Star Tribune: We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

By Eric G. Wilson
Star Tribune

Hanel_LastOnes coverHamlet holds the skull of Yorick, brooding over the dust to which we return. This is the memento mori motif: Curb your vanity, for you’re already as good as dead. The counter comes from Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.” In this tragically ephemeral world, we require gorgeous memorials of the loves we are losing and have lost.

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: those buried in the rural cemeteries that her father so meticulously maintained; her own deceased Midwestern ancestors, forging stoic lives on the prairie, and the shocking demise of her vivacious, charismatic father — known to his clients as Digger O’Dell — when she was 15.

“I grew up in cemeteries,” Hanel begins. She ran around “the necropolis, the city of the dead,” as others played ball on diamonds. She practiced schoolgirl subtraction by computing life spans on tombstones, and soon become engrossed in the stories of those underground.

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