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

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Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling family tree etched on the back of the stone. As she puts it: I grew up in cemeteries. And you don’t grow up in cemeteries—surrounded by headstones and stories, questions, curiosity—without becoming an adept and sensitive observer of death and loss as experienced by the people in this small town. For Rachael Hanel, wandering among tombstones, reading the names, and wondering about the townsfolk and their lives, death was, in many ways, beautiful and mysterious. Death and mourning: these she understood. But when Rachael’s father—Digger O’Dell—passes away suddenly when she is fifteen, she and her family are abruptly and harshly transformed from bystanders to participants. And for the first time, Rachael realizes that death and grief are very different. At times heartbreaking and at others gently humorous and uplifting, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down presents the unique, moving perspective of a gravedigger’s daughter and her lifelong relationship with death and grief. But it is also a masterful meditation on the living elements of our cemeteries: our neighbors, friends, and families—the very histories of our towns and cities—and how these things come together in the eyes of a young girl whose childhood is suffused with both death and the wonder of the living.


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Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling family tree etched on the back of the stone. As she puts it: I grew up in cemeteries. And you don’t grow up in cemeteries—surrounded by headstones and stories, questions, curiosity—without becoming an adept and sensitive observer of death and loss as experienced by the people in this small town. For Rachael Hanel, wandering among tombstones, reading the names, and wondering about the townsfolk and their lives, death was, in many ways, beautiful and mysterious. Death and mourning: these she understood. But when Rachael’s father—Digger O’Dell—passes away suddenly when she is fifteen, she and her family are abruptly and harshly transformed from bystanders to participants. And for the first time, Rachael realizes that death and grief are very different. At times heartbreaking and at others gently humorous and uplifting, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down presents the unique, moving perspective of a gravedigger’s daughter and her lifelong relationship with death and grief. But it is also a masterful meditation on the living elements of our cemeteries: our neighbors, friends, and families—the very histories of our towns and cities—and how these things come together in the eyes of a young girl whose childhood is suffused with both death and the wonder of the living.

30 review for We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kristin Thompson ashland

    I don't typically like memoirs because I feel like the author is using the platform to justify their behavior. This memoir, however, is more a story of growing up in a small town trying to figure out this big, complicated world. The writing is insightful, quirky, and fully relatable. I read it in a day and a half, which hasn't happened in awhile! I thoroughly enjoyed it! I don't typically like memoirs because I feel like the author is using the platform to justify their behavior. This memoir, however, is more a story of growing up in a small town trying to figure out this big, complicated world. The writing is insightful, quirky, and fully relatable. I read it in a day and a half, which hasn't happened in awhile! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lori Clark

    I enjoyed reading about all the different stories contained within the pages of this memoir. I don't often read memoirs, at least not the ones of normal, everyday, non-famous midwesterners. I found the stories about all the different cemeteries and the stories behind the tombstones entertaining. When we walk or bike or drive through a cemetery, how often do we stop to consider all the things that go on behind the scenes? Or about the people buried there? I used to enjoy riding my bike through th I enjoyed reading about all the different stories contained within the pages of this memoir. I don't often read memoirs, at least not the ones of normal, everyday, non-famous midwesterners. I found the stories about all the different cemeteries and the stories behind the tombstones entertaining. When we walk or bike or drive through a cemetery, how often do we stop to consider all the things that go on behind the scenes? Or about the people buried there? I used to enjoy riding my bike through the large cemetery in the town in Iowa I lived in at the time. The different stones, the different names, etc. and wonder, or imagine. And who hasn't heard at least one creepy cemetery story? This book is more than a book about graveyards. It's about family and communities and how we are all intertwined and how death affects us all in different ways. I was especially fascinated by the chapters on how she wanted to communicate with those who had passed on and the Ouija board. I also found interesting her curiosity about death and tragedy. Not a particularly riveting read, but entertaining and well-written just the same.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Leigh

    Wow. This was an amazing read! I had to stop and take breathers on occasion because it was just so powerful. Cheers to Rachael for writing a book that can be so insightful and uplifting about life and death without the depressing edge that is so innate to death and dying.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Wayne McCoy

