Keith Rutowski

Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker
Dust of the Earth
Biography: I am a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. My projects often relate to bonds between people and land, the existential weight of history, loneliness, and the indomitable human spirit. I grew up a few hundred yards away from the Ohio River in... read on
Public Story
Dust of the Earth
Credits: keith rutowski
Date of Work: 02/01/15 - 06/06/15
Updated: 10/15/19

"Been digging graves a long time," Dorsel Bibbee says from the kitchen of his log home in rural, snow-covered Southeast Ohio."Started in '53, helping a fella down below Tuppers Plains. Vern Shields. Called him 'Ben.' I told him, I said, 'I don't know what to do' and he said 'just watch me.' So that's what I done." Bibbee pauses and then continues, "He died in '66 and I just kept on workin."

Bibbee spent most of this time digging alone and by hand, using only a shovel, mattock, spade, and pick to help lay people to rest—even after the work had become mechanized in the rest of the state. And although today younger crew members and machinery assist him with the heavy labor, the 81-year-old continues to head out in whatever weather besets the landscape to ensure that the plots are well-measured and the walls are smooth and straight. 

His enduring commitment has made him an important fixture in Southeast Ohio's small communities, where he's now dug graves for the parents, children, and grandchildren of several families. He remembers much about life and death. Stories about the lives of the people for whom he has dug graves mingle with the memories of the conditions in which he dug for them, whether it was sweltering heat, biting cold, or wind that once tore a church roof half-off.

This series reflects Dorsel Bibbee's work over the course of one winter.

Also by Keith Rutowski —

Join us
for more access