The Cemetery Letter

One day my lifetime-so-far Social Security Statement arrived, “Prepared especially for Kihm Winship.” Which is easy to believe because no one else would want it. Laurie said, “Isn’t this funny?” I look at the earnings for my first year out of college: $1,659. My laughter is hollow.

But farther up the column I can smile upon the gains from three summers of working at the cemetery, beginning in 1965, when I socked away $530, $654 and $770, and received a remarkable education as well. I caught this plum job because my father, an accountant, did the books.

Not that I wanted a job. I had always been told what to do, so the thought of being self-sufficient never occurred to me. Nor did I have a clue how other students got jobs at resorts or camps. At the end of my freshman year of college, I was told to report for work at the cemetery, as my brother did before me. And I did, in jeans and work books, with a lunch packed by my mother. I was to earn $1.25 an hour, the minimum wage at that time.

Ironically, my mother’s father, William Braun, died the week before. I went to Grandpa’s burial on Friday, to work at the cemetery on Monday, and trimmed his grass one week after he’d been buried. It already needed it.

Elmlawn-WEB

The various lots were mowed and trimmed in rotation all summer, and that was what I did most of the time. I trimmed rain or shine, hooked up to an electric generator. When it rained and we got soaked, the trimmers went live. We were only allowed to come in when the generator stopped. Until that magic moment, we got shocked again and again by the trimmers, right through the gloves, all the while awaiting a bigger jolt from the thundering skies overhead.

We did have protection from the rain, but the coats we wore during these downpours were not “breathable” in the modern Gore-Tex sense. Rather, great dark rubber coats with metal clasps, they breathed with the compounded body odor of past laborers and the humidity of summers past.

Our trimmers were the old whirring metal-bladed kind, heavy and hazardous. They threw sparks off the granite bases of the gravestones and could turn a flower pot into a flower pile in the wink of an eye. One of my co-workers was using his trimmer as a scythe with an heroic swinging motion that brought it right down on his left foot, cut open his leather boot and his foot as well, right to the bone. I heard his cry, ran over to catch an unwanted anatomy lesson and then sprinted for help.

But for most of my co-workers, the most common injury was hangover. One lad in particular would come in each morning and tell me how many beers he’d had the night before. “Twelve,” he’d say one day. “Sixteen,” the next, rolling his eyes. Or, “Just twelve… tall cans!”

The workers had a room next to the garage with lockers, tables for lunch, and a white refrigerator covered with greasy hand prints. Occasionally, one of the men would sweep the dirt from the concrete floor. Only once did they ask me to do it; I didn’t know you had to sprinkle water on the floor first, and I filled the room with dust.

During lunch one day, we got into a discussion about corpses sitting up in coffins. One of our number, a guy in his twenties wearing a white t-shirt and khaki work pants, had actually witnessed such an incident. He was a boy at the time, no older than 9 or 10, and attending the funeral of an uncle. The uncle’s body, in the middle of calling hours, sat up in the box. I said, “What did you do?” And he said, “Ran out of the room screaming, like everybody else.” He tipped his head back and smiled at the memory, a wild look in his eyes.

* * *

At lunch, we also played a game called Tonk, kind of a five-card rummy. I was pretty good at it, and I remember the day that Davey, an older black gentleman, said to me as I was leaving, “When you get home tonight, say hello to my money.”

The lunchroom was where sex education classes were held. A young man who rode a mower would discuss his favorite things with Davey, who would either approve with laughter or pinch up his face and say, “Don’t be doin’ that.” I remember the mower guy describing his current girlfriend’s most enthralling attributes. In a burst of eloquence, his head tipped heavenward, he said, “They drive me out of my cookie.”

One Friday afternoon, optimism ran high. An older man with white hair and missing teeth, and a peaked blue cap that made him look like a railroad engineer, said, “I’m gonna to give it to her twice tonight without uncoupling.” To which Davey said, “Don’t be saying things like that in front of the boy.”

In harmony with the early missionaries, Davey had firm opinions on what was in good taste. The cemetery was a favorite spot for couples who made love in their cars during the lunch hour, which was okay with Davey. But one day, he came into lunch a few minutes late and told us he had just chased a couple out of the cemetery because they were engaged in a variation on the theme that he found indecent.

I know Davey was sincere in this belief, because he took his cigar out of his mouth to express it clearly. Davey began each day by placing a toothpick in the end of a freshly unwrapped cigar, so he could smoke, chew or pick his teeth at will. One cigar served him in this manner all day. Although Davey was not Scottish, he was thrifty.

Davey was also a philosopher. One day in the children’s section, I was reading the ages off the stones. “This is so sad,” I said. And Davey said, “Hey, they never found out.”

* * *

More enlightenment came when I was cutting the veterans’ grass in a World War II park, where “pro patria” was lettered on many of the bronze plaques. Roy, an older man with the manner of a wagon train leader, told us about the funerals he’d brought into the section, coffins coming back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. As they lifted the boxes, he could hear rocks inside, rolling back and forth as the coffin tipped. “Why stones?” I asked. “For the parents,” he said.

