Night Burial by Ken Seibert

Night Burial

By Ken Seibert

Terry wanted to explore the unknown.

Sure, it was risky, but someone with guts

and brains—and planning—could pull it off.


TERRY HEAVED the last shovelful of dirt aside, then jumped into the three-foot hole he and Sara had just dug.  “Do you think it should be deeper?” he asked, looking up at her.

            It’s deep enough,” she said and dropped her shovel.  In the moonlight that filtered through the pine trees, he thought he saw her shiver.

            “You’re right,” he said.  “Deep enough.”  He scrambled out of the hole again.  “Ready for the box now?” he asked.

            “I don’t know about this,” Sara said suddenly.  “Now that we’ve dug the hole and I can actually see how long and deep it is….”

            “I know,” he said grinning.  “It makes it real.”

            I was simple, really—if he could remain calm and under control while buried alive for eight hours, he could handle anything.  Strong people didn’t take the easy road.  They were always testing themselves, building their inner power.  Eight hours wasn’t all that long if you were mentally tough.

            In a sense, the experience would be a controlled nightmare.  He would tape-record his reactions.  When it was all over, he would play the tapes in the comfort of his bedroom and coolly analyze the experience.

            For weeks, he had planned every detail, right down to the heavy rubber tubing that would be his lifeline.  He needed Sara’s help, of course.  Even Houdini had had an assistant.  No one was more reliable than Sara.  She would dig him up on schedule—8:00 A.M. sharp.

            Even if there was some unforeseen delay, there would be enough water if he rationed it.  And there would always be plenty of air coming through the tube.


            At the cemetery gate, Terry checked everything a final time—blankets, a full canteen, the rubber tubing, a pillow, a cassette recorder and a tape, and a homemade, six-foot pine box.  First, they carried the box and a lantern to the grave.  Terry noticed with some interest that he would be lying close to Rufus James, 1850-1899, according to the tombstone.  Of all the graves nearby, that one alone seemed to have been tended recently.

            “Shouldn’t you have some sandwiches or something?” Sara asked after they carried the rest of the gear to the newly dug grave.

            “No,” Terry said, “it’s not exactly a picnic.”  He smiled at Sara, but she just looked away.

            A cloud bank moved in and switched off the moon.  Suddenly the night was very dark.  As Sara watched Terry light a lantern, a new thought occurred to her.

            “What if I stay here, right in the truck, just to make sure you’re all right?”

            “I’m going to be fine.  I’ll probably sleep most of the night away.”

            “Still, I’d feel a lot better if you’d let me stay and watch.”

            “Watch for what?  This cemetery is a forgotten place.  No one comes here.  I’ve checked it out for two weeks.”

            “Right.  All part of your perfect plan,” she said.

            “Sara, you don’t get it.  I want total isolation.  It’s a very important part of the experiment.  Knowing you were here would wreck everything.  A crowd might as well hang around and dig me up every five minutes to see how I’m doing.

            Sara sighed.  “Do you think the air tube is wide enough?”

            “Quit worrying, will you?  We tried it above ground, and it worked fine.  Why should it be any different with a foot of dirt over it?”

            “I can’t believe we’re really doing this,” Sara said as Terry spread the blankets in the pine box.  “We need a couple of those Houdini straitjackets.”

            “You think it’s crazy, and I think it’s an exploration.”

            “Of what?”

            “Of me.  Of who I am.  I’m not like anyone else.  I’m different.”

            That much Sara agreed with.  Terry wasn’t like other people.  Maybe that was why she found him so attractive.  Being with him was like taking a journey and not knowing what would be around the next bend.

            He climbed down into the box.  There was just enough room for him to stretch.  “OK, now hand me the rest of the stuff.”

            Sara handed him the canteen of water, the pillow, the portable tape player.  Then she helped him push the stiff rubber tube snugly into the hole in the lid.  It was a perfect fit.  No dirt could come in around it.

            “That’s it, I guess, Terry said.  “I’ll see you at eight o’clock.”

            Sara leaned over him.  “it’s not too late to change your mind,” she said.

            “I can’t do this without you Sara.  Don’t let me down.  I’m counting on you.”

            She nodded grimly, then tried to smile.  “See you in the morning.”

