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Rural Iowa church hand digs every single grave

Wexford Immaculate Church celebrates parishioners' lives with special send-off

Rural Iowa church hand digs every single grave

TOWN OF WEXFORD, Iowa (WKBT) - For most families, saying goodbye to a loved one involves a wake, followed by a funeral.  But one Iowa parish has been adding a personal touch to that goodbye for well over a century.         

The Immaculate Conception Church was built in 1848 - and ever since then, its parishioners have been sending off their loved ones with a special goodbye. Thursday, that loved one was Leo Manning.

"He was a man that had to be working," Leon Manning, Leo's son, remembers about his late father. "When there was work to be done, he had to be right in it."

Leo's best friends gather at the church Thursday, as well, including his oldest comrade, Carl Mullarkey.

"I couldn't say enough good about him," Carl says. "He treated me just like a brother."

Carl, along with Leo's family members and a dozen other parish members, are out to say goodbye in the only way they've known for more than a century - digging their loved one's grave.

"That's just the way we are down here," Leon says. "When somebody passes away from the parish, we do the grave digging."

The townspeople of Wexford - less of a town, really, but more of a community strung along the hills outside Lansing, Iowa - have dug every single grave in the cemetery at Immaculate Conception Church.

That's not something you see too often these days.

"I mention that to people, I say, 'Oh, we had to dig a grave at our church.' 'You gotta be kidding me,' they'll say," laughs Leon.

Carl finds the practice nothing out of the ordinary. He's been digging graves since he was a child at his father's side. You don't learn how to dig them, he says. Wexford folks are just born with the tradition in their bones.

"I've been at it since I was 8 years old," Carl says. "We used to dig them in the night, when it was hot in the summertime."

Things have changed a little bit since then, but not much. Carl now serves as the chair of the cemetery board, which was once co-commanded by Leo, too, before Parkinson's began to take its toll on him.

"He was on there 40 years with me. He cried when the priest told him he was done," Carl says. "I cried, too."

Parishioners say digging isn't an easy task - sometime you hit stone in the summer, or frozen ground during the winter. If you've been digging graves as long as Carl has, sometimes you hit memories, too.

"That's the one trouble with being on the cemetery board," he says. "You bury a lot of your friends. And when you live to be my age, they get kind of scarce at the end."

Carl is 87. If you ask him how much longer he'll continue to lend a hand at grave digging, he'll ask you how much longer he'll live.

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