Gravedigging Theology

I was sitting at a picnic table at the Livingston Farmers’ Market one Thursday evening, enjoying a pulled pork sandwich from one of the food trucks. The picnic table was large enough that there were four other people sitting next to Sarah, John Owen, Addie, and me. Walt Grayson was walking around the farmers’ market with his video camera, doing interviews, sampling the food, and talking with vendors, most likely for his next edition of Mississippi Roads.  My ears perked up when the people sitting next to me at the picnic table began discussing Walt Grayson’s episode of Mississippi Roads at the Chapel of the Cross. The topic of discussion was the Gravediggers’ Guild.

“Can you believe they hand dig their graves? I have never heard of that,” one person stated.

“You mean they don’t use machinery at all,” another person replied.

“Nope. Folks from the church take turns digging the grave. They even get down in it. Walt Grayson got down in there when he was documenting it. Then afterwards, when the grave is dug, they stand around and drink Scotch.”

These four people noticed me listening to their conversation. They asked me if I had ever heard of the Gravediggers’ Guild. I told them that indeed I had heard of it. I introduced myself, told them that I was a priest at the Chapel of the Cross, and I let them know a little more about the Gravediggers’ Guild and the “standing around and drinking Scotch.” They remarked it was one of the neatest things they had heard of and a great way to show hospitality when people lose a loved one.

I received a thank-you note recently from a family member of someone for whom we had just dug a grave. It read: “I love the Chapel of the Cross’s ministry of hand digging the grave, and Daddy would have loved knowing that all of you drank a toast of Scotch as a “drink offering” to him.”

What we do at the Chapel of the Cross when a member of our community dies is hospitality like none other. It is community. It is compassion. It is love. Though it is all of these wonderful things, it is still much much more. I have called it theology in action and that is exactly what it is, but it is something even more profound than that. I was thinking about it at the last grave digging after we had dug the grave and sipped the Scotch, and were standing around in the churchyard. I thought to myself, “What exactly is it that we are doing here?”

It was then that it hit me. We are mocking death. Our society fears the grave and runs from it, but here at the Chapel of the Cross, our hope is so intricately and deeply woven into the fabric of the Resurrection that we laugh at death. With every shovel of dirt, with every inch dug deeper into the grave, our song of “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,” becomes even louder and clearer. At the Chapel of the Cross, we do not run from death. We invite death to grab a shovel and dig the grave with us. As we gather ’round the grave to toast, we invite death to toast with us, because neither death nor the grave has any power over us. Death and the grave has utterly been destroyed by ‘Christ our Lord [who] that way has trod’ (1982 Hymnal, #400, verse 6).

With all of this being said, we need more people (especially young people) to join the Gravediggers’ Guild at the Chapel of the Cross. We need more people to join in mocking death. The Gravediggers’ Guild is one that we hope does not function too often, but when it does, all are invited, young and old, new members and old, to laugh at death. The next time the Gravediggers’ Guild is called to put theology into action, consider this your invitation. Come grab a shovel and as the depths of the grave deepen, join us in making our song ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”