* * *

To dig graves, we used a large backhoe, run by a man named Larry. He was not the most delicate of technicians, and when he had the hole and the shovel down to six feet or so, he often cut things too close and ripped out the side of an adjacent coffin. If the contents tumbled out, they had to be shoveled back in by hand.

If the exposed body had been buried anytime in the past five years, the smell sent us reeling. It was a smell you felt before you smelled it, reaching down into your stomach to turn it inside out and then, only after you were already gagging, you’d smell why. The worst was on a hot day, with a tent placed over the open grave to shelter the mourners against sun and possible rain. The tent held the smell in, and it was truly awful.

Older graves didn’t smell as bad. One time when Larry had ripped into box and was down in the grave with a shovel to clean up, he found a pair of false teeth. He took out his own choppers and put the corpse’s set in his mouth, grinning and laughing. He loved to horrify us. Another time, he gathered the arm and leg bones, set them up as pins, and bowled at them with the skull.

The workers had a bowling team that Larry wanted to call “The Deadpins,” but management wouldn’t allow it.

In addition to his sense of humor, Larry was one of the strongest men I have ever met. Although he was short and fat, he was powerful. He could pick up a granite gravestone. His gut, though vast, was as hard as slate. He said that Charles Atlas exercises had made him strong: “Imagine a chair weighs hundreds of pounds.” “Stretch like a lion.” It had worked for Larry.

As a young man, he had done eight years for manslaughter after knocking out a man in a bar. The man had attacked him, he told us, and he hit him in the jaw. When the man went down, his neck hit the brass rail and he died. The bartender didn’t like Larry and testified against him, and Larry went to prison.

Larry had a dirty, defiant laugh and sparkling eyes. He drank whiskey by the quart, sending his wife out to buy more. She was a tired looking woman, also short and round, and they had dirty, wild looking children. The sight of all of them in Larry’s old car at day’s end was like a float from a parade in Hell.

* * *

There was a man named Art, with a crew cut and dreamy blue eyes; it was rumored he had a jail record or mental problems or both. Art used long sentences; if you asked what time it was, he’d begin, “I surmise by the markings of my chronometer …”

Although Art was one of the nicest people, or perhaps because of it, they gave him the worst jobs. Like disinterments, digging up previously buried bodies to move them to different places. We had a lot of those, prompted by wives who had purchased single plots for their husbands and then, 20 years later, decided they wanted to be buried beside them. But in the years since, the plots on either side of the husband’s grave had been sold. So the wife had to buy two new plots somewhere else, and the cemetery moved the husband’s remains. I always felt that if the wife had come to the cemetery to see what was coming up out of that grave, she would say, “Forget it. Throw it back. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

One afternoon, I was walking by as Art was digging up a body. He was bent over in the grave so I couldn’t see him at all; I could just hear the shovel. A large wooden box had been placed on the lawn next to the open hole to receive what remained of the remains. As I watched, a thigh bone suddenly flew up into the air, pinwheeling, and it seemed to hang in the afternoon air forever, spinning like a majorette’s baton, until it finally dropped down into the wooden box with a bang.

Art did protest this assignment on one occasion. He pointed to me and said, “Why can’t he do it?” And Davey said, “Because his daddy signs the checks.”

Frank was a very old man, from Hungary. He wore a filthy brown hat and cursed constantly as he worked, bent over the flower beds, weeding, planting, digging, swearing in Hungarian and broken English. It’s a wonder anything grew.

* * *

George Kitsen was an Englishman, and I loved his accent. George had spent 48 hours in the water at Dunkerque as the Germans were pushing the British Expeditionary Force into the sea, and his health had not been right since. George kept an eye on me, made sure I didn’t get left behind when it was time for lunch, and he fulfilled one of my dearest cemetery wishes.

One of George’s jobs was to oversee cremations in the basement of the chapel. The furnace was oil-fueled, and if the flame went out and the oil reignited, it could turn the furnace into a giant pipe bomb and blow the whole chapel to kingdom come. So George sat in an armless wooden chair, a few feet back from the furnace door, and watched the flames until everything had been reduced to ash and he could turn off the burners.

One afternoon, he allowed me to join him. First, he showed me the rakes and brooms they used to gather the bone and ash after the furnace cooled. The most fascinating tool was a pole with a long magnetic bar that culled out any fillings or other metal bits before the cremains themselves were swept into a box.

After the brief lecture, George wheeled a casket into position, slid it in, closed the doors and fired up the burners. On either side of the furnace, there were glass portholes, and George let me watch the fire do its work. The round glass panes rattled from the force of the flames and the escaping heat. I watched the long yellow flames licking, blasting the coffin. As the box burned thin, a head crashed up through the lid. I watched spellbound as the hair burned off, then the scalp, down to the bone of the skull. I thanked George. He nodded and waved from his chair, and I went back outside to cut grass.

