The Burial

There’s nothing quite like watching what used to be your brother being lowered into a hole in the Illinois earth to remind you that every moment is a universe far beyond our ability to articulate. But we can try to catch a moment, yes?

So here’s one.

A burly young man named Scott lowers what used to be my brother into the small hole that he, Scott, cut this morning, with a spade. The hole is probably a foot square all around, and the soil is black. Scott did a terrific job on that hole; it’s just beautifully cut, the edges sharp and clean. Scott lowers the stone box containing my brother’s ashes into the hole, and then he leans back to be doubly sure all the other mourners are gone, and then he takes his spade and fills in around the box, and then he kneels again on a little square of plastic grass and smoothes the soil with his gloved hands—a gentle touch. Then he scatters some bluegrass, rye, and fescue seed on top of what used to be my brother. The stone will arrive in a couple of weeks, says Scott, and it just seems respectful to get some seed down.

While Scott was lowering my brother’s ashes into the hole, I saw not one but two herons float by to the west, and I tell you the honest truth when I say I had the urge to say to my brother, even now, “Hey, Kevin, look, herons!” But I didn’t. My brother would have immediately been able to tell me if they were blue or white or green or night herons, and then he would very probably have spent ten minutes on the subtle pleasures of distinguishing little blue herons from great blue herons, who are hardly blue at all, if you look closely, which he certainly had. These ten minutes, during which he discussed heronry in close detail, would have been a riveting ten minutes, with a quick sketch of the great blue heron’s mullet haircut, and a close analysis of neck arch in each species, and finally a moment or two of entertaining imitation of the dark hoarse croak of night herons. The first time you hear this sound, it totally gives you the willies, because they float overhead at dusk like huge angels with terrible sinus conditions.

By now all the other mourners have returned to their cars, and the cars are peeling away slowly, and it’s the nearly the end of the minute during which what used to be my brother is lowered into a hole. I peel away from the tree on which I was leaning and shuffle toward my car. My brother would have asked me what kind of tree it was, and I would have said white oak, and he would have told me with high glee how white oaks get to be about five hundred years old, and produce twenty thousand acorns a year, which is ten million acorns for a grandfather tree. Your white oak, he would have said, is like the grocery store of the woods, especially for woodpeckers and wild turkeys and maybe for night herons, too.

In the car my family was waiting for me silently, and I climbed in and we drove away. On the way to lunch we saw a great blue heron up to its knees in a pond. You could tell the species, even from a distance, because of the mullet haircut.

Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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