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"Burial Detail" is about burying bodies after a battle during the Civil War. The speaker is a young solider (Sidney Lanier) who volunteers for the burial detail. (The character is real, but the story is by Andrew Hudgins.)
The process is described: a layer of dead men is put down and then covered with lime—to stop the outbreak of cholera. Then another layer of the dead are placed, covered by another layer of lime. The work continues all day and into the night.
The speaker admits that each of the dead is supposed to be checked for valuables, but it was enough just to move them and cover them—anything more would be too much for him to bear. He tries not to look at their faces, but he catches glimpses of a face that looks familiar—like his father, cousins, even his mother...and then one that looks like him. He feels a kinship to these men, though they are strangers.
At one point, the speaker faints:
Then, my knees gave. I dropped my shovel and pitched, face first, into the half-filled trench. I woke almost immediately, and stood on someone's chest while tired hands pulled me out.
Ironically, even in death, the chests of the dead men were stronger than the mud and muck they had marched through in Virginia to fight in this place. For almost a week, the speaker is the object of lame jokes because he fainted, though he was not the only one to do so.
The stranger seems to think there is some irony is his fainting:
You'd think I would have fainted for my father,
for some especially mutilated boy,
for Clifford or my mother. Not for myself.
The young soldier describes the relief of a nighttime breeze, from a storm brewing nearby. It feels good, but the bodies also need moisture to start to decay. This point is important to him because he and others have argued the point: he believes the dead will decay and become a part of the earth again, but others say this is not so...the bodies will remain this way forever. And the young man needs to believe the bodies will become a part of the land again; he needs to know that when it is his turn to die, he will once again become a part of the earth: and in this way, he and the dead he buries will be the same.
As the dawn comes to light the field once more, in the near-darkness, the soldier sees something beautiful. In the dim and shifting light, he only sees pale colors, laid out in an abstract sort of pattern that is very appealing. There are no details, no bodies.
There were a thousand shades of gray,
with colors--some blue perhaps and maybe green--
trying to assert themselves against that gray.
For a brief time, it does not look like a massive graveyard of humanity. But then the sun comes up, and the burial detail is clearly able to see what they have done: there is no doubt at the end. These are the vestiges of war. And if by some miracle there is a moment when the battered and lonely dead disappear, it is an answer to prayer, but only a brief one...for the burial detail.
This story was written by Andrew L. Hudgins, Jr.:
His next book [was] After the Lost War: A Narrative (1988), [which] explores the post-bellum South entirely through poet Sidney Lanier's voice, following the Confederate soldier and poet from the first years of the war to his death.
Using Lanier's voice, Hudgins explores the Civil War through the eyes of a long-dead member of the Confederate army (and poet). The topics of Lanier and Alabama brought to Hudgins "equal parts respect and bewilderment."
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