The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The tomb cutter, part 1

Posted by Ron George on April 26, 2011

His family had been stonecutters for generations. His father and grandfather worked all their lives on the great Temple in Jerusalem. He was born in the city of David, almost in the shadow of Herod’s great work as it rose above the Kidron Valley. Previous generations of his family had been itinerant craftsmen, ranging as far north as the Galilee and across the Jordan River valley. They were a proud, talented clan, and the gleaming cities they left behind were their legacy.

They were Jews and spoke the common tongue of Palestine but also Greek, for it was the language of trade. There hadn’t been much need for it in his time, but grandfather always insisted that the family keep its Greek, even after more than 40 years of living in mountainous Judah. You can speak Greek to the ends of the earth, he used to say; and someday, you may have to go there to make a living.

He had no yen to travel, though. Jerusalem was home, the center of his world, his life. Now his children were learning his craft and trade; and soon, he would be the grandfather of his family. Thirty years of life, most of them in quarries and climbing construction scaffolding, had left their mark, but he was glad to have lived so long. Many of his generation had not. He no longer scaled quarry ladders, but neither had he quit working. He was a tomb cutter, one of the best. The pay was good for an old man, but best of all, his feet never left the ground. He had seen too many of his old friends end their days falling from where they had climbed to put finishing touches on high stone. Some regarded tomb-cutting as unclean. There was nothing unclean about a new tomb, though, which he was weary of explaining to neighbors.

His clients were wealthy and had taken to the burial practice of cutting family tombs into limestone with enough space to lay out a corpse and then store the bones in niches in the walls or floor after the flesh had totally decayed. Thousands of such tombs in Jerusalem were filled with bone-boxes inscribed with the names of the dead. Every handbreadth of space was used for storing the bones before a new tomb was cut. Hiring a tomb cutter, especially the best, was expensive.

He had cut large and small tombs, always with a ledge for laying out the corpse. He took great care in making the tomb seem more like the room of house than a hole in the side of a hill. Most tomb cutters did no more than this, and of course, their prices were lower. He had spent too many years, however, carefully measuring and measuring again before making just the right cut to start using his tools to make cheap tombs.

It was a hallmark of his work that his tombs were secure, ingeniously engineered to make it impossible for grave robbers to steal whatever was precious in the bone boxes. Once the custom-cut stone, shaped like a globe, was rolled into place, it took special tools to move it. He was not only the cutter of tombs but the opener as well for those he made, which was another reason his prices were high.

He had for some weeks worked on a modest tomb for a member of the Council from Arimathea. It wasn’t far outside the northern wall of the city, between roads leading from the Fish and Sheep gates on the way to Samaria. Nearby, a putrescent waste dump fouled the air, the Place of the Skull, so called for all the rotting animal carcasses and even human remains. Beggars’ corpses were dumped there – and criminals’, especially of those crucified on that foul heap. He detested the tomb site. He’d almost turned down the work, but the Arimathean was persuasive – and paid a little more. He’d finished the tomb just a week before Passover.

The holiday was relatively uneventful, which is not to say the city was calm. While tens of thousands of pilgrims thronged upper city streets and the Temple precincts, his family crowded into his house in the lower city to commemorate Passover with the traditional meal. Permanent residents of Jerusalem had learned to stay home when pilgrims jammed the streets. They had stored extra food and provisions for weeks before the holiday. His sons had secured the lamb and had it duly sacrificed, but everyone else stayed far from the Temple. They would pay their respects some other time.

As usual, the family remained together through Passover night, all sleeping in the tomb cutter’s modest house. They would stay together through the Sabbath, which began at sundown the next day. An unspoken prayer churned in everyone’s breast: Let there be no riots this year.

There weren’t, although a Galilean rabbi had been arrested for making trouble at the Temple, or so his sons told him. He spat upon hearing the news. Nothing good comes out of Galilee, he said. Some criminals were to be crucified, and it was rumored that the rabbi might be crucified, too, although no one was sure. Residents in the lower city heard only bits and pieces of what was going on at the Antonia, the Roman fortress built immediately next to the Temple. He was relieved that he’d finished his work for the Arimathean. The dump was especially foul after a crucifixion. It took days for victims to die and then putrefy as carrion birds picked their bones clean.

Not long before Sabbath sundown, a messenger came from the Arimathean. The new tomb had to be opened. Reluctantly, the tomb cutter set out through the city, which was quiet though still crowded with pilgrims. Fortunately, his sons had been close at hand, so they joined him, which would make the work go faster. They made for the Fish Gate and then for the new tomb.

The large closing-stone fit snugly and had been rolled into place over a lip of stone he had cut intentionally so it would fall into the round, low entrance of the tomb. He had left a slot at the top of the stone and had fashioned a special tool that, when slipped into the slot and down the back of the stone would engage a notch that enabled one man to pull the stone away from the entrance; without the tool, however, it was impossible to get hand or lever behind the stone to pull it out. He and his sons made short work of removing the stone. A few moments later, the Arimathean came with a small group of men carrying a corpse, followed by a few women.

This is one of the criminals, he thought, stepping back. The Arimathean said nothing but stood aside as the men carried the corpse into the tomb, which was no easy matter. The entrance was no more than three cubits across. The Arimathean passed a taper inside; a few moments later, the men came out. The women, carrying blocks of spices and a long piece of linen, went in for a few minutes then emerged. Everyone looked more frightened than grief-stricken. The sun was just above the horizon. Shadows were long. The tomb cutter aligned the closing stone then let it roll into the entrance of the tomb.

The Arimathean asked that the stone be removed early on the first day of the week. The tomb cutter agreed, then he and his sons hurried home. He wondered why the wealthy Arimathean let a criminal be put in his new family tomb; otherwise, he didn’t think much about it. It was the Sabbath, a day of rest. There had been no Passover riots. His family was safe and secure. Perhaps the day after tomorrow would shed more light on this strange burial.

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2 Responses to “The tomb cutter, part 1”

  1. Ralph Willis said

    Is this from the same guy who told me he couldn’t write fiction? Couldn’t be! Makes one wonder if the Joshua series was birthed by Girzone blog.

  2. Fred Capps said

    OK, Ron. When do we get part 2?

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