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Volunteers Offer Free Burials to Poor in Coal Country : Miners Carry Friendship to the Grave

September 13, 1987|LEON DANIEL | United Press International

DAVY, W.Va. — His neighbors in Asco Hollow will tell you that Charles Parks, an unemployed coal miner, is "a good ol' boy who drinks a little, but his heart's in the right place."

Knowing Parks and how things work in Asco Hollow helps in understanding how folks in coal country survive hard times, which seldom have been harder than they are now.

Asco Hollow has a "free cemetery" where five dozen or so people who had good neighbors but little money have been buried without charge.

Parks, 34, a wiry man who has recovered from a severe back injury incurred in the mines, is one of those neighbors.

He and several other men are volunteer gravediggers, which means that they work for nothing more than perhaps a case of beer donated by a poor, bereaved and grateful family.

Helps a Friend

"If a man can't help a friend, he ain't much of a man," said Parks, who has not worked in the mines since 1984.

Parks' neighbors will tell you he is a hell of a man.

A month or so ago, his twin brother John, a working coal miner who helps dig the graves, pulled up in his pickup truck in front of his house trailer and yelled that there was trouble in the mine.

"John said some men was trapped," Parks said.

So the brothers sped to the mine and went 2,500 feet under the Earth's surface to the scene of a cave-in. For six hours, they risked their lives. One miner died but four survived.

Charles said his father, uncle and two other men persuaded a coal company to give them a 99-year lease on the plot for the cemetery "so poor people would have a place to be buried."

Prefers Mine Work

A third-generation miner, Parks said he would much rather go back to work in the mines for $100 a day than dig graves for free.

"We just do it to help people," he said.

Parks said he makes a few dollars on odd jobs and his family gets food stamps.

"John got back on at the mine and that helps," he said.

Parks, a miner for 14 years, does not plan to leave Asco Hollow in search of work.

"I like it here," said the man who by personal example teaches the coal country lesson that, with good neighbors, survival is possible even in the hardest of times. "I guess I'll just stay."

At the cemetery, Parks pointed out the various graves he had dug.

He said it sometimes takes two days to dig one in the rocky soil.

"It's not enjoyable work," he said.

He pointed toward the high ground and said: "I keep telling everybody I want to be buried under that big walnut. I reckon they'll do that for me."

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