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Memorial Day, The Sexton’s Tale

I went to see the sexton.

The Abbott women at the Senior Center put me up to it — Gloria, her daughter Sharon and daughter-in-law, Shirley Hulbert — when I stopped to inquire how the flea market had gone on Memorial Day weekend. They said it was down about $100 from the last few years. I proceeded to eat enough biscuits and gravy to stick to my ribs until Labor Day! Every morning I got my chow there, and the burgers and sweets were going like hotcakes. I asked about the doings at the cemetery, and they sent me to see Mr. Clyde Doggett, the sexton at Evergreen Cemetery in Boonville.

So I hoofed it out to Evergreen Cemetery on Anderson Valley Way. On the way I stopped at the office and picked up a camera, to get a shot of the decorations. It used to be called Decoration Day, as anybody who has heard John Lee Hooker’s song knows, whether they were born before the American Legion renamed it after WWI, or not.

At the office, the editor smiled benignly at my project, saying he used to live next door to the graveyard and remembered the day, like that fellow in Shakespeare, a washed-up momento-mori, a little reminder, a skull was found floating free of its final resting place.

This reminded me of my mother’s favorite joke; and all hopped-up on Gold Rush coffee, Petrolia's finest, I couldn’t resist re-telling it. Mother used to tell me and my siblings not to go to the bar after a funeral because everyone would think we were celebrating. She would be quite serious about it until the dishes were done, then her mood would lighten and, realizing we were going to the bar anyway, she’d tell her favorite joke as a cautionary tale:

“This old boy was walking home from the bar, and he lived out east of town (we knew precisely who she was referring to, it being a small town with few drinkers). Anyway,” she’d say after a pause for us to get the allusion to old Kyle Scow, an illustrious alcoholic by our meager standards, “He was walking home on a dark night after an evening at the bar, and decided to take a shortcut through the graveyard.” At this point, my brothers and I would be cutting glances at one another. Mother was not the least concerned, lost in the splendor of her tale. “So he was walking through the graveyard. I’ll never forget, because they’d just dug your great-grandfather’s grave. …Old WhatHisName dug it. I shall never forget Old WhatHisName, the sexton, if should I live to be a hundred.”

At this point my brother Randy would groan involuntarily, but Mum never noticed. She’d say, “He always used to say that grave digging was the only job where you got to start at the top!”

At this point, I would groan. Then she’d say, “Anyhow, he was weaving through the graveyard and fell into your ancestor’s fresh grave… they were going to bury the old boy the very next day, or the next, but Kyle fell in there and of course, having muddled his brains with booze, he couldn’t get out. So the silly old sot just laid down and went to sleep. But pretty soon, here came another old drunk with the same idea, to take the shortcut, and he fell in the grave too. The fool panicked and scrambled around, trying to get out, but couldn’t. After a time he woke the first drunk, who sized up the situation and in a tired voice said, “You can’t get out of here, I’ve already tried.”

But, you know what? He did!”

Her laughter would follow us all the way to the Fish Tale Lounge.

The sexton’s position in a community is one of great antiquity. Everybody, the high and the low, the mighty and the meek, we all come eventually to call on the sexton.

I went to find him on Memorial Day, and I looked first at the cemetery. I was the only living soul there. The American Legion Post in Boonville had been there and put out the flags on the veteran’s graves. I’m a Legionnaire albeit one behind in his dues and I’ve done flag duty at various cemeteries myself. As a Legionnaire, I’ve been on many burial details, the 21-Gun Salute, holding the old Enfield and Springfield rifles at parade-rest while the eulogies are read, then, “‘Ten-hut! Port arms! Fire! Fire! Fire! and the plaintive notes of the trumpet, “Taps” rings through the graveyard. The flag is swept off the coffin, briskly folded into a tri-corner, three spent shell casings tucked discretely into the folds, and Old Glory is presented with a bow to the widow or mother.

I wandered around the Boonville cemetery for an hour or so, and found it all very interesting, in a peaceful sort of way. As a veteran, I like to walk by all the gravestones with flags and consider the service of the vets. I also belong to the Sons of the American Legion. My father being a deceased veteran of WWII, and a visit to the cemetery, any cemetery, really, always puts me in mind of him. God knows, I could be standing near a vet he served with here in the Boonville cemetery. So I get a little sentimental and, like Mom would say, I go out to celebrate, to drink a toast to those who didn’t make it, to those who went on the last offensive, and to those who are going on the new one. Salute!

