People who no one ever see
It was just more than two years ago that we stood in the pavilion at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. The occasion was the services for my mother who, 13 years after the death of my father, was to be buried with him. We were told that we could return to the gravesite at 4 p.m.
It rained that afternoon, and we returned to the cemetery at 5 p.m. When I stood at their graves, I noticed my father’s headstone had been removed, and flowers that we had left had been blown over by the wind. I looked at the gravesite and I became angry, and I realized that she had not been buried. My immediate thought was that she might be resting in a shed, and that the men would complete their work later.
A much closer inspection of the grave revealed a very thin line cut in the grass, and this was barely visible. There was no evidence that the grave had been opened, refilled with dirt, tamped down and the grass replaced. There were no tire marks, and the surrounding grass was undisturbed. Awe began to replace my anger. I began to realize that these men had taken my mother on a sun-filled afternoon and had buried her in the afternoon rain. She was buried without any trace, and because it was mid-June, the grass had been removed and set back down again.
Her burial made an impression on me, and I returned to the National Cemetery two weeks later. I saw a man driving a white truck and stopped him. I asked him how they did it, and I wanted to know each step — the dirt, the vault, the tamping, the replacing of the grass and of how not a spoonful of dirt was left out of place.
He told me that that their work begins by taking the claws off the backhoe, but he would not answer about my details, other than to reflect on his pride when he spoke of his men. He finished by telling me that he had one hell of a crew.
My sense of awe and gratitude return with each visit to my parents’ gravesite. On holidays such as Memorial Day, many families visit, and I hope that they see it with my eyes. It is a quiet, beautiful and peaceful place, and it always remains a fitting tribute to those who are buried there. The new walls added in the past two years and that hold cremains could not be more beautiful.
Within my sense of peace is the gratitude to the men who work there. Most people complain about having to move on quickly after a service, but most days, there are many burials, and the men who see to the burials are unseen, but they do their work with a high degree of respect and care. It is a difficult job.
For me, our gravesite is elevated in my mind and heart, and it remains an emotional experience. It is elevated because these men did work on a very special day that was beyond caring, and their work was done perfectly. They have elevated the place where my parents rest to one where I think of gratitude first, and unnamed, I inwardly thank them each time I visit. Imagine their job, done so precisely and perfectly that I could not tell that they had been there at all. They took the same care of my mother that I would have wanted had I been there, and for that I remain thankful and grateful to them.
Charles Padilla is a Santa Fe resident whose parents are buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.