    We'll Be The Last To Let You Down is a memoir by Rachael Hanel. It's a series of shorter stories in which she talks about her gravedigger father and life and death in a small town. The larger discussion is about how we deal with grief and death. Rachael grew up playing among the gravestones in small cemeteries around her small town. Her father dug graves and her father and mother cut grass and tended the graveyards. Rachael grew up knowing the stories of the people who died, but grief never reall We'll Be The Last To Let You Down is a memoir by Rachael Hanel. It's a series of shorter stories in which she talks about her gravedigger father and life and death in a small town. The larger discussion is about how we deal with grief and death. Rachael grew up playing among the gravestones in small cemeteries around her small town. Her father dug graves and her father and mother cut grass and tended the graveyards. Rachael grew up knowing the stories of the people who died, but grief never really hit home until it happens very close to her. Her stories alternate between some function of her father's job and a story of one of the departed. There is the man who lost his wife and children in one horrible accident, or the grave with the picture of the young girl, gone but frozen in time at that age. The book features photos from Rachael Hanel's family. I really enjoyed the book and found the stories very personal, interesting, and worth reflecting on. I was given a review copy of this book by University Of Minnesota Press and Netgalley in exchange for a fair review. Thank you for letting me review this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dianne

    WE'LL BE THE LAST ONES TO LET YOU DOWN is an encapsulated view of a rather unconventional childhood growing up in a family whose business was tending to cemeteries, digging graves for the deceased. As a child, she was unafraid of death, played among the headstones, learned to respect the lives of those who had passed, because each had a story to tell that was more than the eye could see. Rachael Hanel has shared beautiful moments and memories of her life growing up as the daughter of "Digger O'D WE'LL BE THE LAST ONES TO LET YOU DOWN is an encapsulated view of a rather unconventional childhood growing up in a family whose business was tending to cemeteries, digging graves for the deceased. As a child, she was unafraid of death, played among the headstones, learned to respect the lives of those who had passed, because each had a story to tell that was more than the eye could see. Rachael Hanel has shared beautiful moments and memories of her life growing up as the daughter of "Digger O'Dell," the name her father gave himself as a gravedigger. Some are funny, some sad, but each snippet is always told with love. This ARC copy was provided by NetGalley and University Of Minnesota Press in exchange for my honest review. Publication date: March 19, 2013

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    I have always been fascinated by cemeteries and the stories they hold, so I had a good feeling that the author and I would be somewhat kindred spirits on that concept. And We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter did not disappoint. Rachael Hanel’s respect and reverence for those buried at the cemeteries her parents cared for anchor this memoir while her personal experiences, memories, and photographs pull the reader in on a personal level as they are both grippin I have always been fascinated by cemeteries and the stories they hold, so I had a good feeling that the author and I would be somewhat kindred spirits on that concept. And We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter did not disappoint. Rachael Hanel’s respect and reverence for those buried at the cemeteries her parents cared for anchor this memoir while her personal experiences, memories, and photographs pull the reader in on a personal level as they are both gripping and touching. Hanel’s writing is smooth and engaging, and her willingness to really dig deep (no pun intended) makes this one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long time.

  7. 4 out of 5

    npaw

    Pleasant surprise book that Meat Eater found at AWP. I am so happy I got the last copy. Well written, even paced, personable but universal enough that I totally related. Great balance.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Karlynn

    This was a very moving book, but especially so for me because my family and I lived in this town around the time this book takes place. Many of the people are very familiar to me, some close friends to my parents. The places are all part of my siblings and my growing up. But the book embraces a far more universal scope, that part of life that can not be ignored.....and that is death.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Jeffers

