“It’s a dirty job”, they usually say. But then they add, “and I’m glad it’s not me that has to do it.” And without a hint of gratitude. No: “and I’m glad that somebody does it”, or even: “and I’m glad that you do it, Bartholomew.” I mean, I don’t expect much in this world, and I know that I live in hard times in a hard land, but just occasionally, it would be good if a little word of thanks could fall like refreshing rain onto my path.
Of course, I know all the reasons why I get ignored in this way. Everybody dies, and no one wants to be reminded of it. Everyone, in the long run, is dead, and nobody wants the long run to be shortened. It’s funny, it’s as if being reminded of death, or coming into contact with death will somehow shorten their lifespan. “That’s not the case,” a Rabbi once told me, with a scarf wrapped around his face in case he forgot to keep away from me. “Being near the dead does not shorten our lives—it just shortens our useful lives. Coming into contact with the dead is a good thing, when we are performing the duties required of us towards our mother and father. But even then, it means that we become ritually impure, and are thus unable to worship God in the way he requires. Cleansing ourselves of such impurity takes times, and that is time away from the study of God’s word, away from worshipping God in synagogue and Temple, away from sacrifice. Life is too short to miss out on the important things.” And then he threw a copper coin at me, and told me to go away in most unrabbinical language.
So, if you haven’t guessed already, I deal with the dead. A Jew who spends his day among the unclean bodies! I may as well have been a pork butcher. But like I say, someone has to do it, and it may as well be me. Of course, I don’t say that I am a gravedigger (because I’m not), and I’m not like those barking mad Egyptians, with their nose-tools and jars of body bits and wrapping and spells and endless coffins. I like to describe myself as a gardener—I just happen to be a gardener among the tombs. Even the dead like flowers, I sometimes say, but not when anyone is listening. I think that is probably blasphemous. No rabbi I’ve heard of says that there are flowers in Sheol, and the shades of the dead don’t have senses to smell the blooms. But, even so, I have to have something to keep me going.
It’s not that the Tomb-Gardening business is dying out (hah!). It’s a growth business. Everyone dies sooner or later, and with the Romans and the insurrections, it appears that the fashion is for sooner. This used to be a nice quiet quarter of the hill. Well outside the city and above the valley of Gehenna (the hell-hole of the dead, my old dad always used to say). It’s not quite fifty cubits from the city walls, as that old law used to demand, but that’s because the city walls keep moving outwards. However, it was peaceful, and the rock was soft for cutting the tombs into. No pretentious burials here: no mock houses, or palaces, no one thinking they’re Mausolus, or whatever that Persian king was called. Just shelves, in the caves, in the rock, and, if they’re feeling flush, or frightened of grave robbers, then a stone to roll in front. And me outside, keeping the paths swept and the flowers watered and the garden lovely.
That’s how it was. Then the Romans came and decided to do a bit of “urban re-zoning”. This convenient mound just outside the city, with “good sight lines in all directions”, well, that’s ideal for a killing ground. Up with the crosses and the gibbets, and all of a sudden business takes a nose-dive. Who wants to be buried near the Roman crucifixion ground? You’re coming to transfer the bones of your dear mum into an ossuary, and you walk slap into the middle of the execution of twenty zealots. Puts a bit of a damper on the whole day, you might say. That’s why I was grateful to Joseph from Arimathea. A real gent. Old school. His family have used tombs here for generations, and he had reserved one of my nicest new developments for himself. Didn’t mind me letting people know, either. “Oh yes, Joseph of Arimathea will eventually be buried here. You know him? Member of the Sanhedrin? A counsellor? A righteous man. That’s the class we get here.”
Put not your trust in members of the Sanhedrin, as my old dad used to say. Because yesterday, Joseph let me down. The nicest new development, that freshly cut tomb, complete with window slits and a rolling stone that was going to be His Honour’s, got used. And not for Joseph. For an execution burial.
Bit of a rush job, if I’m to be entirely fair. And perhaps Joseph didn’t have much choice, with it being the eve of the Sabbath as well, but why did he make the burial his responsibility. As far as I can tell the dead man wasn’t a member of Joseph’s family. Galilean by all accounts, and not from a good family either. I know that even good families can get caught up in Roman justice, but I don’t think that was the case here. The dead bloke was caught bang to rights. Upset the Sanhedrin and the Romans, simultaneously.
From what I hear, and it is all second- and third-hand, there was a bit of a ruckus earlier in the week when he upset the apple-cart in the Temple. No, not a real apple-cart, I mean all the stalls and businesses there. It was Caiaphas’s idea, the old high priest. Tidy up the merchandising of the Temple, clear out the mess, make things more efficient and streamlined. Get the policies right and the profits will follow. Apparently Caiaphas had decided that the Temple would only accept pre-approved sacrifices. All sacrifices from lambs down to pigeons had to bought from stalls that sold Temple-priest assessed stock. Seems reasonable to me. People used to turn up with some ropey old beasts. Wouldn’t be acceptable for a shepherd’s brothel let alone for sacrifice to the living God. Then there would be ructions, back-and-forths, between the peasant with his mangy dove, who thought it was good enough for Gideon, and the priest who wouldn’t have touched it with a Roman spear. Now under Caiaphas’s plan when people bought the lamb they knew it came with priestly approval. Neat. Tidy. Efficient.
Which was what the Galilean upset. Stalls flying, money rolling, animals squawking, priests shrieking, and him in the middle of it, threatening the Temple’s very existence. Nut job.
The Romans wouldn’t have liked that anyway. P&Q is their motto: “Peace and Quiet”. ’Cos that leads to “Profits” and “Quotas”. But then the Galilean, or some of his lunatic supporters, started mentioning the “K” word. Now, I’m a tomb gardener, lowest of the low, and even I know that Caesar in his palace in far-off Rome, is the only person who gets to decide who is, or isn’t, a King. Once you start letting any John, Luke or Quintas claim that he is a king, you’ll end up with insurrection and all-out war. And all-out war isn’t good for business. I can’t bury in a day all the bodies that a Roman legion can crucify in an hour. And people tend not to want to pay for burials then.
So between the Temple and the Romans the Galilean’s week was spoiled. Quick arrest, quicker trial, quick execution. All done before the Passover is over, and before the trouble could get out of hand. Say what you like about Annas and Caiaphas, they know how to act quickly. And old whatshisname in the Praetorium, Pilate, he doesn’t muck around either. Bish-bash-bosh, trouble-maker stopped and my nice new tomb filled.
I suppose it is, as my friend Levi says, a cost-benefit analysis. I’ve lost a tomb, and a good family connection to the tomb. That’s cost. On the other hand, the Romans have stopped short of an all-out massacre, which means I can carry on selling tomb spaces, one at a time. That’s benefit.
Oh, and one other thing. For some reason, killing him stone dead wasn’t enough. The Temple and the Praetorium didn’t want the body to disappear either. They’ve posted guards on the tomb. Bit of a slur on my name and reputation. This isn’t the kind of burying ground where the gravediggers sell access rights to graverobbers (and I could mention some by name). Never had a body go missing in fifty years of business. That’s cost. However, Roman soldiers get very thirsty sitting in the sun, and I’ve got rather a nice vintage from Carmel I can sell them. Benefit! I don’t mind working on the Sabbath. As they say, someone has to, and I’m glad it’s me.
Tomorrow will be another matter. The family will come and finish off the burial rites. If they don’t have all the ointments they need, I can always supply what’s missing. And I suppose I’ll be able to have a word with Joseph of Arimathea. I need to know when I’ll get vacant possession of the tomb again.