When a group of men who are used to cushy desk jobs rolls up their sleeves to dig a deep and wide hole in the ground, you know it’s a labor of love. The Gravedigger’s Guild at Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Madison County does just that whenever a parishioner passes away. All the graves that are dug in the historic church’s cemetery are dug by hand, just as they were when the earliest graves were dug there in the mid 1800s.
“It’s really a necessary thing, since there are a lot of obstacles to getting heavy equipment in there,” said Tony Rischer, chairman of the Gravedigger’s Guild. “We are dealing with a very old, historic cemetery, and we must protect the integrity of what’s already there. But at the same time, it is a ministry of sorts, a gift we give to the families of the deceased.”
Rischer said that he became involved with the guild about four years ago, mostly out of curiosity. “I knew about it, and I was curious about the whole process. So the next time there was an occasion to dig a grave, I went to help. I was surprised that it was actually fun, which is weird to say. But there was so much fellowship involved. Everyone has a common purpose, and it really is a labor of love.”
Judy Barnes is the Parish Coordinator for Chapel of the Cross, and she said that digging graves by hand at the church’s cemetery “is a really sweet, personal thing we do for the families of the deceased.” Barnes explained that the remains are of the deceased, either the body or ashes, is delivered to the chapel the night before the funeral. “Many times the grave diggers are already at the church, and they just quietly line up along the walkway with the priest to receive the body. It’s a very reverent time.”
According to Barnes, the church’s tradition of digging the graves by hand is a fairly new one. “It started in the late 1980s or early 1990s,” she said. “It can be an arduous proposition, especially in the areas of the cemetery where there are large trees with big roots. “We’ve run into some interesting things when we were digging out there,” said Rischer. “We’ve dug very close to an area where there was evidence of an old casket in a grave that wasn’t marked. We’ve actually had a few near misses, because there weren’t accurate records of the earliest graves in the cemetery.”
The chapel, located on west Highway 463, was founded in 1848 by the Johnstone family. The chapel was actually consecrated in 1852, and the original parishioners were Margaret Johnstone, her daughters Helen and Frances as well as Frances’ family. The servants of the two plantations where the families lived, Annandale and Ingleside, also attended services at the church. “Services were held twice a day on Sundays,” explained Barnes. “In the morning, the family sat up front, and the servants sat in the back, but for the evening services, the servants sat up front and the family sat in the back.”
The simple brick church is surrounded by centuries-old trees in a most picturesque setting. Many come to see the building simply because it is one of the two finest examples known of nineteenth century Gothic Revival church architecture in the United States.
Perhaps the most famous of all the people buried in the old cemetery is Henry Vick, who was engaged to wed Margaret Johnstone. Vick was the son of the founder of Vicksburg. Four days before the wedding, he was involved in a dual in New Orleans where he lost his life. Because embalming wasn’t common at the time, his body was placed in a coffin packed in coffee beans for the trip back up the Mississippi River–the same boat that was to bring the lavish catered food for the wedding reception. On what would have been her wedding day, Margaret instead buried her beloved Henry in the cemetery. “We still have a copy of the undertaker’s bill,” said Barnes.
The tale had a happy ending, because Margaret went on to wed George Harris, who served as rector of the little church on three different occasions. “We still have descendants of the original Johnstone family as parishioners here,” remarked Barnes. “We also have descendants of the Mann family, who founded Mannsdale.”
The church went through a period where most of the parishioners were elderly, and the future didn’t look certain. But with the growth in Madison County, younger families moved into the area and gravitated to the historic church. “We have many young families now,” said Barnes. “We have a huge education building and we had over 100 children at our Vacation Bible School. So the church has truly come full circle.” Barnes said that the church now has 600 members and four services each Sunday.
A signature event for the church is the annual Day in the Country, set this year for October 6th. The event has been held each year for the past 26 years. “It’s an event that used to bring people out here for an old fashioned day in the country,” Barnes said. “It started as a fundraiser for the restoration of the church, and continues to fund the historic restoration fund. With a building this old, there is always something to be done to maintain the structure.”
As vital and lively as the church congregation is today, death is a certainty at some point. For those who have been through many of life’s rites of passages at the church, it seems fitting to hold funeral services there as well. When a person is brought into the chapel, volunteers come to sit with the body through the night, holding a prayer vigil that lasts until the funeral the next day. The volunteers pray the Psalms all the way through, then they are relieved by the next volunteer. Shifts usually last about an hour. Sometimes, family members will join the vigil. All the while, the grave diggers are going about their task in the cemetery, working through the night.
Those who are too old or aren’t able-bodied enough bring food and beverages to the grave diggers, and they sometimes hang out to provide moral support. “What’s interesting,” said Rischer, “is that most of the members of this church are professionals who would probably never have the need to dig a hole as big as a grave. It’s a job you probably couldn’t pay them to do.” Yet, the members of the Gravediggers Guild don’t think twice about exerting the manual labor required to put one of their own parishioners to rest.
Rischer’s job as chairman of the committee is to make sure the grave is in the right place, measuring off the area to be dug, and determining how big and deep the grave must be. “I make phone calls to the other members of the committee until I get enough people to work. Surprisingly, it isn’t difficult to round up enough people. We usually have about ten to fifteen people help at any given time.” Rischer looks at grave digging as a ministry. “The family often comes out while we’re working, and we get to interact with the family. They have the chance to talk about their loved one and I believe it makes it a little easier on them.”
Once the grave is dug, the priest says a prayer over the grave and it’s ready for burial. After the funeral services, a few of the grave diggers will return to close the grave.
While not necessarily an Episcopalian custom, Barnes said that she’s sure other churches may do something similar. “It’s just something special we do at Chapel of the Cross, and it really touches the families of the deceased. It’s a very personal gift that the grave diggers give.”