No Ordinary Grave-Digging

Charles Montgomery operates the backhoe at Arlington National Cemetery. He's been helping the fallen to their final resting place for 25 years.
Charles Montgomery operates the backhoe at Arlington National Cemetery. He's been helping the fallen to their final resting place for 25 years. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A few jobs are simply outstanding. Others stand out because they're unusual, virtually invisible or incredibly tedious. Most of us go to work five days a week, but just what "work" means has countless definitions.

"My job's just to dig the holes. Dig the holes, then cover 'em back up. That's what I'm here to do."

Charles Montgomery stands in Arlington National Cemetery, in blue work clothes, a soiled ball cap and scuffed boots. He's invisible to the people who arrive dressed in the dark elegance of mourning, weeping as the dirge of taps echoes yet again. After they depart, his hands will be the last to usher their honored dead into that good night.

Gravedigger to the fallen.

"Nobody told me nothing about them," he says, as a slate sky spits rain on the ground that awaits in Section 60 of the cemetery.

Like all aspects of military life, the job requires precision. If grave-digging can be described as ordinary, this is no ordinary grave-digging: Only perfection befits the nation's most revered deceased.

First, the plots are located with a survey map, measured and marked with wooden pegs, each plot 10 feet long and five feet wide.

After the honor guard and mourners have left, after the flags have been folded in triangles and carried off by relatives of the dead, a flatbed truck rolls up with concrete coffin liners.

A crane swings the liner into place, and, after the coffin is hoisted and placed inside, the crane lowers the concrete lid.

Then Montgomery starts digging with a backhoe. After 25 years at Arlington, almost half of his life, he needs no help, no measuring stick or hand signals from a co-worker, to judge dimensions. Within minutes, he has opened a three-by-eight-foot grave, a nearly perfect rectangle, five feet deep and neatly edged.

With the backhoe bucket and a chain, he lowers the lined coffin into the hole, then dumps dirt on it. Eventually sod will cover the plot, and, in a few months, a white marble headstone will arrive, 13 inches across and 48 inches tall.

This particular gray day, there are eight graves to be dug.

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