Cemetery Shenanigans

Ezra Azra

Copyright 2022 by Ezra Azra

Photo by Kyle Larivee on Unsplash
Photo by Kyle Larivee on Unsplash

The village of Clairwood had an official graveyard. This was a most surprising fact because the Village itself was a ghetto in which most happenings were unofficial. Judging by the few irregular Municipal services received, Clairwood was, virtually, non-existent, officially.

We know the graveyard existed officially because the grave-diggers were paid by the City, Durban. One of those diggers was one of my Dad's brothers. Whenever I needed a few pennies, he would assign me a grave to start digging. Many, many years later, I was cast in a school's onstage play, "Hamlet" (William Shakespeare) in the role of the Second Gravedigger.

In Clairwood, there were no police persons. I lived there for over twenty years; I saw police persons passing through only twice. Most 'official' roads were too narrow for police four-wheel vehicles. Most roads, 'official' and unofficial, were nearly impossible for bicycles because of wild vegetation and holes and stones and debris. Most roads had sections where there were no homes. Those sections were impassable by all kinds of vehicles because of garbage thrown there by residents from everywhere.

In those rare moments of joy in the Village, persons were heard to joke that there being a cemetery in the ghetto made perfect sense since, in history, the graveyard came first; the ghetto grew around the graveyard.

By the time I was born in Clairwood, everyone believed there were more Clairwoodians buried in the graveyard than there were living in the Village. That guess was never offered in humour.

Very few people owned vehicles in Clairwood, including the persons who were in charge of the graveyard. Every day in Clairwood on a few roads there were people shoulder-carrying corpses in homemade wood boxes, to the graveyard.

Such slowly moving columns were sought out by barefoot ragamuffin children like me because there always were opportunities to help people in small ways, for which we would be paid in pennies.

Crying persons needed handkerchiefs. We were ready to pass handkerchiefs from one person to another. Of course, we never had handkerchiefs of our own.

When a grief-stricken person did not have the strength to walk any farther, we were there to help them sit at the roadside. Quite often we would sit there and cry with them. We learnt early in life that roadside tears generated more pennies.

We made the most pennies when we attended the burial in the graveyard. There was no customary protocol at a graveside. Nobody required grieving persons to have enough self-control to follow rules. This opened up endless opportunities for us volunteer helpers-for-pennies.

There were official grave diggers. No matter what day or time of day it was, grave-diggers were digging graves. Only spades and hoes were used. There were no machine-diggers. We were too small to handle spades; but there were hoes especially made for us. In the years I served, I must have helped dig hundreds and hundreds of graves.

The best time to dig a grave for an occupant, is at night; by oil lamp light. It is quicker to dig a six-foot hole at night because more diggers are available to participate in a dig. As well, at night there is no risk the dig will be interrupted by a nearby funeral procession.

We ragamuffins worked in the daytime only. We would start a grave hole with our hoes until we were knee-deep, after which the adults, men and, or, women, would take over, with spades. When there was no school the next day, ragamuffins were allowed to help out peripherally at night, for our pennies.

A grave hole had to be dug by a special pattern. The six-feet deep hole had to have the soil piled up and sloped away on four sides in order to keep grievers from stepping too close to accidentally fall into the hole, before or while or after the coffin was lowered.

Sometimes a griever had to be physically restrained from intentionally jumping into the grave. Grave diggers were expected to mingle among the mourners in order to help prevent such catastrophes.

Only official grave-diggers were allowed to handle the ropes to lower the coffin. It was a task that required skills to cope with unpredictable sudden dangerous changes in rope maneuvers in co-ordination with at least four other equally precariously situated rope-handlers.

A frequent disruption of a coffin rope-handler's task was a distraught mourner's uncontrolled attempt to help a rope-handler lower the coffin. We ragamuffins were usually in there helping the rope-handler, before any other mourner. This task, most times, earned us silver coins. We would dive in and grab some part of the mourner's clothes, and pull.

There were times when distraught mourners jumped into graves to be with the coffins. It happened twice when I was at the graveside. Both times I was so horrified, I ran away out of the cemetery, instantly. I was still paid my pennies, in full.

There was a time when the cemetery was being extended. Trees were being cut down. The work had to be stopped temporarily because a pile of five ten feet long iron poles was unearthed.

We ragamuffins took an interest in the poles mainly because, mysteriously, each pole was light enough for two of us to lift shoulder-high. This made the poles eminently stealable. We stole everything that was easily movable by our age-group. But a ten-feet pole could not be hidden, and worse, we could not come up with how we could benefit from owning one, or more poles.

We gave up on the notion of stealing a ten-feet iron pole, until one of us came up with the sheer genius-of-an-option; break a pole into half. A five-feet pole could easily be hidden in the wild weeds in the virtually countless wild vegetation areas in our ghetto. Just until we could find uses for the pieces. After all, those poles had been in earth for years, but showed no signs of rust or decay.

How could child ragamuffins break a ten-feet, mysteriously lightweight, iron pole into half? We knew officials knew how, and had machinery to do the job, easily, if they so wished. Again, among us, ragamuffin genius struck.

We searched among the trees that were still not yet cut down. We found our solution. Two trees close enough for us to wedge an iron pole between them, and to use the weight of a few of us to bend the pole to-and-fro until it wore out, and broke.

One night we broke a pole in half. It was so easily and enjoyably done, we got greedy. The night was young. We had the time. We stole all five poles. We broke all of them into halves. I was not one of us who took some of the halves home to hide among the wild weeds in the back yard. Our home was one of many that did not have a back yard.

Many, many years later I was at a home far away from Clairwood. The family had a workbench they had made with four metal poles they had picked up free at an official dump site. They marveled at how rust-free the poles were, with no especial care needed. And how light they were, for being iron.

Rust-resistant iron structures constructed thousands of years ago exist in modern India.  

Contact Ezra
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Ezra's Story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher