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We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter

2013
Author:

Rachael Hanel

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

Growing up among cemeteries and finding faith and resilience amid sorrowful loss

This book presents the unique, moving perspective of a gravedigger’s daughter and her lifelong relationship with death. It is also a masterful meditation on the living elements of our cemeteries: our neighbors, friends, and families and how these things come together in the eyes of a young girl whose childhood is suffused with death and the wonder of the living.

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down gently untucks dying, death, and mourning from the dark recesses of the drawer we Midwesterners, descendants of the stoic and neat, have kept it. Choice passages of Hanel’s story so affected me that my throat went sore swallowing grief. All the while, I had the sense of watching a determined child fall down, scrape her knee, and stand up, lip quivering, eyes glistening but resolute.

Nicole Helget, author of The Turtle Catcher

Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling family tree etched on the back of the stone. As she puts it: I grew up in cemeteries.

And you don’t grow up in cemeteries—surrounded by headstones and stories, questions, curiosity—without becoming an adept and sensitive observer of death and loss as experienced by the people in this small town. For Rachael Hanel, wandering among tombstones, reading the names, and wondering about the townsfolk and their lives, death was, in many ways, beautiful and mysterious. Death and mourning: these she understood. But when Rachael’s father—Digger O’Dell—passes away suddenly when she is fifteen, she and her family are abruptly and harshly transformed from bystanders to participants. And for the first time, Rachael realizes that death and grief are very different.

At times heartbreaking and at others gently humorous and uplifting, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down presents the unique, moving perspective of a gravedigger’s daughter and her lifelong relationship with death and grief. But it is also a masterful meditation on the living elements of our cemeteries: our neighbors, friends, and families—the very histories of our towns and cities—and how these things come together in the eyes of a young girl whose childhood is suffused with both death and the wonder of the living.

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

Rachael Hanel is a writer, university administrator, and former journalist. She has written more than twenty nonfiction books for children, and her essays have been published in the Bellingham Review and New Delta Review. She lives in Minnesota.

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down gently untucks dying, death, and mourning from the dark recesses of the drawer we Midwesterners, descendants of the stoic and neat, have kept it. Choice passages of Hanel’s story so affected me that my throat went sore swallowing grief. All the while, I had the sense of watching a determined child fall down, scrape her knee, and stand up, lip quivering, eyes glistening but resolute.

Nicole Helget, author of The Turtle Catcher

Mesmerizing!

Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

The often uplifting, sometimes surprising and occasionally heart-breaking impacts of Hanel’s family’s cemetery existence are tenderly reflected in thoughtful, polished prose.

Free Press

This isn’t just a personal memoir; Hanel writes eloquently about the lives and deaths of family, neighbors, and strangers with sympathy and care.

MinnPost.com

In her profound memoir on growing up the daughter of a gravedigger in Waseca, Minn., Rachael Hanel explores death as reaper and muse. Macabre and lyrical at once, her story is about how the dead have shaped her life. Hanel’s powerful, beautiful, moving book allows death, harrowing and healing, to sing.

Star Tribune

A humorously heartbreaking, philosophically engaging, intellectually stimulating and spiritual story that reads like a slap in the face--poignant, brooding yet ever hopeful. It is a tale of childhood innocence lost and found, of relationships fractured and reformed, of faith and recovery.

Shelf Awareness

Hanel excels at being able to weave together seemingly contradictory themes as she tells
her stories. For example, while in one moment there is sadness at the loss of a family member,
there is also the sense of loving family bonds and a desire to cherish the living. She is
particularly effective in balancing the various themes while simultaneously developing them
each appropriately.

Foreword Reviews

Hanel’s memoir takes readers on a journey to the realization that life is surrounded by death and that death is surrounded by life.

South-West Review

A tribute to both Minnesota ways and a life spent in graveyards, We’ll be the Last Ones to Let Down tells stories of life, death, and the everlasting yet complicated bond of family.

The Corresponder

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

Contents

1. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down
2. Digger O’Dell
3. In the Midst of Life We Are in Death
4. Stormy Weather
5. Precious in the Sight of the Lord Is the Death of His Saints
6. Break the Plow
7. As You Think, You Travel
8. When Beauty Dies
9. A Gossamer World
10. Helter Skelter
11. Opening Night
12. The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away
13. What Was Left Behind

Epilogue
Acknowledgments

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

UMP blog - Six Feet Under and the return of death to the home

In the not-so-distant past, death and life co-existed in the home. Home was where people were born, and home was where people died. Upon death, the family prepped the body for burial, carefully washing it and clothing it. The body was then laid out in the parlor, and friends and neighbors paid their respects. My mom vividly recalls seeing her first dead body: the in-home viewing of her uncle in the late 1940s in rural Minnesota. In my book, I write about the Zimmerman family of Waseca, Minnesota, a mother and six children killed in a train-car accident in 1959. The family was waked at home for practical reasons: the funeral home simply did not have room for seven caskets.

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