"The Dueling Gravekeepers of Windsor"
By Rachel Heffington
At all times we have counted ourselves a ‘good county’. Our people--fed on peanuts and ham from earliest memory onward do not often find themselves lacking in wisdom or stature, and seldom lacking in favor with God and man. In fact, be it not too proud a thing for a simple, local historian to say, our Windsor Castle could vie with that in Britain and still come out King--or so those of us who observe the aristocracy like to think.
But I, Olivia Gwaltney, was not given a place in the newspaper simply to chatter on about the greatness of our county in general. I was, rather, called upon to settle a long dispute or at least, if I may, to present both sides of a question and let the populace of our respected county decide for themselves.
It is written in the Official and Brief History of Isle of Wight County that our town of Windsor boasts (and I quote): “...four general stores, two groceries, two barber shops, one shoemaker, one millinery, three churches, one high-school, one peanut factory, one planing mill, two eating houses, one blacksmith shop, one bank, two telephone offices, one telegraph office (Western Union), two undertaking establishments, one livery stable, one furniture store, and one hotel.” At first glance, one may not see anything to strike concern, but when one thinks of the implications of having two undertaking establishments, one begins to ask either or both of two questions:
1. Are there so many deaths in the town that we require two undertakers?
2. What is the relationship between the two proprietors of said establishments?
If I may lay aside my personal feelings in the matter and introduce the two men who comprise our Dead & Dying field....
Mr. Digg, and Mr. Delve are two men who are known about town by the fact that they walk together each and every day at the lunch hour. Do not mistake the two for friends, however, for the sharpest animosity of the houses of Lancaster and York exist between them. It is more to be guessed that they walk in tandem from a vague desire to never let the other have a chance at one’s back.
Mr. Digg is characterized by the overwhelming cheer that beams forth from his noble (and well-fleshed) countenance. Being a Christian, and a Protestant at that (who are not bothered by ideas of Purgatory), Mr. Digg holds a most cheerful view of death. “Death is not,” he shouts to bereaved families at every opportunity, “an end! Death is a beginning!” And so great is his benevolence that he assumes the man who lays dead on his examining table with a tag on his toe must have been a Christian and therefore looking forward to eternity with all the eager expectation of a boy let out from school on an April afternoon. Mr. Digg’s establishment is called Shivers Funeral Parlor, and the course his joyous persona bestows on all his doings has occasion Mr. Digg to make a provision that even after his own death, Shivers Funeral Parlor will continue to sponsor catering for the local Independence Day Picnic, which every citizen of Windsor will admit is a pleasant and dutiful thing.
Mr. Delve, on the other hand, takes a more conservative stance on all things pertaining to his trade. “Death,” he says, “Is an end and a beginning, and since no man can tell who might float to Heaven or be packed off to Hell, there is little reason to make a hullabaloo.”
In person, Mr. Delve is cadaverous which gives one the idea that he is a walking advertisement for his establishment--a very effective albeit discomfiting system that has brought him the majority of business for years. This moribund characteristic of Mr. Delve has brought some to criticize and even avoid his presence at a deathbed. Friends of Mr. Digg who do not approve of Mr. Delve have said “he resembles a turkey buzzard who--watching a small, weak creature struggling on the side of the road--is only waiting for his chance to pounce.” And indeed, one might say Mr. Delve, with his customary suit of rusty black and his bald head, could answer very easily to the description of a raptor. But no one in a judicious frame of mind could deny the fact that Mr. Delve is an earnest servant of his trade, and has never once mixed up his cadavers unlike his colleague who, it is rumored, once replaced the Mayor of Windsor’s mother with the body of a nineteen year old journalist, and caused much joy and jubilation at the funeral over how the breezes of Heaven had already refreshed and renewed the mother’s poor, earthly body.
A miracle indeed, if you had known the mayor’s mother.
Here I have given you two alternatives: I set before you death and....death. Choose...death. I’m afraid there is no question of life, at present, for Mr. Digg and Mr. Delve both are concerned with taking care of the departed in this life, and have no need to bother with birthings. I have attempted to represent each man as he is, and shall conclude my representation of each with a short anecdote in that perhaps describes the duo better than any length of examination might.
Mr. Digg and Mr. Delve grew up in houses flanking a house of their friend, Abernathy Cumberbund. Abernathy was my first cousin, and Mr.s Digg and Delve were acquaintances of mine from a very young age onwards till the day that poor Abernathy departed this world. Not wishing to offend either undertaker (for both remained good friends to my late cousin throughout his life), my family and I determined to let the business of preparations and funeral arrangements be collaborated on by the two men.
Thinking that two men so capable in their own ways could handle so few details without needing direction or our opinions, my family and I left Mr. Digg and Mr. Delve to do what they do best until the day of the funeral.