            Terry grinned.  “You’d better—or I’ll never speak to you again.”

            “That’s not funny!”

            Lying there, looking at the moonless sky, Terry felt a kinship with anyone who had ever explored anything first—the first person to submerge in a submarine, the first person to crawl into a space capsule.  Now it was his turn to explore the unknown.


            Sara carefully placed the lid on top of the box and hammered a nail into each corner, leaving part of the nailhead sticking up for easy removal.  Terry had said four would be enough.  The air hose stuck out about a foot above ground level.  As she shoveled dirt over the box, Sara was careful that no dirt got into the tube opening.

            When she had finished, she knelt and spoke into the tube.  “Are you OK?”  She put her ear to the tube, listening.  When there was no answer, she started to panic.  “Terry,” she yelled, “say something!”

            The answer came at once.  “Sweet dreams, Sara.”

            Sara knelt, shaking, near the fresh mound of dirt.  Clouds had completely blotted the sky now, and the moon was hidden.  She looked at the tombstones bathed in pale lantern light.  For the first time, she began to feel a sense of violating sacred ground.

            She waited a few minutes longer, listening in case Terry had changed his mind after all.  But the cemetery was silent.  Not even the wind was blowing now.  She turned off the lantern and started toward the truck.

            She sat in the cab and stared at the cemetery.  The darkness had swallowed the tombstones.  From where she sat, it was impossible to see that anything had been disturbed.  Once more she considered spending the night in the truck.  Terry would never know she was there.  But it was Saturday night, and her parents expected her home by 11:00.  Besides, Terry had turned down the idea, and that was that.  No way could she betray his trust.

            She turned on the motor and, after a final glance at the cemetery, drove toward town.

            Terry lay in the black confinement, sweating from every pore.  Mistake number one—not figuring on the heat.  There was enough air to breathe but not enough to evaporate the perspiration.  He kept brushing the sleeve of his sweater across his forehead and eyes.

            He tried fanning himself.  As long as he kept it up, things were a little better.  When he stopped, he was right back where he started.  He pressed the button on his watch, and the little red numerals sprang at him in the blackness.  12:10.  Only an hour gone?  Incredible.

            He spoke into the recorder:  “Twelve-ten, and all is not well.”

            He was startled by his voice, so hollow and alien.  “The heat is miserable.  I’ve got to squirm out of these clothes as much as possible.  The air smells pretty bad by now.  I can breathe well enough, but I’m melting.  More later.”

            A sudden sharp cramp in his right calf made him rise up quickly and crack his forehead on the lid of the box.  It hurt some, but the pain in his calf was the main concern.  He tried to massage the aching muscle but couldn’t reach it.  After a time, the pain slowly began to ebb away.

            Sweat ran in rivulets, stinging his eyes and puddling up in his ears.  Mistake number two—wrong clothing.  Outside, frost crystals might be forming on the blades of grass.  Outside, he might have needed the sweater, the blankets.

            Twisting back and forth, he tried to get out of his sweater and T-shirt.  In his struggle, he used the air too quickly, and he started to black out.  Giving up, he lay motionless until he slowly regained his senses.  His head began to throb where he had hit it, and his drenched clothes hung to his body like leeches.


            Sara couldn’t sleep.  She had been foolish to think she could put Terry out of her mind.  She could still see him, lying in that awful box, looking up at her and the moon.  A dozen what-ifs ran through her mind.  What if he didn’t have enough air after all?  What if the truck broke down as she was driving to the cemetery?  What if her parents thought up some dumb chore she had to do before she left the house in the morning?

            The clock on her bed table read 2:30.  Impossible! She cried silently.  She got out of bed and looked out her window.  Dawn was still endless hours away.

            What if he had panicked and was shouting for her?

            If she took the truck now, her parents would surely hear her.  She had to wait until at least 6:00.  She sat on the edge of her bed, then lay back, staring at the black ceiling of her room.


            Terry looked at his watch again through watery eyes.  The tiny numerals dance and wavered like a red mirage—2:45.  A little more than five hours.  He mustn’t struggle.  Getting enough air had become a serious problem.

