published Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Cook: One shovel deep

Undertaker please drive slow, for this body you are hauling, how I hate to see her go.

— The Carter Family

Johnny Tucker is a gravedigger.

"When I was 16, Daddy made me quit school and start digging graves," he said. "Been doing it ever since."

Most in his line of work use heavy machines, like backhoes that dig graves as easily as a serving spoon into custard. Tucker, with shoulders wide like the space between two fence posts, does it differently.

"Pick and shovel," he said. "By hand."

When he was a boy, he asked his dad for $3 to go roller skating. A gravedigger himself, his dad took his son to a cemetery, told him if he wanted the $3, he had to dig a grave first.

"Took me seven hours," Tucker remembered.

That was 36 years ago. Since then, Tucker, who folks call "Digger," reckons he's dug more than 15,000 graves. The measuring tape hanging off his blue jeans stays there. He knows the dimensions like his own name: 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, 41/2 feet deep.

"One pick wide, two shovels long, one shovel deep," he said.

Not long ago, I drove the two-lane highway down to Summerville, Ga., passing cornfields and farmers taking their lunch in the shade, and into the city cemetery where Tucker was standing bare-chested and sweating, three feet in an open grave, red clay all over his boots and shovel in hand.

I wanted to know: What can I learn from a man who digs graves by hand?

Could someone who spends his days among the dead teach us anything about life?

"I treat everybody as if it's my family I'm burying," he said.

Small-town cemeteries don't allow backhoes because of the thick tracks they make through soft grass. So they call Tucker, who works with funeral homes all over the area; folks have called him from out of state to come bury their dead.

At a time when people are hurting the most, Tucker greets them with respect and sensitivity. His work is the bridge between this world and the next; his $50 shovel digging holes that the bereaved, with flowers and tears, will visit for years to come.

"We're polite," he said, laying out the rules for him and his small crew. "No smoking. I don't tolerate profanity in a cemetery. And no radio playing."

Through heat, rain, wind, snow, through soft mud and rock so thick, chisels quiver. He doesn't take vacations. Once, when he came down with food poisoning, he kept digging. Put on an adult diaper, and kept digging.

"He's tough as they come," said his wife, Mary.

Daydream up about any worst-case-scenario -- OK, Digger, you're sick, a tornado comes, you've double-booked funeral homes and your truck's got three flat tires -- and Tucker, whose callouses have callouses, would say the same thing.

"I'll never, never, ever let a family down," he said.

That's what we all want, isn't it? Through death and life, to have some constant we can cling to. Few acts are greater than to be there with respect and kindness while people bury their loved ones.

Three hours after starting, Tucker finished digging and climbed out of the grave, its mud walls straighter than a church pew.

As I was driving off, a guy named Corey -- Tucker hired him two years ago -- chased me down. Makes that hand motion to roll down my window.

"Can you put this in there? Tell them that Mary and Johnny Tucker are the best people I've ever met in my whole 33 years," he said.

Sounds like what you'd say at a funeral, a eulogy to the life of a man who's been there when folks are losing theirs.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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