwardens were there, out of duty, and the organist, likewise. Apart from the manager and two care staff from Sunshine Towers, the only person in attendance who had known Father Algie was Mrs Molly MacMillan, who had once been the old priest’s housekeeper. Eight-eight years old herself - stubbornly refusing the hip-replacement that she had been in need of for the previous fifteen years - she had struggled up the church path with some considerable difficulty. But she had been determined to pay her final respects to the person she regarded as ‘the last proper priest this parish ever had.’ Seven people, in all - not including the undertaker and his staff, and himself as celebrant, thought the Rural Dean, glancing at his watch to make sure he wasn’t running late. A sad epitaph to a life of faithful service.
Samuel Griffin hadn’t attended the service. He was on holiday on the day in question; and, in any case, he had been assured when he was appointed that it wasn’t a strict requirement for the sexton to attend each and every funeral. Just so long as the burial plot in the churchyard had been marked out, the grave-diggers engaged, and the paperwork was in order; that was what mattered. Then, later, after a few weeks had passed to allow the earth to settle upon the new grave, there would be the task of liaising with the stone-mason appointed by the family, ensuring that the design of and wording upon the headstone was strictly in accordance with the churchyard regulations, and making sure that it had been correctly installed. And then, of course, the biggest part of his job: to ensure that the churchyard was well-maintained, that the trees were managed and the grass was cut, that dead floral tributes were removed, and that no gravestone was leaning over dangerously. But be there at each funeral? No, that wasn’t a necessary part of his duties.
He received the paperwork from Miss Beaumont-Ward, in Cornwall, in due course. The epitaph was an odd one, he thought: ‘How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?’ The reference to ‘the gods’ didn’t sound particularly Christian - surprisingly, that, given that he was a reverend, thought Griffin - but there was the counter-signature of the Rural Dean, next to that of Miss Beaumont-Ward, approving the wording. Indeed, Canon Smallbrooke had scrawled a name, next to the sentence. C.S. Lewis. Was that the name of the original author of these strange words?
All was clearly in order. Once again - how was he to have known that the burial of a priest was different?
The first he knew that someone had made a grave error was the Sunday after the headstone had been installed. Shortly after midday, he received a phone call at home from an agitated Molly MacMillan.
‘Mr Griffin? It’s Mrs MacMillan.’
He struggled to remember the name. ‘I’m sorry–Mrs MacMillan?’
‘Mrs Molly MacMillan, from Violet Cottage. I used to be the housekeeper for the late Father Algernon Beaumont-Ward. Before your time. Before you were even born, I shouldn’t wonder.’ She sniffed. Her disapproval of his youth was self-evident in her voice.
‘How can I help you, Mrs MacMillan?’
‘Join me in the churchyard of St Adelaide’s, right away if you please. There’s something I need to show you. It’s urgent. I went to lay flowers on poor Father Algernon’s grave, and I was shocked by what I discovered.’
Griffin looked across at the dining table, where his Sunday lunch was lying, half-eaten. ‘Could I meet you there in half-an-hour?’
‘Well– ’ The voice at the other end of the telephone paused. ‘Very well. But no later. I shall meet you at the graveside.’
‘Now then, Mr Griffin, can you see the dreadful mistake that has been made?’ Mrs Molly MacMillan, dressed in deepest black, gesticulated with her umbrella towards the plot where the late parish priest of Adelaide-on-the-Howe was lying - hopefully - at rest.
Did he get much rest from this pugnacious harridan in life, when she was his housekeeper, I wonder? thought Samuel Griffin. He looked across at the grave. Nothing seemed to be amiss. The headstone was standing in place, positioned perfectly in line with the others in that part of the churchyard. Was there a problem with the wording on the gravestone? Or the dates? No, he had checked them most carefully. It could only be the strange epitaph, then. Mrs MacMillan must have some problem with that.
‘I can assure you, Mrs MacMillan, that the Rural Dean believed the wording to be perfectly in order.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Molly MacMillan scowled. ‘This isn’t about words.’
