Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Odd Jobs #1: Gravedigger

My grandparents on my dad's side, Vic and Delores, were a very religious couple. Vic was the chairman of the St. John the Baptist's cemetery in Edgar, Wisconsin for as long as I can remember, and because two of his sons had inherited his other business (the lumber yard), they also inherited the job of digging graves for the parish. And wouldn't you know it, I got dragged out to the cemetery on many occasion throughout my youth to help them out. It started innocent enough, with me helping him measure out where new graves would be dug. There are ancient cement pins stuck in the ground all over the cemetery, and in order to figure out where everyone's burial plot is you need to measure from those pins. A simple job, but one that I enjoyed helping my dad with. We'd look at the old blueprints for the cemetery (made out of parchment), then have to poke around where we thought the pin would be, because grass and weeds often covered up the specific spot. Then we'd measure it out with the 100 ft. rule, and put stakes in the 4 corners of where the hole would go. Sometimes we'd come out there with buckets of dirt and steel poles, and then use blocks to prop up sagging headstones while we put more dirt under them to straighten them out. It makes the graveyard less scary if all the headstones are lined up like good soldiers.

When I got a little older, probably around 13 or 14, I began helping them actually dig the holes. Someone would drive the backhoe up to the cemetery while someone else, usually my brother Kevin, would drive up the ancient GMC dump truck. We'd lay down some sheets of plywood to put the dirt on, which made it easier to clean up afterwards, then the backhoe would start digging the hole. Once it got down far enough, we'd have to hop in the grave and square it off so that it looked nice and was even enough for the casket to cleanly fit into the hole. A rectangular frame was used to make sure a normal casket would fit. Then after the funeral we'd come back and put all the dirt back, except now there would be a casket in the hole. We'd always pile the dirt up above ground level, because it would settle down over time.

If it was late in the winter, when the ground was really frozen hard, we'd shovel off the spot first, then put a half casket made of sheet metal over the top with a hole on the bottom end. Then a makeshift flamethrower was inserted into the hole, and turned on. This would heat up the ground below the sheet metal, thawing the ground and allowing the backhoe to dig through the earth.

Just another one of those odd jobs I've had.

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