I also remember taking down a tent with George, after a funeral on a rainy, blustery day. As the tent flaps blew and the ropes cracked like whips, George shouted, “Mind your eyes, boys. Mind your eyes.” It was good advice. Afterwards, he told us how to treat any rope burns or blisters. “In the army,” he said, “they told me to go behind a tree and pee on my hands. It burnt like hell, but the next day your hands were fine.” I nodded to be polite, but I did not pee on my hands.

After I’d gone back to college, I saw George one last time, at my grandmother’s funeral. The family was outside after the service in the chapel, and George came over to see my brother and I, his old mates. He looked at the two of us and said simply, “Night… and day.”

* * *

I learned to drive standard shift in the cemetery pickup truck. Jerry was my teacher; he drove the pickup some of the time, and a rider mower most of the time. I slipped the truck into gear in the parking lot of the administration building, a nice old building of Indiana limestone, and laid about six feet of rubber to Jerry’s wide-mouthed horror, shifted and drove halfway through the cemetery in second gear, the engine howling. I had never been in third gear before. “Should I shift now?” I shouted. And he shouted back, “If you don’t, I’m getting out!”

Jerry had similar luck on the mower. At least twice a summer, they’d wire a whizbang to his ignition; he’d start the mower after lunch and the explosion would send him leaping off the seat and into the road, the smoke and shrieking whistle chasing him, accompanied by our laughter.

Jerry, it was thought, had management potential. So one day the supervisor briefed him carefully, and let him bring in his first funeral. Jerry was dressed uneasily in a tight dark suit, waiting at the front gate in the small station wagon. He slowly led the procession of cars to the grave site, helped the funeral director ease the casket out of the hearse onto the gurney, then guided it onto the rack atop the open grave.

But instead of gliding over the supporting rollers, the coffin hit them. The rollers collapsed and the grave yawned wide. The casket upended and slid down headfirst, hitting bottom with a loud crash. There it stood, the deceased doing an impromptu headstand which no one could see but everyone could imagine. As the mourners screamed and sobbed, Jerry ran to find help.

When enough of a crew had gathered, they were able to lift the box out, snap the rollers back up into place, and resume the service. Jerry and the supervisor waited and apologized to each family member as they left. After that, Jerry stuck to the mower.

* * *

Another of our mower men, a nice man with bad teeth and thick glasses, had been a biker in his youth some 20 years earlier. He still wore his hair in 1950’s biker style, and told stories about motorcycles. He’d run with a motorcycle gang until one night. There was a curve outside his town that couldn’t be taken faster than 60 mph, but the gang leader and his girl shot by all the other riders at 80 and disappeared into the turn. When they found them, the man had died on a barbed wire fence, but that part of the story was completely overshadowed by the woman’s plight. At first they thought she’d been decapitated. But then they saw a tuft of hair at her collar. She had landed headfirst, and her entire head had been stuffed into her torso. The mower man walked home that night, and never got on a motorcycle again.

Roy, the garage man, had no scary stories, but he snuffed his cigarettes out in pools of spilled gasoline to make me jump.

The temporary workers, brought in from an employment agency to earn a day’s drinking money, were colorful as well. For a while, we had a man who had lost his hearing while bucking bolts in a boiler factory — standing inside a spherical metal boiler and leaning against each rivet while a man on the outside hammered at it with a rivet gun. We believed he had lost more than his hearing. He was given to saying things like, “When I was a boy, I had an owl on my bed.”

Another temp smoked constantly, even when eating. One day while chewing, he laughed out loud and an explosion of smoke and chicken filled the dusty sunlight of the employees’ room.

* * *

There was plenty of graveyard humor. One time, the lads planted a mannequin’s arm upright in some fresh grave dirt and lay in wait for the first passerby. That was Davey. He had driven to that part of the cemetery, but didn’t stop to get back into the truck. He leapt cleanly over the hood and sprinted all the way back to the garage.

And then there were those who came to mourn and pay their respects. One man came every day and read the paper in his car, but never got out to see the grave. Others brought lawn chairs and sat talking to the dead. One woman sat in a lawn chair but didn’t talk, and said of a nearby talker, “Now, he’s crazy.”

Attached to the main cemetery was a small Greek section whose stones featured oval porcelain portraits of the deceased; all the pictures had been shattered in family feuds. At one funeral service there, a man arranged everyone around the coffin after the burial and took home movies.

* * *

I remember burying a body. The funeral was over, the mourners had gone, the tent was down. Someone handed me a shovel and said, “Fill it in.” The truck drove off. I took off my shirt and dug into the pile of dirt by the open grave. The first shovelful had a large lump of clay in it and the round clod hit the top of the concrete vault with a boom, a deep, sonorous boom. I stood perfectly still for a moment, waiting to hear an answering ‘boom boom’ from within, but none came. So I went back to shoveling.

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