            Or was it a problem?  Maybe the heat and the sweating and the suffocating lack of air were only in his imagination.  Still, it seemed as if the box had somehow shrunk.  Mistake number three—he hadn’t realized he was claustrophobic.

            He reached for the canteen and took a long drink, then cursed himself for spilling some of the precious water over his chin and neck.  Still, the water gave him some relief.  How stupid to misjudge the amount of heat his body would generate inside a closed box.  He tried to think of Houdini, how his mind had controlled his emotions while he calmly had gone about his escape.  Then something occurred to him.  Houdini had died in a freak accident—someone had punched him in the stomach and burst his appendix.

            What if Sara doesn’t come?  What if some freak accident happens to her?  He pushed the button on his recorder, but the red numerals on his watch were somersaulting again.  “I don’t know what time it is.  I must not move.”

            He wasn’t sure why he shouldn’t move.  Something about air.  His mind was confused.  The point of the whole experiment was escaping him.  Only one thought filled him.

            “Sara?” he called hoarsely into the recorder.  “I’m counting on you.”


            Edith James drove to Belden Park in her old Ford with her poodle, Misty, and a large potted mum to put on the grave of her grandfather Rufus.  She had risen before dawn, as always, and by the time she reached the old graveyard at 6:00 A.A., the first light of day was filtering through the pine trees.  She loved this part of the day best of all, and she wanted to get things done early so she could get back to study her Bible lesson for the class before church.

            When she was four, her father had died in World War I and had been buried somewhere in France.  She’d never really known him, but she had a vague memory of him throwing her laughing into the air on her third birthday.  She could not bring flowers to her father, but she could bring them to her grandfather—and in that way honor the man whose memory she would always cherish.

            She drove her car to the end of the dirt road and parked near the gate.  “All right, Misty,” she said as she opened the door, “go have yourself a good run.”  Misty leaped outward and immediately began sniffing a small bush.  His mistress primped for a second in the rearview mirror, patting her gray hair carefully into place.  Then she took the plant and followed the dog into the cemetery. 

            She went straight to the grave, the one she visited every two months to keep it neat and tidy.  She placed the plant with its pretty orange blossoms in front of Rufus’s stone and was just beginning to say a prayer when she thought she heard a faint voice.

            Turning her head, she saw the freshly dug grave.  Misty was sniffing curiously, pawing a bit of the bare dirt.  No one had been buried in the cemetery for years, Edith knew.  She shook her head sadly.  “Must be some pauper’s grave,” she spoke aloud.  “Someone with no money buried here secretly during the night.”

            Again, she thought she heard a voice.  She decided it must have been Misty whining in excitement or just her tired old ears playing tricks on her again.  Then she saw the tube coming from the ground near the head of the grave.  “What a pathetic little flower holder,” she sighed.  “And so empty.  Well, whoever you are, you won’t be forgotten today.”


            Terry had drifted in and out of frightening dreams all through the night.  His throat was raw, as if he had been yelling, but he remembered nothing about it.  He fumbled for his canteen and managed to get it to his mouth.  Only a few drops trickled onto his lips.  Sara.  There was something about Sara he should remember.  He wondered whether he had been dreaming of her.  His chest ached dully.  Why was it so difficult to breathe?  Hang on, he whispered to himself, but he wasn’t sure why he should hang on or to what.


            Edith James snapped half a dozen mums from the plant she had brought for her grandfather and stuck the stems snugly into the rubber flower holder.  “There,” she said, standing up to admire their feathery orange heads.  “That certainly brightens things up!”  Satisfied, she called Misty and returned to her car.

             Mile or two down the road, she was quite surprised to pass a pickup truck heading the other way.  A girl was driving, driving fast.  A pretty young thing, but her face looked anxious as the truck flashed by.  What on earth, Edith James wondered, would bring one of today’s teenagers racing out here at this hour of the morning?  Well, that wasn’t her worry.  She had plenty of time to take Misty home and then head off for Bible study.

            Edith smiled gently.  How nice, she thought, to have already done her good deed for the day.


"Night Burial" was published in Read Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 4, October 17, 1979.  Read Magazine was an in-class reader designed for middle school children.  This particularly issue of the magazine was entitled “Our Annual Scary Issue.”