    An enjoyable memoir of what it was like to grow up in 1970s Minnesota, well-written but a little lacking in focus. Rachel Hanel's father was a grave digger in their small town, so she grew up somewhat unfazed by death and cemeteries. These were all simply part of her day-to-day life. She writes about what that was like, while also giving us a peek into her family's history and exploring some of the losses therein. I liked reading Hanel's story, but I wish she had further plumbed some depths as I An enjoyable memoir of what it was like to grow up in 1970s Minnesota, well-written but a little lacking in focus. Rachel Hanel's father was a grave digger in their small town, so she grew up somewhat unfazed by death and cemeteries. These were all simply part of her day-to-day life. She writes about what that was like, while also giving us a peek into her family's history and exploring some of the losses therein. I liked reading Hanel's story, but I wish she had further plumbed some depths as I ultimately wasn't left with any real takeaways.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Linda Kenny

    Great title for this book. I was really interested in the perspective of growing up around cemeteries and the stories that were behind the tombstones. If you grew up in a small town the cemetery is a reflection of the lives of your neighbors and your own family. I too knew a couple who bought their headstone ahead of time and invited us all to go and see it. Eventually the grave was occupied but the story is told every time we pass them. I enjoyed the history; the look at life in a small Minneso Great title for this book. I was really interested in the perspective of growing up around cemeteries and the stories that were behind the tombstones. If you grew up in a small town the cemetery is a reflection of the lives of your neighbors and your own family. I too knew a couple who bought their headstone ahead of time and invited us all to go and see it. Eventually the grave was occupied but the story is told every time we pass them. I enjoyed the history; the look at life in a small Minnesota community.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    This was a fantastic read and a very interesting memoir of death in small town Minnesota. The story was so hypnotic and I could not put it down. It really touched me since I lost my Dad a few years ago. I loved reading about how she felt about the land because I feel exactly the same way. I long for wide open spaces. We know a lot of people who live in and around Waseca, MN so it made this book extra special. Highly recommended.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    A sweet, somewhat sad story of a girl and her family life.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    I couldn't put this book down for long, so engaging and insightful. Hanel, the author, peals back the layers of her experiences, primarily with the subject of death. Her father was a gravedigger, making her familiar from a young age with the mortality that faces all humans sooner or later or unexpectedly. Through a series of growth spurts in her life, Hanel probes and uncovers what most in society repress, which makes for therapeutic reading. She takes on the deadly serious with frankness, an e I couldn't put this book down for long, so engaging and insightful. Hanel, the author, peals back the layers of her experiences, primarily with the subject of death. Her father was a gravedigger, making her familiar from a young age with the mortality that faces all humans sooner or later or unexpectedly. Through a series of growth spurts in her life, Hanel probes and uncovers what most in society repress, which makes for therapeutic reading. She takes on the deadly serious with frankness, an embracing and healthy perspective not commonly found in American society. Not only that, but she implements concrete sensory details in her descriptions that make the reading all the richer. I, too, connected with her pop culture references from my 1970-1980 generation, along with references truly pivotal from other important generations, such as: the British Romantic era and classical music. Set in small town Waseca, Minnesota, Hanel captures the vibe of rural town living. Her memoir impacted me profoundly. She connected with the top shelf of my schema, and brought me into the dark recesses of my mind as well with death the interloper, making think about dying, which makes me embrace living day-to-day.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tania Pryputniewicz

    We know going into this memoir that death and grave digging will be central subjects, but far from casting a grim pall, both serve as a matter-of-fact means for seeing deeply into the narrator’s heart as she comes of age. In a series of perfectly paced vignettes, Rachael Hanel brings us into a world where tales of the harsh circumstances of ancestors mingle with the life and death stories of strangers one headstone at a time—stories she’s privy to at a much more intimate level because of the fam We know going into this memoir that death and grave digging will be central subjects, but far from casting a grim pall, both serve as a matter-of-fact means for seeing deeply into the narrator’s heart as she comes of age. In a series of perfectly paced vignettes, Rachael Hanel brings us into a world where tales of the harsh circumstances of ancestors mingle with the life and death stories of strangers one headstone at a time—stories she’s privy to at a much more intimate level because of the family occupation. Most of the book dwells on the arc of her role from early childhood to adolescent grave-digger’s helper as her father’s daughter. I loved the way Hanel moves from scene to scene; she gives us just enough room to breathe between intensities and gifts us an unflinching look at the way loss impacts the core of family and identity. I am eager to read Rachel’s next book!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Roxanne