It was hot. I remember that much. Hot as Hell, and I’m not sure that Mr. Delve wasn’t thinking that himself and much wondering whether Abernathy was going North or South on his journey into the Ever-After. He bowed to me as I passed, and though it was probably my imagination, it seemed to me that I could smell Chloroform and Ether, and all the other chemicals of his trade wafting on a cold breeze over my skin. It frightened me.
Mr. Digg stood just to one side and beamed at me as I passed. “MISS GWALTNEY!” he shouted. “Many happy returns on this beautiful day.”
“Sir, my cousin just died.”
“Oh, but he’s not sorry so why should you be?”
Vague annoyance and dissatisfaction with Abernathy not being sorry he died pricked at my neck--or it could have been my black lace collar. At any rate, I raised my chin in the air and wondered if the smell of Vick’s Vapo-rub would ever leave Mr. Digg even if he was boiled and bleached and buried six feet under himself. Perhaps if he was cremated the aura would even linger in his urn as a testament to the business of his living days.
Futher frightened, I hastened to join up with my family in the graveyard. A quick peep in the coffin assured me Mr. Digg, at least, had not mixed up Abernathy’s body with that of the boy who had been drowned in a silo of grain.
“Abernathy...are you sorry you left?” I pressed my handkerchief to my nose and sniffed once or twice. Somehow it smelled like a combination of Mr. Digg and Mr. Delve, and I stuffed it back into my pocketbook and took a seat on the front row.
A morbid-looking pianist struck up the wedding march.
Something was wrong.
I half-rose in my seat, but Mr. Digg raised a hand and grinned from side-whisker to side-whisker. “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered her to witness the marriage of life to death. From before eternity to the glorious ever-after!”
Mr. Delve oozed up to Mr. Digg and folded his hands like a corpse over his own chest. “To Abernathy Cumberbund, death came unexpectedly! Death came like a thief in the night. Death came when he was--to wit--unprepared--”
“FOR THE PARTY AT HAND!” Realized he had shouted in a saloon-style tone, Mr. Digg’s face reddened, and he bowed his head. “For the glorious, never-ending riches of Heaven.”
“Or the glowing, neverending torments of Hell,” Mr. Delve mumbled.
“Delve, that is hardly a question for public inspection,” Mr. Digg muttered, but so still and humid was the day that his voice was audible even to the line of post office workers sealed to their seats on the back row like postage stamps.
“It is a question we must all ponder,” Mr. Delve continued as if his colleague had not spoken. “Heaven or Hell. How frail this human life is.”
“How beautiful his was,” Mr. Digg said in repair.
“How beautiful and wasted.”
“He means waiflike. Abernathy was mortally thin, as we all know.” Mr. Digg’s confident smile was less confident now, and he puffed Vick’s-scented breaths through his nostrils onto me and Abernathy’s poor mother.
“Now his body will lie in the ground, communing with the worms and beetles of earth while his--”
“His SOUL,” Mr. Digg butted in, “Is dancing in heaven with the angels.”
“Or otherwise,” Delve hissed.
“Or,” Mr. Digg removed his hat and shook his head so his jowls trembled. “Otherwise. BUT!” and Mr. Digg waved his hand over the crowd and from somewhere at the back toward the vicinity of the railway station the sound of a full brass band playing, “When we all get to Heaven” oom-pah-ed up the aisle.
Mr. Delve waved his hand, and the cadaverous pianist tinkled out a crawling, groping, bloodless tune on the piano that jangled against the approaching brassband like broken glass over a jack-in-the-box.
The bands approached, the undertakers glared, and we lookers-on waited to see what might happen...
The band finished their song...
The pianist finished his and slid to the ground as if someone had removed his spine cleanly and pickled him in a jar...
Mr. Digg breathed once, twice, thrice through his nostrils and the whole cemetary smelled like a poster-child for Vick’s Vapo-rub.
Mr. Delve uncrossed, then crossed his hands again, and hunched his shoulders forward in his buzzardlike manner.
The clergyman puffed up, red and sticky--no one had thought it queer he had not been present till now--and cleared his throat.
“Let us pray,” the clergyman said, and I let out a little sigh of relief that at last someone was here who might take control.
“Ashes to Ashes,”
“That’s what he’ll be once he’s down there in the hell-fire,” Mr. Delve whispered.
“Dust to dust.”
“That’ll be his job in Heaven,” Mr. Digg corrected.
The clergyman raised his eyes to the pale sky with a beatific smile: “We shall bury him since we must.”And since this was a thing neither undertaker could very well deny the importance of, the quarrel was finished, Abernathy was buried, and I watched Mr. Digg and Mr. Delve wander out the cemetery shoulder to shoulder. The Dueling Gravekeepers of Windsor.