A cloud of dry summer dust announced the arrival of Alan’s large black pick-up truck outside George’s place.
“Wanna ride in, George?”
“Sure, Al”, drawled George. He was leaning against his fence, smoking, considering whether it could wait another season for a new coat of paint.
“Jump in then!”
The large wheels spun on the brownish dirt road as George struggled to slam the door. Alan was in a hurry.
He was a large cheerful man, early sixties with workers’ hands and thinning fair hair above a round open face. Alan and his brother Charlie ran the village smithy, a family business for generations. Horseshoes had given way to ornamental gates for the newly rich, renovating their country mansions. Large gates ran at £10 000, each, so there was still money to be made. Alan was always busy with some new project and knew most people around the village, or at least anyone who could be useful. George was not one of these. Dark, wiry, nervous and not noted for taking the initiative. Bit of a wastrel, was the common opinion. So why did Alan offer George a lift?
“In a hurry I see then Al”, said George with a dry cough. “Not like you working Saturday morning.”
“Got a meeting at the churchyard, problem with a burial, our first Muslim one.”
Alan managed all the property for the local parish: churches, churchyards and the rest. Useful for borrowing tools and machinery.
“What’s the problem?”
“Not really sure George. Undertaker called. Said the family wanted to discuss the burial. Could be interesting, why not come along!”
“OK, why not? Nothing else on today.”
“Good on ye’, George. Knew I could rely on you!”
Alan looked relieved when George agreed to come along, and put his foot down through the village before George had time for second thoughts.
“Maybe the grave has to face Mecca”, said Alan cheerfully.
“If that’s all, can’t be much of a problem”, said George, “just get yer’ compass out”.
“Y’know the church and churchyard are listed buildings; we can’t do anything without permission.”
“Welcome committee already here I see!” announced George importantly, as Alan pulled up in the narrow tree-lined lane that led up to the old churchyard.
A shiny silver Mercedes with shades was waiting outside the churchyard, a statue-like driver behind the wheel. Alan parked the pick-up near the dry-stone wall that surrounded the churchyard.
“Here George, this is for you”, said Alan, and handed George a heavy tool-bag from the back of the truck. George finally understood why Alan had been so keen for him to come along – there was work to do.
“Let’s see what they have to say then”, said Alan, taking a deep breath. “And leave the talking to me, George!”.
George nodded, heaving the tool-bag over his right shoulder with a groan.
Two men were waiting just inside the black wrought-iron gate. The rusty hinges made a metallic scraping sound as Alan pushed the gate open. Alarmed, the men turned round quickly to face them. One was old, pale, wearing an overcoat that was definitely too large and too warm for a sunny day in June. He held a string of beads nervously in one hand. The other, younger, full dark beard hiding most of his olive skin, was speaking intensely into an outsize phone. He ended the call quickly on seeing Alan and George approaching, introducing himself in broken English as the son of the deceased. He indicated the older man and said that this was his uncle, his father’s brother.
Alan expressed his condolences. The son translated this for his uncle, who nodded silently. George stood quietly to one side, tool-bag resting on the ground. Alan immediately abandoned his usual presentation of the history of the church and churchyard and led the way to the site for the grave. The two men followed at a distance, deeply involved in a conversation of their own, in an unfamiliar language. George brought up the rear.
Alan followed a narrow gravel pathway cutting through rich green turf, dotted with gravestones and displays of flowers. Summer rain overnight and the early sunshine had seemingly doubled the size of the leaves on the many old trees which protected the churchyard, providing welcome shade. There was not much of a breeze, just enough to ruffle the yellowish-green leaves.
The churchyard was empty except for an oldish couple. Alan knew them. They were tending the grave of their son, killed in a road accident. She was kneeling, busy with a trowel planting fresh purple flowers. He stood dutifully beside her, watering can at the ready. Alan did not want to disturb them.
“Here it is”, said Alan finally, pointing to a grassy knoll beyond an old oak tree, with foliage so thick that it cast a dark canopy over the ground. It was a good distance from the church, so visitors did not need to walk across the consecrated “Christian” ground. This was one of the demands which Alan had heard from the undertaker.