I went to the sexton’s house south of town and knocked on the door. No answer. I walked on down to the Brewery where a horseshoe game was in progress, the iron shoes ringing and clanging on the steel posts. It was the shirts against the skins, the score eight to one. I went in and ordered a pint, to toast the vets. When I came out the score was 13 to two. I went back in and called the sexton, left a message, and when I left the game was over; the skins won, 21 to seven. I smelled tri-tip steak roasting on a barbecue, as the grill smoke drifted on the spring air. Deputy Craig Walker pulled up and we chatted. He said it had been a quiet weekend, all things considered. Nothing outside the ordinary Sheriff’s Log items to report.

I finally found the sexton, Clyde Doggett, and he corroborated the tale the Abbott women had told me: That there’d been more funerals since he’d taken over, “a lot the last nine months, a little more than normal,” he said.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m the sexton, but I don’t dig the graves. That would be Bill Holcomb; he runs the backhoe and digs ‘em just as neat as you please. Also Bill Owens and Gary Huntington do a lot, setting up the greens and everything; whatever needs to be done for everybody, and the County Cemetery District pays us. It’s good for me,” he said. “I’m retired and need something to do, and I really like helping out at such a time.”

Mr. Doggett said, “I just took over from Donald Pardini who had had the job for 15 years and he really upgraded the place.”

Before Mr. Pardini's improvements, George Gowan was the sexton, but Mr. Gowan got too old to manage the cemetery properly.

Clyde Doggett gave me the lowdown on properly filling a grave in with dirt. A great deal of sand and loam, he said, has to be poured in to fill in around the casket. But even with these measures, the grave tends to sink, after a time, and he has to top the grave off with top soil later on. In many cemeteries, sod is then placed on top to give the graveyard a uniform blanket of lawn grass. But this isn't the case at the Boonville cemetery, and I was grateful, because lawns require mowers and trimmers and these noisy machines spoil the peace of the dead.

I didn't see any bells, either. Bells used to be a common feature in cemeteries, and the lack of them is a testament to our confidence in medical science. In the past, it sometimes happened that some poor wretch got buried when he was only a-sleep, and would awake to find himself in a coffin, six-feet under. Then, when he awoke from his coma, he would have to scratch through the coffin lid with his bare fingernails and dig his way to the surface. The remedy was to place a bell on a post next to the grave with a string attached to the (presumably) deceased's finger so he could ring the bell and alert any passersby to his plight. This practice is where the old saying “saved by the bell!” came from.

One feature of the Boonville cemetery I thought particularly curious were the graves at the bottom of the hill, to the west, down by Anderson Valley Way. That these individuals should be separated from the rest reminded me of a trip I took to Ireland to visit the grave of my Great-Great-Grandfather on the banks of the River Liffey. My ancestor, you see, had been buried across the river from the others, who were laid to rest in a little churchyard. The others, I was told, refused to have the old boy put in the same ground as they, because he was such a notorious drunkard and blasphemer.

I confess I was a little rankled over this prejudice and one night, having stayed up drinking and fuming over the slight until the place I was lodging grew quiet, I went out and found some tools, a shovel and pick, untied the painter on a rowboat and crossed the river to put things right. I dug up grandpa's rotting old coffin, dragged it into the boat, rowed back over to the graveyard, dug a grave and re-buried him.

I woke late next day and found everyone at the inn much disconcerted. Johnny The Boots was white as a ghost and the lady who ran the place was fidgeting nervously, everyone looking at me askance and avoiding my bloodshot eyes.

“What's the matter? I demanded. “Haven't you ever seen anybody with a hangover before. I mean, this is Ireland for crying out loud!”

Another guest beckoned me to the window. I looked out and nearly fainted dead away. All the graves had moved to the other side of the river, all but my ancestor's fresh mound!

I have a great many more graveyard stories on my new CD, Legends of the Dead, which is available on MP3 discs for a mere $20 bill, cash check or money order.

One Comment

  1. June 4, 2010

    I thought “saved by the bell” was a boxing term. Was it the other first?

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