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On his way back to his car the everyman comes across a man digging a grave with a shovel. The man is older, at least fifty, but looks strong. The everyman asks about the process of digging the graves, saying he thought they were dug out by machines. This begins a long and detailed conversation with the gravedigger as he explains the process of digging a grave, from removing dirt, locating the correct places for the burial plot, and cutting up the turf. The gravedigger explains that his son helps him. When his son finishes digging and squaring the grave, it looks good, as it has to for the sake of the family and for the sake of the dead. The everyman watches the gravedigger at his work. He does not want to leave the cemetery and lose sight of his parents’ gravestone. He does not ever want to leave. The gravedigger points at a gravestone and explains that the man buried there fought in World War II, was a prisoner of war in Japan, and a kind man. The gravedigger used to know him when the man came to visit his wife. The everyman asks if the gravedigger knew others who had been buried there, and the gravedigger says that he did, mentioning a boy who had died in a car crash at seventeen. His friends come by and leave beer cans or a fishing pole on his grave. The conversation is interrupted briefly by the arrival of a woman named Thelma, delivering a thermos and cooler to the gravedigger. Her relationship to the gravedigger is unclear. The everyman takes the gravedigger to see his parents’ graves, and asks if the gravedigger dug them. The gravedigger says that he did. The everyman thanks him for everything he has done, and for explaining things. He gives the gravedigger $100 for himself and his son. As the man accepts, the everyman takes a good look at the man who will soon be burying him.
In the days after visiting the cemetery, the everyman thinks of his parents, particularly of the point when he was a boy and was bolstered by their love and strength, from his hospital stay to the time he saw the dead body washed up on the beach. He goes to the hospital early on a Wednesday morning for his surgery. When the anesthesiologist asks him if he wants local or general anesthetic, the everyman chooses general to make the surgery easier to bear than the last time. The words he heard from his parents’ bones make him feel uplifted and indestructible, as do his feelings of having overcome his darkest thoughts. He feels like nothing can extinguish the liveliness of the boy he had been. He thinks of daylight penetrating everywhere, blazing off a living sea, so like a vast and valuable treasure that he could have been looking through his father’s engraved loupe at the priceless world itself. The everyman loses consciousness to the anesthetic feeling hopeful, and eager to reach out to life again, though he never wakes up from the surgery. He dies of cardiac arrest, freed from being, passing into oblivion without even realizing it, just as he had always feared.
Throughout Everyman, attention to detail has provided consolation to its main character, and in section 32, the final details which are examined are those that make up the act of burial. The purpose of the everyman’s conversation with the gravedigger is to delay leaving behind his parents’ graves and to prolong the contentment he feels next to them. Significantly, the everyman does not ask larger metaphysical questions about burial, but instead asks the gravedigger questions that lead him to describing the concrete details, describing his process and his specific tools. We have already seen that the everyman rejects religion in favor of using concrete details to comfort himself, such as when he lies in his hospital bed during his first carotid surgery thinking of the finest details of his father’s shop. Materialism is the way in which the everyman connects to life, and, in hearing the painstaking minutia of the steps involved in burial, the everyman is able find comfort.
The reader already knows that the everyman is going to die after or during his final surgery, so his visit to the cemetery is full of dramatic irony, but there is not anything gothic or ghoulish about the gravedigger’s speech that might heighten the effect of the irony. For the gravedigger, burying the dead is his everyday reality, and the way he expresses himself reflects this. He is not providing a morbid warning of the horrible banality of death or the final punishment for a life of sin. He talks about doing his best to make sure each grave is level and neat and clean and we can see from this that there is nothing chaotic or anguished in his process. In this way, the gravedigger’s attitude allows the paralyzing morbid feelings the everyman experienced during the hand-burial of his father to be re-written. Burial, in the gravedigger’s hands, takes place without passion but with a craftsman’s devotion to completing the job.
Within the cemetery, there is life. The gravedigger talks about his son, who he hopes will take over his work when he retires, and while they work together, the gravedigger and his son talk about life, bringing liveliness to the act of burying. It is the living who bury the dead, making it a part of the experience of life. The gravedigger describes for the everyman the former soldier’s personal qualities, and the fishing poles and the beer cans that the friends of the dead boy leave to commemorate his life, in this way demonstrating that the living are a continuation of the dead, holding on to the memories of who their loved ones were as people using the things that they loved while alive. Thelma, who visits to deliver the gravedigger’s lunch, is more evidence of the ease with which ordinary people can interact in the shadow of death. Like the gravedigger, Thelma sees the act of burial as simply something which must be done, a routine part of life, rather than anything taboo or morbid.
After confronting the quiet reality of burial and reconnecting with his parents’ bodies beneath the earth, the everyman is able to rescue himself from his fears of dying. Waiting for his operation involves waiting in a roomful of other similarly vulnerable pre-surgery patients, and being stripped of his own clothes in favor of the uniform of thin and disposable clothes. All of this is still a mundane, de-individualizing, and potentially frightening experience, but the everyman has grasped his own individuality through the rousing distinctive power of his memories. In his mysterious communion with the bones, he has gained the knowledge that something survives of the dead through the fact that the living can remember them. He can conjure up his parents as they appeared at any stage in his life, and draw strength from this. From his memories of his mother’s calming presence at his childhood operation, he can ignore the specter of death which has haunted him all his life, from the first time he saw a dead body, washed up on the beach. That he dies anyway, against his will and his optimistic outlook, is an assertion of death’s sovereignty over us.