We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter by Rachael Hanel

J. Haley Campbell

We'll Be the Last Ones CoverRachael Hanel’s memoir is an exploration of death and grief. Growing up in cemeteries, Hanel observed her gravedigger father—known fondly as Digger O’Dell—tend to people’s last physical stop in this world. Hanel was a quizzical and imaginative child who, under her mother’s guidance, began to use stories to piece together the why and how of death. While the subtitle alludes to the focus of the book—Hanel’s unique coming-of-age immersed in the one greatest truth of life: that it ends—the highlights of the book are examinations of how we deal with death. Religion, storytelling, the paranormal, and humor are all present in Hanel’s journey. She also romanticizes death: “I was left with the beauty. By the time the dead arrived at the cemetery, the caskets—rich wood, elaborately carved, accented with brass handles—were closed, with redolent sprays of roses and carnations on top. In the quiet of Dad’s cemeteries, the dead were tucked neatly into the ground, unseen but still there.” It wasn’t until Hanel was fourteen that death inspired fear. At Woodville Cemetery, she came upon the gravestone of a young girl named Vicki. “Fears and worries lurked in my mind, not all-consuming, but like a low-grade fever that was always there. I wonder if I will die young, like Vicki.”

And death did hit close to home a short while later. Hanel’s parents had erected the family tombstone when she was eleven. Rather than macabre, this was practical. Her father even joked that he wanted to dig his own grave, but he didn’t have that opportunity. He became ill and passed quickly. We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down feels like a tribute to her father, making it a powerful read, but this also draws upon some of the limitations of the memoir.

At times it reads like a gratuitous family history—a fascinating but tangential exploration of this unique family. There is a lot of thematic repetition, and there are stories that are so detached from what is expected, given the book’s title and its initial pages, that the memoir sometimes strays: details about extended family members, anecdotes of history that pull the reader from the story, and shifts in perspective that lack believability. The disjointed moments could be due to the fact that portions of the book were published earlier as essays.

At one point, we dive into the mind of Hanel’s father, Digger O’Dell. “God filters into his thoughts. Dad thinks about how a body will go into this space in a few hours, that it’s just a body, a shell, nothing more … He envisions heaven.” And it goes on. While the pondering is interesting, it may have been more believable had the author owned these thoughts and not placed them in the mind of her father at a time when she was very young and not present. A similar trope is used more effectively, however, when Hanel imagines her parents in the beginning of their romance: “Pieces of their individual auras leap and jump like charged particles and land on each other.” The imaginative element gives license to this wondering, even though this scene occurred several years before the author’s birth.

Despite these jarring elements, We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter has a lot of heart. We can all connect with the desire to understand our family history, to explore the elements that define us, and to understand and process death and grief. And Hanel has done this in a humorous, interesting, and heartfelt way.


We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter
by Rachael Hanel
University of Minnesota Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0816683468

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