‘Then what– ?’
‘Do you know,’ she interrupted him, testily, ‘why gravestones are placed in the way they are?’
‘Of course. They’re placed at the head of the grave. The nearest point to the head of the coffin.’
‘And why are the lines of gravestones orientated in the way they are in a graveyard?’
He shook his head. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Churchyards, just like churches, are orientated towards the east. They are laid out so that, on the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies of the departed rise up, they find themselves facing east - towards the dawning sun. Towards their risen and ascended Saviour, who has come down again from on high to welcome them, and to judge them.’
Do people really believe that nonsense any more? thought Griffin. He looked at Father Algernon’s grave once again. ‘Then I don’t see the problem - this grave is exactly like all the others.’
‘No, Mr Griffin,’ said Molly MacMillan. ‘It is not.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘If you’d actually attended Father Algernon’s funeral yourself, you would. He had left precise instructions. The old tradition is that priests are buried facing the other way from the people: so that on the Day of Resurrection, when they rise from the grave, they are facing westwards - with their backs to the sun. They face their people, out there— ’ She waved her hand in an expansive gesture, across the graveyard. ‘Just as in church, as they face the people, at the altar, representing Christ himself - as it was in the life that was, so it will be in the life to come.’ She tapped the gravestone with her umbrella. ‘And so, this gravestone is in the wrong place. It’s been placed at dear Father Algy’s feet, you numbskull! It should have been positioned there– ’ she gestured, again, pointing to the place where, Griffin had naturally presumed, the foot of the priest’s coffin lay. ‘Now do you understand?’
Griffin nodded. Yes - he did. A grave error had, indeed, been made.
But was he really the one to blame?
‘He’ll rise to face them, the ones he christened, and married, and buried himself, on the Day of Resurrection,’ insisted the old woman. ‘And all the other ones he might have performed those offices for, if the Church hadn’t forced him to retire. All the people who weren’t there for his funeral. The ones– ’ she paused, for her voice trembling now. She dabbed at her cheek with her handkerchief, then continued: ‘The ones who should have been there. Who abandoned him.’
Ah, thought the sexton. That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? He’d heard that hardly anyone had attended the funeral. The old parish priest, who had baptised their babes at the old Norman font; who had dispensed the sanctified bread and wine from the altar to the faithful, and had exhorted and encouraged them from the pulpit; who had joined countless young couples in holy matrimony at the chancel step, and had presided at the funerals of hundreds of people, perhaps, over the course of his long tenure at St Adelaide’s; that pious, faithful old man had been forgotten, by and large, in death himself.
It started to rain.
Griffin looked at the basket of summer flowers that Mrs MacMillan had left by the gravestone - the headstone placed in error at the feet of the former parish priest. ‘Come, let me help you arrange these flowers,’ he said. ‘Then you can take my arm and I’ll walk you home. And I promise I will ring Miss Beaumont-Ward tonight, and ask her what I should do.’
He had dreaded the phone call, but was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
‘I’m so sorry, Mr Griffin,’ said Father Algernon’s great-niece. ‘It’s really not your fault. I’d completely forgotten, myself, about that rather quaint custom. Uncle Algy was a stickler to such things. I can understand why Mrs MacMillan was so upset.’
‘Thank you. Do you want to arrange for the memorial stone to be moved to the - err - other end of the grave? Of course, I’ll need to check with the Rural Dean if that’s in order, and the monumental mason may well make an additional charge, I’m afraid.’
There was a pause. Then Evangeline Beaumont-Ward spoke again, gently but firmly. ‘No, Mr Griffin, that won’t be necessary. I don’t believe all that stuff myself, about priests facing the other way on the Last Day, do you?’
‘I don’t happen to believe in God, Miss Beaumont-Ward. I plan to be cremated, myself, then for my ashes to be scattered. But, no, if there were a God - why would he treat priests any differently?’
