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Lancaster gravedigger prepares grave for slain 3-year-old

A few minutes after dawn Friday morning, Mike Arant's phone rang, because it must ring when there is death -- and Arant must answer every time.

A 3-year-old was dead from bullets earlier in the week, and Arant is Lancaster's gravedigger.

The sign on the side of his truck says "Mike's Dig-It, Interment Specialist," but Arant doesn't answer the phone that way when he knows the number on the other end of the phone.

He knew this number. He has seen it hundreds of times in the early morning.

"G' mornin'," said Arant.

"Mike, Glen," Arant heard. It was Glen Crawford, owner of Crawford Funeral Home.

"Hope you are good. Got one at Bright Light Baptist, down in the Pleasant Hill community. Service is tomorrow in the afternoon."

"I'll be right by to pick up the tent," said Arant. "Pleasure to help."

Arant and his friend for life, employee Scotty Terry, gulped their coffee and climbed into the truck with the little backhoe on the back, armed with a special bucket just the width of a grave.

Crawford did not say what he and his wife, his son, had been doing for two days -- ever since Jaylen Jackson was shot in the head while sitting in the backseat of a car, as adults who should know better argued, then brought out their guns.

Crawford said nothing of ordering the tiny coffin, called a "4-6" for the 4-foot, 6-inch length for children, even as police investigated and charged two men in the killing.

One is the boyfriend of Jaylen's mother.

Crawford did not tell Arant about preparing the tiny body in what Crawford called a "senseless death." For two full days, Crawford worked his magic so the body could be as perfect as a dead 3-year-old could be.

"The family needs my best on this one," said Crawford. "But this is hard. We are human, too. Kids are not easy. No words make anything better for this one."

Digging a 'hole'

Crawford did not tell Arant whose grave he was digging for two reasons.

First, Arant worked in a funeral home for 10 years, digging graves at night. His stepfather and mother own Lancaster's Hartley Funeral Home. The last five years, Arant just digs graves. For eight funeral companies, white and black funeral homes, Arant digs what he never calls a grave, but "a hole."

Saying "grave" makes people shudder.

"Sometimes even keeps a waitress from bringing the tea if she knows we just came from digging a grave," said Arant. "We don't even wear uniforms. Makes people nervous."

Second, because Mike Arant never wants to know who the grave is for.

"You might know the person, makes it even tougher," said Arant. "All I knew this morning was where, and when he needed it done by."

Arant did not know Jaylen Jackson's family, and neither did Scotty Terry. But the killing had been the talk of Lancaster for three days. It was all over the news. Terry talked about it on the 15-minute ride to the cemetery.

"I got two girls myself," said Terry, as he and Arant arrived at the church cemetery, down in the far southeastern corner, next to a grave the two had dug last year. Actually, next to seven graves they dug in the past few years.

"I think about them growing up. You ain't supposed to bury your kids. They're supposed to bury you."

"I got two kids, too," said Arant, "4 and 12. Think about them all the time. Right now, even."

'Work that matters'

The two unloaded the backhoe from a trailer. Arant pulled the first earth free and loaded it into the back of his truck.

First, green earth with grass clumps and lots of weeds, then brown earth, then red clay deep down. He used a steel frame 95 inches long by 36 inches wide, welded by Arant himself, as a guide.

"Exact size of a grave," Arant said.

The bucket has a special back to make the sides of the grave smooth. The men hardly talked. They had done this thousands of times, including eight times already this week and 143 times this year.

"So far," said Arant, "and we got two more today."

But Friday, as the sun hit noon, and Jaylen Jackson's family prepared for an open-casket visitation because of the skill of Glen Crawford the mortician, this was different.

Special care was needed to avoid the grave right next to it with the flowers still on it. Not a flower petal moved even a whisker as the backhoe dug.

"This job ain't fun, but you get to help a family in the one time in their life when they need you to help them," said Arant. "You are doin' work that matters for people."

"Recession-proof," said Terry. "People are out of work, times is tough. But they die, all the same."

Arant grabbed a shovel with his nine fingers -- he lost a forefinger in an accident. He jumped in the truck, drove to a pile and dumped the earth. It will be used today to cover the casket.

Terry jumped in the grave and skimmed a bit here and there. In just minutes, it was a perfectly shaped rectangular hole -- exactly 4 feet deep.

"The expression 'six feet under' came from the old days, before vaults and liners around caskets," Arant said. "Graves now are 4 feet deep, 54 inches in some places.

"I got started back when I was younger. Last five years, all I do is dig holes. Had family funerals of my own, late or missed them, because I was doing this.

"Holes -- you call 'em graves -- they wait for no man. Rain so hard you can't see your hand. Snow up to your kneecaps. You dig."

'It has to be perfect'

Terry and Arant finished the grave and put up the tent so people attending today's burial can have some shade. Silver metal poles, a green tent. Perfectly square, stakes driven in with a sledgehammer.

"A burial is the place you say goodbye," Arant said. "I worked thousands of them. They matter. It's the last chance. This burial tomorrow, I aim for it to look as good as it can be.

"That's somebody's daughter. It has to be perfect."

This morning, before the burial, Terry and Arant will come back in the early light.

"We bring 12 chairs, always a dozen," Arant said. "First we roll out what we call the grass. Eight pieces of green carpet, like Astroturf they use on football fields, that goes next to the hole. Then we set up the folding chairs and clean them real good. Make the whole place purty for the people."

He meant "pretty," but Mike Arant is 42 years old from Lancaster, and he digs graves for a living, including those for 3-year-old girls. He said "purty" -- and it sounded beautiful when he said it.

They put the black plastic casket liner in the hole where it fit snug as any drawer in a master woodworker's cabinet. They covered the hole with a plywood board so no animals could get in overnight.

The backhoe went back up on the trailer, was locked on, and the gravediggers readied to go.

But first, Scotty Terry put fresh dirt next to the hole "to make it smooth and nice."

Arant grabbed a rake and gently pulled small clods of sod that had been torn by the tracks of the hoe, and he smoothed them down. He put a little dirt in three shallow spots.

When they were done, except for the tent with the plywood-covered grave, the spot looked as nice as it had when the gravediggers arrived. As nice as a place where 3-year-old kids are buried can look.

'Somebody's baby'

Before turning to leave, the two friends paused in this spot behind the church, south of Lancaster on U.S. 521 that is way out in the country by anybody's measure. They said nothing for several moments.

Silence for a 3-year-old child, Jaylen Jackson, who died for what these two men agreed sure seems like no reason. Sweat dripped from the tip of each man's nose. Their dirty hands covered with calluses, cracked and hard.

Mike Arant -- "interment specialist," gravedigger -- looked out over the grave toward a field of weeds and summer rye. He said, softly, to the empty space, these words that floated off into the springtime sky:

"This was somebody's baby. That little girl never did nothing to nobody. She never had a chance to live. Or laugh and run around like little kids do. It ain't right. But I can say this: Her grave is gonna be perfect. She deserves that from me."