Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick, brooding over the dust to which we return. This is the memento mori motif: Curb your vanity, for you’re already as good as dead. The counter comes from Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.” In this tragically ephemeral world, we require gorgeous memorials of the loves we are losing and have lost.
In her profound memoir on growing up the daughter of a gravedigger in Waseca, Minn., Rachael Hanel explores death as reaper and muse. Macabre and lyrical at once, her story is about how the dead have shaped her life: those buried in the rural cemeteries that her father so meticulously maintained; her own deceased Midwestern ancestors, forging stoic lives on the prairie, and the shocking demise of her vivacious, charismatic father — known to his clients as Digger O’Dell — when she was 15.
“I grew up in cemeteries,” Hanel begins. She ran around “the necropolis, the city of the dead,” as others played ball on diamonds. She practiced schoolgirl subtraction by computing life spans on tombstones, and soon become engrossed in the stories of those underground.
In 1967, a tornado “sucked” a Mr. and Mrs. Rux from their house and “flung their bodies into the lake.” During the Great Depression, thieves murdered the Shuch family, a father and two children, bludgeoning them to death with a hammer. In 1918, her grandfather’s parents, still young, died of the flu within hours of each other.
By the time she was 11, Hanel had become a “student of death.” While her classmates were reading “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” she was perusing “Helter Skelter,” the brutal tale of the Manson murders, and “Bridge to Terabithia,” about a young boy’s struggle with grief.
But those books didn’t prepare Hanel for the cancer that attacked her 46-year-old dad. Within three days, he was “discolored and dead, ugly.” His death shattered the young Hanel and fractured her family, as she, her mother and her siblings retreated into their “separate worlds” of grief and grew permanently estranged.
Her dad’s death has shrunk her life. She has decided not to have children, because she fears that her own death would traumatize them as her father’s demise scarred her, or that one of them would die while under her care and so “plunge” her into “darkness.”
But her imagination compensates, brightly expanding her days. She affectionately studies photos of her father, conjuring from them his stories, his jovial presence. Fullness rises from the absence.
Hanel’s powerful, beautiful, moving book allows death, harrowing and healing, to sing. Listen. Noble hearts are cracking, but choirs of angels harmonize.
Eric G. Wilson is author of “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” and “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.”