‘Precisely, Mr Griffin. Something uncle and I disagreed on, alas. He was a deeply affectionate great-uncle to me, and I loved visiting him as a child, half a century ago, back when he was in his prime at St Adie’s. But we always had rather different theological views. You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek - he was rather fond of that quotation from scripture. Once a priest, always a priest, in his view. But to my mind - surely we all face God on the same terms, at the end of all things? That’s why I suggested that quotation on his headstone.’
‘That was down to you?’ asked Griffin, surprised.
‘Yes. I helped my great-uncle draw up his last will, and his final instructions for his funeral, some ten years ago, not long before he went into Sunshine Towers. He was stuck for an epitaph. I suggested the Lewis quote to him. We were both rather fond of his writings. He liked it - but I’m not sure he interpreted it in quite the same way as I did. I think that what Lewis was saying is that we can only look upon the face of God when we are really ready to look Him in the eye, to stand before Him face to face, without any of the masks, and personas, and false faces we so often wear in life. And how can we possibly do that if we’ve got our backs to Him? At the end of the day, my great-uncle has to face God not as a priest, but as a human being. Just like any one of us. We can’t change how Uncle Algy’s body was buried. Don’t you need a certificate from the Home Office, or some such thing, to move a body already interred? But neither should we change how his gravestone is positioned. So let it stand, in line with all the others. He may have baptised, and married, and buried, half of them there in the churchyard. But he’ll face his God, as one of them, I’m sure. He’ll face his Maker - as a man.’
A Grave Mistake
An evil spirt was locked up and buried away
Under heaps of rocks, soil and clay
Waiting, waiting for his next easy pray
An innocent caretaker then decided to say
The words on a tombstone so it could awake
An evil that lay dormant until that very day
The day hereby known as his grave mistake
Wild ivy creeps out from terracotta cracks
Hollow stones hold names snatched by falling sand
Yew wicker expands overhead
Murmurs and mumbles spread the tales
Simple fables spoken by treasonous tongues
They warn of madness burrowed deep inside
Wisdom of their forbearers given to each new soul
One rule set to follow for the next grave keeper
Eternity is the only witness to the fate of the keeper
Known to her of how silvery whispers tug to break the rule
Penumbral shades tempt the gaze
Labyrinth twisted from briar and stone
Argent crescent weeps as will is frayed
Before the keeper stands a solitary grave
Broken they move like a puppet on strings
Pale eyes intake the forbidden letters engraved in granite
Upon the dawntide a body is strung from the gates
Body painted by sanguine
Within the cycle another comes to gate
Advice is given once more
Simeon had been the caretaker for Bright-ridge cemetery for the better part of four decades. Nightly strolls through white marble glistening in the moonlight never failed to bring a tear to his eye as he marveled at his handiwork. Simeon had recently taken on his thirteenth understudy. As his hands have begun to betray him and his eyesight steadily fading, he knew soon he would have no choice but to hand over the keys to a younger suitor. Over the past several years he courted many youthful personalities, eager to learn the tricks of the trade and eager to please Mister Simeon. The newest young lad, Reginald, was no different. Simeon has tested Reginald’s stomach for dark humor and his knowledge on meteorology as it relates to caretaking duties. A brain for scheduling, Reginald was punctual but overly critical of Simeon’s lack of urgency in finishing tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. Simeon took care to remind Reginald that death waits for no man and often strikes when least expected. Reginald scoffed at Simeon, and turned back to his last test, the one of brute strength and endurance, hand digging a grave for a service to be held in the morning. It seemed Reginald had been digging for what seemed like an eternity, when Simeon beckoned for him to join him in a toast. Together, they raised a glass, “You digging prowess is unmatched…” Reginald gasped and collapsed into the hole he had dug. His eyes glazed and breathing shallow as he felt wet, cold, red clay spray against his body. Paralyzed, he could not move or make a sound. He only heard the fading words “…only by your ability to make a grave mistake”. Simeon continued his musings while making final preparations for tomorrow’s service. He made a mental note to run an ad in the local paper in hopes of finding a suitable successor. These unappreciative young men, just won’t do for my beautiful marble garden.