Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connecting to Rachael Hanel’s “Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” May 9, 2013

gravedigger coverPICKING UP MINNESOTA WRITER Rachael Hanel’s We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down—Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, I wonder how I can possibly relate to a book focused on death.

But I can, in many ways. I am, like Hanel, a native southern Minnesotan. That is telling. We are a people who tend to keep our emotions in check, even in grief.

Hanel’s association with death begins before age three, when her father, Paul Hager, becomes a gravedigger. Hanel grew up frequenting 20 Waseca area cemeteries under her family’s care. Their business motto, “We’ll be the last ones to let you down,” seems the perfect title for a memoir that is at times light-hearted, but mostly serious.

Imagine summers in a cemetery, flitting among gravestones or reading books while your father digs holes to receive the dead and your mom mows lawn. And imagine the day you understand that names, dates and words on tombstones reveal stories. I expect we all experience that epiphany at some point during our childhoods, realizing the numbers and letters on cold stone represent lives lived. But the daughter of the gravedigger wants more, asking her storytelling mother to share the stories of the deceased.

Hanel cites numerous examples of tragedies in the Waseca area—the September 11, 1959, deaths of seven members of the Zimmerman family whose car was struck by a train and the deaths of Busy Bee Cafe waitress Cheryl Tutttle and her young daughter—in sharing the graveyard stories which existed as a natural part of her childhood.

About two-thirds of the way into her 192-page memoir, Hanel writes:

My family went to wakes like some families went to movies.

Despite that familiarity with death, Hanel and her family find themselves reeling at the unexpected loss of her father to cancer when she is only 15. They know death, but not grief. Therein lies a major component of Hanel’s memoir in her personal struggles with grief and the fracturing of her family upon her father’s death.

This then-teen, who always leaned to the artistic—appreciating art in her childhood home, art in cemeteries, art in the rural Minnesota landscape—turns to words for solace. She seeks books that will tell her how to connect to her dead father. She tames her grief, she says, “by writing words on the page.”

Hanel also relies on her strong Catholic faith. Praying the rosary is her constancy.

Ironically, several years later, after she has married at the young age of 19, Hanel starts a job writing obituaries at the Mankato Free Press. It is the same newspaper where I worked as a news reporter, but never as an obit writer (although I did report on tragic deaths), for nearly two years, long before Hanel’s arrival. Eventually she, too, becomes a reporter there.

It is not that professional commonality, though, or Hanel’s general love of writing or her faith that cause me to feel most connected to this reporter turned author. Rather it is her understanding of small-town Minnesota. And her appreciation for the land. Hanel writes of biking near Elysian as farmers work the fields, upturning the earth for planting.

This gravedigger’s daughter writes:

I breathe in the freshly turned soil and that is all I want to breathe, night and day.

That I understand, from the perspective of a farmer’s, not a gravedigger’s, daughter.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

Minnesota author Rachael Hanel. Photo by Steve Pottenger.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


31 Responses to “Connecting to Rachael Hanel’s “Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter””

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Very nice review, Audrey. I am sure you could relate to the smells of the dirt being turned up being the farm girl that you are!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You’re right on that. Some smells imprint themselves upon your memory. Like freshly-turned earth, new-mown alfalfa, a closed-up barn…

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    Such words and such timing. Your opening resonates most clearly as it has not even been 24 hours since my quilting buddy, dear friend and neighbor drew her last breath on this (at this moment) foggy dreary piece of geography. Yesterday, however, dawned bright, warm, beautiful and full of the promise of “Spring arrived at last” but by early afternoon that sunshine was a shade dimmer and some of the day’s luster had diminished. Such are my thoughts on this rainy day………..

  3. You have peaked my interest in Hanel’s book, especially growing up in rural MN too. I love learning and the history of places and people just fascinate me too. Thanks so much for sharing – Happy Thursday:)

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You are welcome. It’s really an interesting perspective. Anyone who reads this will never view gravestones in quite the same way again.

      • I know I am not normal, especially in saying that I enjoy exploring an established graveyard. For instance, Bodie State Park, Virginia City, NV, etc. I like looking at the names, dates and sayings, especially when those dates correspond with the settling of a town or a major piece of history surrounding a town.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        There are a few of us “not normal” types out there, Renee. See Jackie’s comment specifically and my reply.

  4. Lanae Says:

    Being a florist in Waseca I knew Digger O’Dell. For many years that is what I thought his name was. On May 23, the author will be at the Waseca County Historical Museum. Contact them if you are interested in going!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for sharing that historical society info with us, Lanae. I had meant to post this earlier as I know Rachael did a signing in Waseca on May 2. I bet you heard plenty of stories from “Digger O’Dell.”

  5. Jackie Says:

    Being the strange lover of Cemeteries that I am, this Memoir sounds exciting. I’ve often had conversations with grave diggers, it’s an interesting job! A Memoir from a gravedigger’s daughter just has to be a good read, I’ll be sure to add it to my list of books to read. (I also LOVE reading books from MN authors) Thanks for the great book review…you have such a way with words 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Jackie, I like perusing cemeteries, too, but have never conversed with a gravedigger. You could probably write a book about your conversations with them. I’m happy to recommend a book and, as you noted, one by a Minnesota author.

  6. I met Rachael, as that 19 year old young bride–I did her wedding flowers!
    Looking forward to going to her book signing up town On May 23.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Stacey, please note that Rachael commented and says the May 23 event is sold out. Maybe you already have a coveted ticket. Otherwise, May 25 at the Waseca Arts Center…

      I knew that you knew Rachael…so sweet you did her flowers all those years ago.

  7. whattoexpectwhen Says:

    Reblogged this on what to expect when and commented:
    This has to be one of the best book titles of the year! Not only that, it deals with a topic that most of us don’t want to discuss.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Now there’s an endorsement. And, yes, this topic of death is seldom addressed, and certainly not in the way which Rachael addresses it.

  8. rachaelhanel Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Audrey. I really appreciate it. I always like to see what people take away from the book.

    The May 23 event at the Historical Society is sold out. I will be at the Waseca Arts Center on Saturday, May 25, for an informal meet and greet. My website, http://www.rachaelhanel.com, also has a list of events.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You are welcome, Rachael. And thank you for the update on your upcoming events in Waseca.

  9. Don’t come across many book reviews that are so warm! Very interesting premise.

  10. hotlyspiced Says:

    Great review Audrey. This sounds like a wonderful book with a beautifully told story xx

  11. D. M. Seyfer Says:

    Reblogged this on A Writer Writes and commented:
    A fellow blogger recommended this book. So do I. Though eerily strange in subject matter, the story explores something we all fear: How to handle grief.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for the reblog. Good to have another writer endorsing Rachael Hanel’s book.

  12. Oh, I will definitely have to check out that book! Is it available on Amazon?

  13. Ok, so this post was recommended as a connected post to yours from today so I looked back at it because since writing my comment I’ve met her and really enjoyed her! She came to our library last fall and we still are in touch from time to time. I’d forgotten that you’d written about the book!

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