Bring Your Own Shovel
By: Hannah Saal
My family only ever owned one kind of shovel growing up, the type used for snow. When my siblings and I had snow days, the four of us would take turns shoveling the sidewalk and driveway of our house before our mother got home from work. Snow shovels were all my family had ever needed.
That changed in the fall of 2020.
“Roll up your sleeves, everyone,” my uncle said, as he returned to where the small group of family waited in the cemetery parking lot.
His wife did not die from coronavirus, though it had affected her treatment in the last months. My aunt’s twenty-year battle with cancer was over. And now the family had gathered to bury our loved one—sister, wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt. We had come to escort her to her final resting place, next to my great-grandparents.
It had been many months since any of us had seen each other in person. We hid our faces with masks. We did not hug each other.
“Because of COVID, we’re going to have to do it all ourselves,” my uncle explained, as my mother completed the paperwork in the cemetery’s office.
Jews bury their dead. Halvayat ha-meyt is a chesed shel emet—escorting the dead is a true act of charity. The dead person cannot thank you for what you have done for them, for what they can no longer do for themselves. In an alternate universe, where a pandemic had never occurred, where more than just the handful of family would have been present, the attendees at a Jewish funeral each shovel some dirt into the grave. This is how we escort and honor our dead. Once the grave is as full as the mourners feel it needs to be, minimally once the casket is covered, the ceremony continues. If there is anything left to do, the cemetery employees finish filling in the grave once everyone leaves.
But in this universe, where human contact was now suspect, this could not be. Either the cemetery employees were going to fill in the grave completely or we were. The choice, if you could really call it that, was obvious.
We were going to bury my aunt completely. Our loved one was going to be buried and cared for by the people she had loved and the people who had loved her.
The cemetery couldn’t give us their shovels. My mother had brought disposable gloves so the shovel could be handled by everyone, but even so, the policy during COVID prohibited lending us their shovels.
It was only by luck that an employee had a personal shovel in his car. It was only by his kindness that he loaned it to us to use.
We stood several yards away while the coffin was lowered into the ground by the cemetery employees. My mother had been asked to lead the service, the few prayers that the Rabbis prepared to be said during times like this. The first one, she couldn’t say, her tears beyond her control. So I took the book from her and read aloud in English. Not every member of the family knew Hebrew. I tried not to think about what I was reading, why I was reading. I just had to say the words aloud, one right after the other, my heart jerking in my chest. When the grave was ready, the mound of opened dirt and one shovel beside it, we approached and began.
The back of the shovel is used to make the first scoop, as a symbol to show this is not how we want to be using this tool. After a few back-sided scoops, the shovel is turned front-side up to be used normally. When each person is done, the shovel is placed back in the mound of dirt. It is not handed from person to person, another sign to show that we do not want to be doing this.
It was slow going with only one shovel. The weather, which had been fair for September, was now becoming warm. My primary task was looking after my grandfather, the father of the widower. He sat on the folding chair we’d brought for him, in between helping, as much as he
could, to bury his daughter-in-law. My brother held up a phone so a relative who had not been able to come could virtually attend.
We all took turns shoveling, rotating through the small group. I was not the strongest even before the pandemic and certainly not since the lockdown. I stopped each of my turns as my arms burned and began to feel like rubber.
After some time, another employee came by and gave us two more shovels. They had been left by previous mourners. We accepted them gratefully. Now three people were able to work at once.
At last our task was finished, the mound of dirt gone, and my aunt’s grave filled. My mother recited the final prayers, her throat clogged but her voice clear. We returned the loaned shovels to the employees with our gratitude. We walked back to our cars. We said goodbye to each other before we drove to our separate homes.
We did not hug.
I wasn’t there when she did it, but I know that a few weeks later, my mother bought a regular digging shovel. For next time.
There may never be another time where we obscure our faces and do not hold each other in our grief. I may never need to own a snow shovel, depending on where I make my permanent home. But I know there will be a time when I will need to bury a loved one again. I will never want to say goodbye, but I can be ready to escort them until the very end.
About the Author
Hannah Saal (she/her) is a graduate of Harvard College and The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Thin Air Magazine, and the 2022 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology.