Colin Rafferty

Creative Nonfiction

Colin Rafferty teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Other recent essays can be read in Utne Reader, South Loop Review, and Witness. He is married to the poet Elizabeth Wade.

Digging In

There’s a part in Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic where he talks with Civil War re-enactors about what it’s like to “die” on the field. No one wants to die, they complain. The first volley of shots from the other side, and it’s like everyone’s got bulletproof vests. Once you die, you’re dead, they say, and that means you can’t move, that you have to lie there on the field while everyone else continues to fight.

For once, I’ll admit that the re-enactors are right; no one wants to be the dead body. It’s the part of the war that all of us think about in the most abstract of ways: noble sacrifices and glorious valor and all that. Lines on a map and numerals on a page don’t reveal the reality of corpses on the battlefield, or the fact that something has to happen to those bodies, that they have to be buried, one by one.

I don’t know if you’ve ever dug a grave, but it’s difficult work. You know how in crime shows and Lifetime Network movies, a small woman will dig a grave large enough to hold a full-grown abusive husband, not to mention fill it back up? No fucking way. All I had to do was dig a 2x2x1 grave—four cubic feet of dirt—and it took me an hour and a half, tore up my hands, and left me sore for days.


The emergency veterinarian had told my wife and me that we had three options for the body. We could take her home in a cardboard casket, or we could have her cremated singly, or we could have her mass cremated. I was horrified by the idea of the third, and something rankled me about the second—the waiting, maybe, or the cost—so I asked for the cardboard casket for my dead cat.

They brought Olive out to us in a white cardboard casket, a few strips of tape circling it. It had blue lines on it, which made me think about the Priority Mail boxes at the post office. We took Olive home, and I put her in the basement. I made sure we had a shovel, and then we buried her in the backyard, in a space that she could have seen from the window, but as an indoor-only cat, never gone to.

It felt futile, digging that grave, like it was labor without reward, but I realized that it was the last protective thing I could do for Olive, to dig the grave deep enough to keep her body safe from scavengers.

I was about halfway through the process—just reaching a point when the hole I’d dug was big enough to let the edge of the pile of sandy soil removed begin to fall back in—when I thought about the cemeteries in Fredericksburg. The biggest one—just a mile from our house, at the bottom of the ridgeline that we live on—is the National Cemetery, part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park complex. It’s where the Union soldiers are buried. The rebels are buried at the Confederate Cemetery, another mile in another direction away from our house. Within a mile radius of my home, 19,000 bodies, most of them unidentified, lie in graves.

It’s unsettling to think about, but the graves make the town. Along with the battlefields themselves, the cemeteries are the greenest spaces here. They draw in tourists year-round, especially during the anniversaries and most noticeably on Memorial Day, when the local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts set luminaria out on the graves of the National Cemetery, lining the path along the Sunken Road. On the same day at the Confederate Cemetery, re-enactors in grey uniforms and hoop skirts plant flags—the Stars and Bars—on the graves of the Southern dead.

I don’t know what it means to live in a town that’s surrounded by death, that’s defined by death. For the most part, it’s something we walk past on our way downtown, something we’re slightly embarrassed about when the re-enactors invade in the winter and spring. But it points to the thing we rarely consider: every one of those graves is filled with at least one person (and usually more; most of them are mass graves, two or three or four bodies filling a grave, marked only with a number).


A few years ago, before I’d moved to Fredericksburg, I visited Auschwitz. I stuck around for a few days, longer than the average daytripper. One evening, walking back from the little neighborhood grocery near the camp, I came upon a park. In the middle of its greenery, a low wall stood, outlining a rectangle, with a plaque that marked the site of a mass grave holding about 700 people who’d been killed or had died in the final days of the camp or just after its liberation by the Soviet Army. It was a lovely evening, the last rays of sunlight bouncing off the apartment buildings, kids playing soccer on a nearby field. And here was that grave, grown lush and green and with 700 skeletons in it.

I remember thinking at the time that it must have been impossible to reside in a place like that, that there was no way people could live with that historical weight on them. Now I know differently; you can live there, easily. You can go to school and work, you can shop for groceries and postcards, you can stroll with your dog down the Sunken Road, behind which Confederate infantry opened fire on the Union soldiers. And after a while, you never think about it, unless something happens to make you think of it, to make you understand a detail that had always been vague before you started to dig.


The night we buried the cat, I woke to a thunderstorm. I could hear the rain splashing off the leaves I never bothered to dig out of the gutter, the occasional rumble in the sky. Although I normally fall asleep quickly and stay that way, I lay awake all night; I could see the grave crumbling, the Hammer Films-like idea of the earth rending open to reveal the casket. I stared at the ceiling, feeling something like fear at the base of my spine. Not deep enough, I thought, over and over. Not deep enough.

Early the next morning, I went to the backyard and picked my way through the wet grass to the grave. The paving stone we’d bought at Lowe’s to cover the grave was undisturbed, the dirt around it soaked, but there was no indentation in the ground, nothing even close to a collapse. A mile away, the sun dried the rain off thousands of Union graves. A mile away, the squirrels ran in the trees over the Confederate dead. And Fredericksburg woke up to another day with the city and its dead.

I wrote Digging In not too long after putting my cat down, partly as catharsis and partly as a means of making sure I had the details of the experience right. It’s a really strange thing to dig a grave for a once-living thing that you loved. On the one hand, it’s this terrible work that tears your hands up and strains your muscles (there’s a good reason that ditch-digging is the threat used against truants); on the other hand, there’s a beauty in the knowledge that this is the final act of a long relationship. Even with a cat.