    I read this book in one day. It made me want to hug the author and never let her go. I felt very connected with the author as a young girl. Innocent and needing much more love and guidance after her father's unexpected death. I loved the photos that were included in the book. It felt like I was welcome into the author's life and felt I needed to be present to hear what she needed to share with me. I read this book in one day. It made me want to hug the author and never let her go. I felt very connected with the author as a young girl. Innocent and needing much more love and guidance after her father's unexpected death. I loved the photos that were included in the book. It felt like I was welcome into the author's life and felt I needed to be present to hear what she needed to share with me.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    Reading this book took me back to my childhood when my family lived in Waseca. There were many familiar names, some dear family friends; I could relive my early growing years and be reminded why those years in Waseca and the surrounding area..visits to friends’ farm, Clear Lake, the sound of loons on the lakes, huge snowbanks, ice skating at the school, and the warm sunny days of endless summers were my favorite.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tim Timberly

    I picked this book up on a whim and was surprised by how easy it was to read. I like reading stories about people, and the author provided many of the about people from her town and from her own extended family. Most of the stories were about death, which shouldn't be surprising given that her family business was cemetery maintenance. I picked this book up on a whim and was surprised by how easy it was to read. I like reading stories about people, and the author provided many of the about people from her town and from her own extended family. Most of the stories were about death, which shouldn't be surprising given that her family business was cemetery maintenance.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Joni Sensel

    An entertaining, well-written, and unusual memoir with intriguing insights about a family's relationship with death and dying as well as life. The ending seemed to fall off a bit in my view, as though the author struggled to relate those insights to her present or future life, but a quite good memoir overall. An entertaining, well-written, and unusual memoir with intriguing insights about a family's relationship with death and dying as well as life. The ending seemed to fall off a bit in my view, as though the author struggled to relate those insights to her present or future life, but a quite good memoir overall.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Therese Dotray-Tulloch

    Local Waseca author writes her memoir centering around the tragically early death of her father who dug graves and maintained cemeteries for a living. A good read with some nuggets of truth to keep you reading.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    This is a storyteller's memoir, beautifully crafted and full of universal insights while also deeply personal. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it in only two sittings. I simply could not put it down. This is a storyteller's memoir, beautifully crafted and full of universal insights while also deeply personal. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it in only two sittings. I simply could not put it down.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Amy McCall

    I love Minnesota, history, Six Feet Under, and learning the stories of people's lives. I will read this again and again in the future. I love Minnesota, history, Six Feet Under, and learning the stories of people's lives. I will read this again and again in the future.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Marita

    Very interesting family story - easy to read - authentic in the author's discoveries despite her long held beliefs from childhood. Recommend. Very interesting family story - easy to read - authentic in the author's discoveries despite her long held beliefs from childhood. Recommend.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    I enjoy memoirs and learning about regional life and culture. It is a well-written insight into families..lives and deaths.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    We all start and we all end. Treasure the time between.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Polly

    I'm not sure what to think of this book honestly. It's sad that everything fell apart when she was a teenager but she seems happy now so that's good. I'm not sure what to think of this book honestly. It's sad that everything fell apart when she was a teenager but she seems happy now so that's good.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jenni Heins

    Love the local history and the writing. Found the writing a little "choppy" -- bounced around in time too often for me to follow as well as I wanted. Love the local history and the writing. Found the writing a little "choppy" -- bounced around in time too often for me to follow as well as I wanted.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    Book club selection for February.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Who wouldn’t want to read this book after reading the title? I started reading and found myself drawn into the author’s story, looking at family and death and what is needed to make a life.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Story Circle Book Reviews

