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Rachael Hanel’s ‘graveyard life’ memoir resonates with spirit of ‘Our Town’

The gravedigger’s daughter grew up playing among the headstones, helping her parents tend graves, watching families bury loved ones and pondering the deep matters of life and death.

hanel portrait
Photo by John Cross
Rachael Hanel

“It takes a village to raise a child, and for me, that village was the graveyard,” says Mankato writer Rachael Hanel in her new memoir, “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down” (University of Minnesota Press).

Like a character straight from folklore, Hanel is the daughter of a gravedigger, “Digger O’Dell,” and until her father’s own too-early death, she grew up playing among the headstones, helping her parents tend graves, watching families bury their loved ones and pondering the deep matters of life and death.

Hanel’s family tended cemeteries in the farming region of Waseca, and she got to know the residents of these stony neighborhoods from a unique perspective. This isn’t just a personal memoir; she writes eloquently about the lives and deaths of family, neighbors, and strangers with sympathy and care.

Death is all around her, and her parents don’t flinch about telling her the stories of murder victims, whole families tragically lost, people who had their whole lives ahead of them, until they suddenly didn’t.

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It’s all part of the family business, but it’s never mundane to Hanel, because in the cemetery, of all places, death is not entirely final. The living are still interacting with them here, in a quiet, separate part of the community. Life goes on, in a way.

She has several area events in coming weeks: April 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble in Mankato, April 10 at 7 p.m. at Subtext Bookstore in St. Paul, April 17 at noon at South Central College in North Mankato, and May 1 at 7 p.m. at Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis.

Here’s an edited version of our recent conversation:

MinnPost: Your book references Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and explores some of the same themes — community and death — in the same setting. When did you first encounter that play?

Rachael Hanel: I came across it in high school, and I didn’t even think twice about it. I thought it was a great play, and neat that it was set in the graveyard, but at that age, I wasn’t really reflective about how things related to my life, even though my dad had recently died. But when I was working on one of the last drafts of my book, it suddenly hit me; no wonder that play resonated with me. I was actually in the play, as one of the narrators. I think subconsciously I felt very comfortable with that material — I just didn’t recognize it.

That play was so well received when Wilder wrote it, but it’s not something I have seen performed recently. The scenes in it are so applicable to all of our lives, still. It would be great if it made a comeback.

book coverMP: I also thought about Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” as I read yours. He has actually said the saying “It takes a village …” sparked the very idea for his book.

RH: Oh, yeah. I had to read it! I read it soon after it came out. I was in one of the earlier stages of writing my book and definitely saw some commonalities.

MP: Did you identify with Bod [the child raised in the graveyard in Gaiman’s book]?

RH: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I was so glad to see Gaiman write a book with that setting, which most people shy away from. He’s so hugely popular that I hoped it would get people to think of cemeteries and graveyards in a different way. He put so much humanity in that book. We don’t really think about humanity in cemeteries very often but he was able to bring that to it.

MP: What other graveyard books are part of your collection?

RH: There’s a writer in Michigan, Thomas Lynch, who is actually a funeral director, but he’s primarily a poet. He has two books of essays, “The Undertaking” and “Bodies in Motion and at Rest.” These are very important to me, because he was working in the death industry and offered up his perspective in such a beautiful and lyrical way.

The other one that I love, just love, is Alison Bechtold’s “Fun Home,” her first graphic novel memoir. Her dad was a funeral director, and it’s a perfectly crafted memoir, a shining example.

MP: Bechtold’s book, and other writing I’ve seen from people working in that industry show how exposure to death can desensitize you, to a degree. But in your book, you show a heightened sensitively about the bodies as people.

RH: I think maybe that’s because we’re talking about a very small community. I learned quickly that these weren’t just anonymous people we were burying. They were neighbors, friends, family. One of the first burials I remember was my uncle’s. I was always encountering the survivors around town, and I always wondered how they were doing, were they sad? In a town that small, you can’t become desensitized because no one is anonymous.

MP: Waseca is Our Town.

RH: Right. Precisely.

MP: When you own dad died, you went through intense, life-shaping sadness. I expected you to be “better” at grieving than the rest of us, but that wasn’t really the case.

RH: Yeah. I thought being around death was grief. But it wasn’t really until processing all of this that I realized that death and grief are two different things. In Midwestern communities, people don’t want to talk about their emotions. So I felt ill prepared when it came to my own family, because I’d never really seen people deal with death, even though I saw it every day.

MP: It’s not just a Midwestern thing; it’s widely thought that Americans in general are particularly bad at dealing with death.

RH: Definitely. In our pop culture, we have few examples of grieving and dealing with death. We’re much more happy to put sex and violence on the TV or movie screen, but when it comes to death, people shy away from those hard conversations and clam up.

MP: Although, in the last couple of years, people are grieving in a whole new way — online. What do you make of that?

RH: I posted a blog post about that maybe a month ago, about that whole phenomenon where you can keep up someone’s Facebook profile and grieve online. I think anything to keep it from being hidden helps a lot of people get over that sense of isolation. Grief can be very isolating. If there’s a place where you can share those emotions, that’s very healthy.

MP: You write about how graveyards each have their own character. What makes a good graveyard?

RH: One that’s very inviting, where it’s clear that people have been there, because there are flowers on the graves, mementos. I get creeped out by graveyards that people don’t visit very often. The Woodville cemetery in Waseca is big, like a park, and people will stroll through it. Lakewood in Minneapolis is another like that. Inviting, peaceful, pretty. You don’t have to know anyone there to enjoy it.

MP: Do you plan to be buried near your family? I’m sorry — that’s pretty personal, isn’t it?

RH: Boy, for someone who writes about this, I haven’t made any grand plans. I don’t even know! One thing I do like is a memorial marker of some kind, so people can go there. I like memorial benches, those are very inviting — you can sit and reflect and have some quiet time. If anything, I think I’ll have a bench somewhere.