The two men paced up and down, discussing and gesticulating. The younger one finally sent a number of photos from his phone. Alan stood discretely to one side, taking shade from the midday sun under the oak tree, waiting for the family’s decision. Realising this could take some time, George dumped his tool-bag and sloped off for a quiet puff. Finally, after an animated discussion of a couple of incoming messages, the young man turned to Alan and said:
“The family agree that this is a good place for my father to lie at rest. In our religion he must lie on his right side, facing Mecca.
“Where’s that then?” asked Alan.
“This way” said the man, showing the compass in his phone.
“No problem at all”, said Alan. “George, get those pegs out and we’ll mark it up.”
George came back, almost running, as he flicked away his fag end into the bushes.
Alan paced out the length of the grave, under the critical eye of the man with his compass. George followed Alan’s instructions, hammering the long white pegs down, one in each corner.
“This be all right then?” asked Alan.
The younger man translated and after some consideration the older man nodded his approval, a sad look in his bloodshot eyes.
“We’ll get it dug out this afternoon, and then it will be ready for you on Tuesday afternoon,” said Alan in his business-like voice, pleased that it was all settled. “How many mourners will there be?”
“What is this ‘mourners’ asked the younger man.”
“Well, family and others who will be here for the burial. We usually cover the ground around the grave to protect the grass and peoples’ shoes.”
Another lengthy consultation of the older man ensued.
“We think about one hundred fifty”, said the young man, after consulting his uncle.
“One hundred and fifty?”
“Big family. They come from all over: Turkey, Germany, England, France..”.
“Oh, I see. Where are they all going to park I wonder” said Alan to nobody in particular.
“Will that be all then?” asked Alan, trying to wind up the meeting so that he could get home in time for lunch.
“One more thing. Will it be safe to leave the grave when it has been made?”
“How do you mean?”
“No one will be carting this one off anywhere!” said Alan, killing his smile when he realised that the question was serious.
“Safe as houses. We’ve never had anyone fall in an open grave before”.
“No, for the family it must be a newly – dug grave, never used before. We insist that it is kept secure until the burial on Tuesday.”
Alan could see himself having to stand guard over an open grave all night.
“What could happen then?”
“People could use the grave to bury someone else, another body. It happens.”
“Not in my churchyard it doesn’t!” said Alan, rather annoyed at the very idea.
“No, no, of course not here, but our tradition is that the grave must be pure, not polluted by another soul.”
“And how do we guarantee that?”
“By closing the grave until the ceremony.”
“We’ll have to think about that, but don’t worry I’ll fix something. You can be assured that the grave will be empty and unused on Tuesday” said Alan, trying to appear calm.
The younger man took some more photographs, and then followed his uncle back to the waiting Mercedes, which silently disappeared between the trees along the lane.
Alan looked around, scratching his head, a deep frown across his forehead, planning how to cover up the grave and accommodate a hundred and fifty mourners.
“Bit of a turn up for the books eh Al?” said George and picked up the tools.
“Interesting, bit unusual. Seemed important to them”, was Alan’s reaction.
“More than one body in a grave, common when people were poor. Never had separate graves for children. Buried with other family.”
“You’re right George, family graves. Not only the poor, well-to-do families too. Quite a few here with marble curbstones and fancy iron gates.”
“Well, now you’ve got something to think about, Al, how to close an empty grave. Have to make a lid for it with lock and key!”
George’s sense of humour was lost on Alan, who took things to do with the church very seriously.
“Thanks for helping out, George. Want a lift back?”
A week later George bumped into Alan in the local.
“Hiya Al, how did that Muslim burial go?”
“Tell you the truth George, it was a bit of a palaver, one of the biggest do’s we’ve ever had there. Two hundred mourners, cars parked all over the place – blocking the lane, in the fields. We usually get ten or so at the most. It’ll be a miracle if the lawns and flower beds ever recover. Got him in the right direction though, on his side facing Mecca. That was the important thing. Checked it with a compass!”
“What about the lid on the grave then? asked George.
“Took one of them two-inch metal plates from the workshop and laid it over the hole like a lid. Fitted perfect. Not easy to shift I’ll tell yer! Had to bring in a crane and lift it over the wall. Oak tree took a bit of a bashing.”
“That’s serious stuff, Al. Bit of an overkill. I’d say a one-inch would have done the trick!” said George giving his expert opinion.
“Mourners got an extra treat when they saw a crane lifting the lid off an empty grave”, said Alan laughing.
“All in a day’s work then, Al.”
“Wait till they get the bill!”