There is a look I always receive whenever I tell someone that I have worked at a cemetery. I always want to say: “Hey, I wasn’t personally digging the graves by moonlight!”. But so far, I’ve managed to be more tactful than that.
The fact is that I learned a lot about life from the years I worked in the office of a local ‘Perpetual Care Cemetery’.
The first thing I learned was the importance of not becoming attached to the customers. The day would inevitably come when it would be their interment I would be preparing for. Losing them led to TMJ due to the jaw clenching I did at night in my sleep.
The second thing I learned, was he/she who dies last wins. The pushy husband who insisted on a bronze marker with farm emblems and hunting logos and laughed at his wife’s simple suggestion of a few discreetly placed roses, would lose his right to final approval if he had the bad luck of dying first. His widow would approach the desk and say sweetly, “Now about that marker we prearranged.”. It would be goodbye tractors and hello flowers.
Next I learned the value of location, location, location. A lovely couple once approached me with the concern that there was a dog doing his business on their plot and all she could think about was an eternity spent being the car tire to the upturned leg. I moved their spaces and I feel sure that she is resting in peace.
Another thing I learned was that arrangements tell stories. Walking through the various grave sites I would see a single white rose in a plastic water vial, knowing the love it represented. The absolute unfair pain of the mother mourning the death of her child with battery operated Christmas trees and tiny Tonka toys. The French mother who loved hydrangeas and now lay beneath silk ones in the colors of the season. The farming father and his baskets of flowers implemented with ornamental John Deeres.
I lost my fear of being cremated while working there. Various disinterments of old remains meant to join other family members at another cemetery often returned only outlines of dense, dark dirt; the exact match to that which was delivered to us from the crematory. The difference was in the amount of time necessary to achieve the same result. More modern methods of burial in vaults that did not allow the body to go naturally into the ground, resulted in a mess of a proportion that I don’t wish to describe. Mausoleums allowed the body to dry out like an apple in a hot sunny arid window. Make your decision carefully. There are no pine boxes without concrete vaults anymore. Know this.
I also learned that any act as simple as a silently offered tissue is appreciated. You don’t have to make some profound statement or send huge flower arrangements. Maybe the most valued act is watching the home of the deceased so that the family can mourn with their friends without worrying about their belongings being stolen by heartless thieves who see a death as an opportunity for a new victim. This angers me beyond proportion. There is no honor among the criminals in society but I think this type of victimization is a whole new low.
I learned not to judge a book by its cover. The sophisticated lady might want stuffed owls to accompany her on her journey to the unknown as well as a plethora of other objects to be placed in her casket before the lid is sealed. The street dwelling guy we didn’t even know had a home, not only had a nice family but a trust fund that more than supplied any needs he could ever have.
More than anything, I learned not to fear the dead. They would never hurt me. Any act I could do for them was therapeutic. Maybe it was righting an overturned vase, or ordering a hole to be filled and sown with fresh grass seed. Or maybe it was replacing the batteries in the afore mentioned Christmas tree so that it would be glowing when the mother stopped by. Small simple acts of kindness and respect.
Perhaps who we are as a society is reflected by the way in which we honor our dead. I bristle at the back door – sneak in the mortally wounded soldiers – method we have adopted as a response to keeping our awareness in the current trio of wars at a sheer minimum. At the very least we owe them our respect and reflection on their lives and those of their loved ones.
I don’t think you have to have experience working at a cemetery to know this.
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This is a powerful piece that really got me thinking this morning. You should consider reposting this as I know it is an older post.
Well said. Understated in tone, which allows the power to be felt more deeply.
Perhaps you should repost this right before Memorial Day.
Hi there, I just stumbled across this post doing a bit of research for a story I’m writing in which the narrator works at a cemetery… just wanted to say how interesting and thought-provoking this was. I still need to poke around to find the logistics about the job, duties, etc., but the tokens of insight you’ve shared here are wonderful. I particularly liked, in a morbid way, your description of what happens to bodies in a mausoleum–like an apple drying in the sun. Disturbingly beautiful.