Monday, July 12, 2021

The Unmarked Grave

Allow me to introduce to you my guest author for this post, 
George Hofmann. 

The Unmarked Grave

There’s a small plot of grass on a gently sloping field dotted with granite markers; memorials to people who were loved and too soon lost. But this plot, wedged between black stones with etchings of people now passed, sits unmarked, barren though covered with lush, freshly cut grass, anonymous. Beneath it, for nearly five years, has lain the remains of an eight-year-old girl. She was in the news once. Now you can’t find her.

I work in the shop that made many of the monuments and grave markers that radiate out in rows from this lonely place. Some of the stones are carved in other plants, but a lot of them we carve ourselves. I draw the inscription on tracing paper on a drafting table, cover a stone with a stencil pad, transfer the image from the drafting paper to the stencil, and carefully, with a steady and respectful hand, cut out each letter and number. We sandblast the stone, so that the name and dates will last longer than the very people who remember the deceased. The stencil pad keeps the stone unscarred. Only the exposed memorial inscription speaks. Then a crew takes the marker to the cemetery and sets it at the grave. Most of the time.

When I first started the job I walked around the stones in the yard, all of them waiting to be set. I noticed some of them were old, with death dates of 2017, 2007, 2003. I asked my boss why they were still there, and he told me they weren’t paid for yet.

There was one marker, a medium-sized one, crammed between several others. It was covered with stained and weather-beaten cardboard and wrapped in steel bands. The cardboard was torn in the center, so I stepped over another stone and bent down to see what was there. Through the frayed and tattered hole gazed a very young girl on a porcelain badge, her face a shy smile, her hands held in front of her in the shape of a heart.

I pulled apart a bit of the cardboard. It was old and wet and it nearly disintegrated. I saw that the girl died in 2016, and in 2021 the red granite meant to keep her memory alive sat hidden on boards like a cenotaph while a mother, a mother surely still grieving, made monthly payments meant to turn that small plot of grass in the cemetery across the street into a proper memorial.

And so she sits there. When working in the yard I walk to her and think of my daughter and thank God… After a few months of glimpsing the photo of the girl silently straining to be seen the stone was moved to another part of the yard, the cardboard and steel cut off, and she finally saw the sun. But there she remains, still a receivable, not scheduled to be set.

A few days ago I Googled her name and saw the news articles. She was killed in a hit and run. At the sentencing of the driver, in 2018, the mother cried that her baby was buried in the ground while the driver could still hug his child. But today when the mother visits the ground where her baby is buried she finds only grass. Grass that grows unaware of what it covers. Grass, green and damp with dew, that lives.

When I’m moving markers in the yard with the two-ton crane and it starts to rain I have to bring the electric crane inside. I stand in the plant and look out at the downpour. The yard becomes muddy around the stones set aside waiting for payment. Over time grass grows up around the splattered granite. You’d think the people that work here would be full of gallows humor, but they’re not. They’re reverent, and I clean the dirty stones and trim the grass pushing up between them.

The girl waits behind a couple to be remembered together and in front of a young man also taken early in a life that surely held promise. She will, eventually, stand on the grass plot where her body lay. People will come to see her and remember, finally. Her monument with her image will join the rows of stones laid out for mourning that declare that a life passed is worth clinging to and never really ends. Those left behind never fully move on. Her small plot a place of reverence for the living covered with grass that will always grow as she will in her mother’s memory - the girl’s picture looking out over the field to stand there longer than any of us will ever be.


George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.