Every Culture Has Burial Rites to keep the Dead from Rising
My family has run the only cemetery in our town for a few generations now. My dad inherited it from his dad and, though I’m still only 18, someday it’ll be mine.
Last week my father called me out to the cemetery a few hours after sunset. We were alone, with nothing but the wind in the trees to keep us company. He led me to the newly-dug grave of Mr. Ivory.
Mr. Ivory had died a few days earlier, and not many people in town had the courtesy to mask their relief. Everyone knew he’d killed his wife a few years earlier, though there was never enough evidence for a conviction. “Good riddance,” was a common refrain.
My father stood over the freshly-dug dirt marking Mr. Ivory’s grave, smoking a cigarette. He turned to look at me. “You did a good job with this one. There’ll be plenty of grass here within the year.”
He took a long drag on the cigarette, the burning ember glowing brightly in the dark. “Son, I’m going to tell you something hard tonight.”
I trusted my dad more than anyone on the planet. “What is it Dad?”
“Go put your ear to the ground over near Mr. Ivory.”
I stared at him for a moment, confused. When it was clear he wasn’t joking, I stepped cautiously around the grave and pressed my ear to the dirt.
From underground, I could hear clear signs of banging and scratching.
I jerked upright. “He’s still alive down there! Dad, we need to dig him up!”
“Nope, he isn’t.”
“I heard him, I could hear thumping from underground. He’s alive.”
“Son, do you remember who embalmed Mr. Ivory?”
I did remember. I remembered because I’d embalmed Mr. Ivory, with some assistance from my Dad.
“Right,” my dad continued, tapping his cigarette to clear the ash. “We drained all his blood and replaced it with embalming fluid. I’m sure you recall.”
I opened and closed my mouth, knowing he was right but still not believing it.
He sighed. “Son, every culture has burial rites meant to keep the dead from rising again. You think we put that concrete slab over their caskets for grave robbers?”
“You… you’re telling me that Mr. Ivory is dead and scratching at the top of his casket in there.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. C’mon son, we should go. If he hears people above him it’ll take longer for him to settle down again.”
I didn’t know what to think. Was my father some kind of sadistic murderer? Did he have a deal with a doctor in town to kill Mr. Ivory? Was this some kind of frontier justice thing?
My father kept talking, trying to explain things, but I couldn’t pay attention. My mind was still on the thumping and scratching I’d heard from underground.
We drove back to our house. I lay in my bed, not sleeping, heart racing. If there was even a slight chance of him being alive I had to check. The thought of being buried alive like that made me want to be sick.
It was around 3 AM when I snuck out of the house and ran the distance back to the cemetery. I jumped into our excavator, drove it to Mr. Ivory’s grave, and began digging. My heart was racing and I was messy with the digging, but eventually, I got the job done. I wedged the bucket under one corner of the concrete slab and lifted it off the coffin.
I jumped out and slide down the grave, pulling up the lid of the casket.
Mr. Ivory lay there, his face twisted in a grimace. His hands were no longer clasped together as we’d left them, instead one lay by his side and another by his head. I looked at the roof of the casket and saw strips of silk had been torn away. A fingernail was stuck in the material. A quick glance at his hands was enough to see that most of his fingernails were missing.
“Mr. Ivory!” I shouted, shaking his chest. “Mr. Ivory!”
I pressed my hand to the side of his neck. It was freezing cold.
I sat down on the side of the coffin then, not knowing what to do. I was covered in dirt and sweat.
Finally, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a pocket knife, and made a cut on the back of his left hand.
A small amount of clear embalming fluid dribbled from the cut, but there was no other reaction. He was dead. He’d been dead for three days. He’d been dead when we put him in the casket.
I shot another look at his missing fingernails. He’d been dead when he did that.
My blood suddenly went cold. He was still dead right now. I watched his face, backing up slowly as I did so. Then I jerked backward, climbing up out of the dirt hole. Lose dirt tumbled under my hands, slowing my progress. I was certain Mr. Ivory was sitting up in his grave, staring at me. I dug harder and pulled myself up and out.
I scrambled back on the grass, trying to control my breathing, trying not to cry out or scream. Mr. Ivory still lay back in his coffin.
That’s when I noticed my father sitting on the tread of the excavator, smoking another cigarette. He patted the tread beside him.
I cautiously got to my feet and sat down beside him.
“Do they all come back like that?” I asked.
“No,” he said, his voice low and calm. “It’s real rare you get one bad enough that it comes back. Only the truly bad eggs do. They’ll do anything to escape judgment, even come back to a dead body. With our methods, they never last long though. Now they’re only active for a few hours at most before giving up heading back down.” He pointed with a thumbs-down.
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“You had to know. Everyone who runs a cemetery does. You know those bells that people used to tie to corpses?”
“To see if they were buried alive?”
“No one has ever been buried alive. Those bells told the cemetery owner to keep a close eye on the grave for a few days.” He put out his cigarette and flicked it into Mr. Ivory’s grave.
“C’mon son, we should cover him back up. Just in case.”