The Grave
A short story by Katherine Anne Porter

What do we do about death? We have an awkward relationship with it. Though it's all around his, the familiarity allows denial.

Once you have a family member die, you catch all the casual references and idiomatic phrases that contain death. "I'm dying to see it." "She died laughing." "You kill me."

We learn how to drive by cemeteries without sadness or without reflecting on mortality.

We eat hamburger without visualizing the life or the slaughter of the cattle.

We are surrounded by death yet we avert our eyes so often than when we do have to face it, it's a disturbing, confusing shock.

Katherine Anne Porter's story The Grave is about maturing, especially with coming to terms with death, and how that process isn't smooth because we don't always know how to lay things to rest in order to move forward.

Rather than leave her husband's dead body at peace at a family burial place, the grandmother dug up her dead husband's body and "disturbed his long repose" by moving it around with her as she moved. Because of her own plans and desires, she failed to let the dead stay buried. Only we she ran out of time herself was she able to complete those burial plans.

One of her plans was to sell land for the benefit of certain children, not for Miranda's father, Harry. Miranda suffered from this decision (and it also meant the grandfather's body had to be moved again.)

Though it was the grandmother's plan to be buried next to her husband for all eternity, we learn that she was buried first in her plot and only later was her husband's body moved next to her. In her life time, she did not know for certain that her plan would be fulfilled.

Grandfather and grandmother end up being buried together but in an impersonal "big new public cemetery" rather than a family plot on family land.

Grandmother was not a peace and it seemed that working her will for just the right burial was a way she was trying to achieve it but Grandmother's burial plans not only disturbed the dead but adversely effected the living.

Grandmother stalled at the passage of her husband's death. And that was not a good thing.

What does it mean to bury something? Isn't a grave something that shouldn't be disturbed?

Death is above and beyond us and all around us and usually out of our control. A grave is something man made.

When Miranda and Paul first come upon the old cemetery, abandoned because of economics, an unpleasant will and the "possessiveness of the widow" Porter describes it with negatives balancing positives: the grass is uncropped but sweet smelling, it is neglected yet pleasant. The graves are there yet not there. A grave without a coffin is just a hole in the ground.

Miranda and Paul don't associate death at all with the empty graves. They are just places to explore and they are both a little disappointed that it isn't more exciting.

They find treasures-- a silver dove and a gold ring which is probably a wedding band. There is no thought given about who these articles used to belong to. Their thoughts and feeling are in the here-and-now.

The silver dove is a treasure that Miranda trades away for the gold ring which Paul had found.

The silver dove, which came from the grandfather's old grave, might symbolize the peace he found in death. The dove is also something they were hunting for.

Paul shows that he knows more than Miranda about the business of death by telling her it was a coffin screw. But Miranda doesn't care; she's happy with the gold ring she got which is still too big to fit a finger, but fits her thumb nicely. Miranda is more concerned with her future as a female, growing up to wear more feminine clothes like her older sister Maria and avoiding the scorn of the corn cob pipe smoking crones who criticize the unisex work clothes her father provides for her. (Perhaps if grandmother didn't cut him out of his will, he would have been able to afford better clothes.)

Paul is the possessor of knowledge of death and Miranda possesses dreams of her mature feminine future. (Porter uses archetypal symbols freely. Maria's skill at riding a horse bareback is a symbolic allusion to the fact that she experiences sex.)

The dove has the multiple symbolic value of death, peace and the object of their hunt.

Miranda is hunting with Paul only so she can walk through the woods with him. The only thing Miranda has a gut feeling for killing is snakes, evil things.

Shooting doves and rabbits doesn't really have anything to do with death. They live on a farm. Shooting animals and skinning them is about as shocking and death related as it is for my 5 year old son seeing his mother put a chicken in a pot.

When Paul shoots the rabbit (a common symbol for reproduction), Miranda gets close to get a good look and her feelings about it are happy and positive. Paul speaks "complacently" about shooting it in the head and Miranda "watched admirably" as he skins it. Miranda even touches exposed sinews of the dead rabbit. There's no revulsion here. Just curiosity and admiration for their prize. This kind of death doesn't have anything to do with their own mortality until they take a closer look.

Then they see something they haven't seen before, something they're not used to and something that adds a new dimension to the death. "It was going to have young ones."

Miranda is still curious and she touches one of the dead baby rabbits. And she's filled with a tangle of feelings she's not used to. Porter again uses opposites in her description: Miranda is "filled with pity and astonishment and a kind of shocked delight in the wonderful little creatures for their own sakes, they were so pretty."

Porter paints a picture for feelings that don't have names and she often uses opposites. For example, the children were both excited and bored by seeing the empty graves. They were excited because they were graves but disappointed that they were mere holes in the ground.

Porter does something similar with Miranda's inner feelings. We're not exactly sure how she feels because they aren't exact terms for it. So Porter traces outlines with what she might be feeling: "she had vague stirrings of desire for luxury....which could not take precise form in her imagination." "Miranda knew this, though she could not say how." And sometimes Miranda said things that had "exasperating inconsequence" She "began to tremble without knowing why. And she had "formless intuitions in her own mind and body, which had been clearing up, taking form, so gradually and so steadily she had not realized that she was learning what she had to know."

Miranda experiences things without words and feelings that don't have names. That's why she doesn't remember having thoughts, ideas and opinions, as her father has about clothes and waste or her brother has about manly arts. Instead she remembers the pleasantly sweet, corrupt smell (Porter's opposites again) of the empty graves and the Third World smells of the foreign market place. And she remembers how much she loved her brother and spending time with him as they were growing up by remembering his face in the blazing sunshine on the day when he confidently toyed with the silver coffin pin.

After seeing the dead baby rabbits for a period of time, Miranda goes through a process of wordless enlightenment which Porter mentions that she feels in her body as well as her mind. "They're like babies" she says and she projects another connection with her feminine future.

Paul sees they're like babies too but he takes charge of the situation and gives Miranda instructions not to tell anybody and in a sense, bury the experience. He wants to protect Miranda from this disturbing reality that he too just learned about.

He puts the baby rabbits back in the mother rabbit (the womb is their grave) and then he puts the mother rabbit behind a bush. By so doing, he is committing what his father regarded as a terrible sin, wastefulness. The bush grave just serves to just put it out of sight. Neither Paul or Miranda were quite ready for what they saw. They put it in the temporary grave of forgetting about it.

A proper burial is a final act. Only later did grandfather get his final resting place, and only 20 years later did Miranda find she was ready to let the dreadful vision be buried and done with.

With the dreadful vision buried for good now and not just out of sight, "the mingled sweetness and corruption she had smelled" that day in the empty cemetery now just evoked the pleasant memory of her brother and those wonderful days together when they found and exchanged buried treasures.

This story is a beautiful work of art, not just a statement about death and muturity. It would pain me to have to alter it to make it accessible for my students.



Morrill Books