    "I grew up in cemeteries," begins Rachael Hanel in We'll be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter. "Cemeteries fed my imagination, and looking back, they even gave birth to it." In this book, which drew me and would not let go, Hanel's imagination and memory take us on a journey through not only her past and present, but the past and present of the place and people around her, creating a world that feels both ephemeral and real at the same time. Every time I opened th "I grew up in cemeteries," begins Rachael Hanel in We'll be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter. "Cemeteries fed my imagination, and looking back, they even gave birth to it." In this book, which drew me and would not let go, Hanel's imagination and memory take us on a journey through not only her past and present, but the past and present of the place and people around her, creating a world that feels both ephemeral and real at the same time. Every time I opened the book, I did not know which world I would enter and the anticipation of surprise kept me reaching for the book again and again. Books and cemeteries filled Hanel's childhood and both tell the story that unfolds. "Books and gravestones are composed of not only mere letters... A reader needs to come along and make meaning from it. From a distance, our tombstones, too, function as mere ornamentation, escaping notice as we drive quickly past cemetery gates. But come close, stop, really read, and the stories will speak to you." Hanel listened to those stories and those of her parents, including her parents' philosophies of life and death. Hanel's father wonders "...if maybe the spirit dissolves into a million pieces and descends gently onto everything in the world like a fine dust, that everything in the world holds an invisible layer of people who have died. Or maybe the spirit breaks into just enough pieces to stick to the places and people it loved most." After reading this book, I tend to believe in the latter, that the spirit sticks to the people and places most loved, as her father's spirit certainly has stayed with Hanel. Love, insight, and yearning ground each story woven seamlessly together into the whole of this book. Tragedy and joy dip and spin alongside each other, step forward and ease back. The unexpected death of her father when Hanel was in her teens brought her childhood among graves new meaning—and a lifetime of questions. What lifts We'll be the Last Ones to Let you Down into the realm of exceptional memoirs is Hanel's attention to exquisite detail and her willingness to include what happens to those left standing around the grave after the burial, the survivors left to carry on and compose their lives and the myriad ways this is done. This is a gallant, haunting story, written with heart and courageous honesty. Hanel shares deep insights and poses questions worthy of a lifetime of wondering. An extraordinary read. by Dawn Wink for Story Circle Book Reviews reviewing books by, for, and about women

  30. 4 out of 5

    Brittany R

    For more reviews, visit The 1000th Voice Described as macabre and lyrical, Rachael Hanel’s memoir is about life, death, cemeteries and her father’s unexpected and timely death. When Rachael was young, her father Paul began a career as a gravedigger. While talking about her father she writes about how he’d grown up as one of 14 children. Her grandparents worked hard just to feed their children. College and eventual careers weren’t in the equation. While his siblings found jobs, Paul build a career. For more reviews, visit The 1000th Voice Described as macabre and lyrical, Rachael Hanel’s memoir is about life, death, cemeteries and her father’s unexpected and timely death. When Rachael was young, her father Paul began a career as a gravedigger. While talking about her father she writes about how he’d grown up as one of 14 children. Her grandparents worked hard just to feed their children. College and eventual careers weren’t in the equation. While his siblings found jobs, Paul build a career. As Rachael put it: A career brings enjoyment, is closely intertwined with identity; it’s who you are. It’s not easy to separate career and life, whereas job and life have clear deliniations.” While he took his responsibility to the dead and their loved ones seriously, Paul’s sense of humor showed in his business’ tag line: We’ll be the last ones to let you down. Rachael recalls him putting that tag on tons of promotional items. As a marketer, that makes me very happy. Once her dad embarked on his career, death and cemeteries became a part of him, his life and his family’s lives. After spending countless hours riding her bike through the cemetery as her parents worked, she became very fascinated with macabre books of all kinds–true crime, ghosts and the like. She spent hours finding books in the library and devouring them and asking her mom to tell and retell stories about the deaths of their county’s citizens. Review I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Writing a memoir is a popular thing right now. To be successful, the book has to be compelling and Hanel’s is–from her lifelong fascination with the macabre to her ability address the philosophical issues of death: Some say we can’t see time, that it’s an invisible fourth dimension. But we can see its evidence–the gears of a clock, the swing of a pendulum, the aging of a face. Rating Writing 4 out of 5 stars Storytelling 4 out of 5 stars Cultural Impact 3 out of 5 stars Total 3.67 stars

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