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Friday, December 1, 2006

Cemetery Work

I needed a summer job when I was in high school, so I worked in a cemetery for a few months. It wasn't much different from any other landscaping job. Kind of like maintaining a golf course, only with more tombstones.

Most of the time was spent mowing the grass. If you were lucky, you got to mow the empty field that they had put aside for future development. That meant long stretches of time spent driving a rider mower in lines so straight that you could catch a quick nap before it was time to turn around and head back the other way. Every now and then you got to menace a groundhog, which would easily outrun the underpowered mowers in a kind of waddling hustle that still managed to express its contempt.

Avoiding the groundhog holes was vastly preferable to weaving around floral arrangements and those mini flags that members of the armed services get. You would have to steer the mower as close to them as you could, stopping every few feet to reach out and move one of them onto the grass that you had just cut. Then, at the end of the row you'd turn and mow the grass that you had just cleared of obstacles, stopping again every few feet to pick up the displaced items and put them back into their original positions. It was tedious and awkward, and since the front of the mower was much wider than the back, it was tricky to ride close enough to pick things up without getting so close that they got destroyed by the mower.

It was particularly rough with the little flags. The older ones had gotten yanked out of the ground and shoved back in so often that their stands were permanently bent. Over time, the bends got so severe that the holders angled out over the ground, with the flags almost touching the grass. You had to make wide detours to avoid clipping them, since it would have been a serious insult to the generations of brave men and women who gave their lives for our country if one of those drooping flags was accidentally sucked into one of the mowers. As weak as the mowers were, the flags were mass-produced and cheap, fixed to their posts with the most tenuous of bonds. It didn't take much suction to rip a flag clean off its mounting and send it flying through the whirling blades, to emerge out the other side as so much red, white, and blue confetti. So thank god it never happened, which is why no one needs to check the trash dump behind the machine shop to see if I tried to hide the evidence out there.

The machine shop was in the back of the cemetery, hidden in a bunch of trees behind the mausoleum. It was where we kept the digging equipment. Everyone pictures gravedigging work to be two guys with shovels working by lantern light under a full moon, like the science of body disposal reached its apex back in the fourteen hundreds. But trying to excavate almost 150 cubic feet of dirt unassisted is hard goddamn work. And just like any other business, there's a constant pressure to do things bigger, cheaper, and faster to make them more profitable. That's why the backhoe and the dump truck are the modern gravedigger's accessories, and the only time that people actually use picks and shovels is when they need to widen a hole but don't want to crack open a burial vault by mistake.

Burial vaults went into all the graves in the cemetery. They were thick concrete shells that were fitted over the caskets, supposedly to keep the earth from settling as the contents deteriorated. I was comforted by them. While the cemetery would be ground zero in the event of a zombie attack, I knew that the vaults would keep the undead in their place. And if zombies are able to punch through solid concrete before burrowing through six feet of packed earth, using nothing but their bare hands and a seething hatred for the living, then you don't need to look for a hiding place. Because there isn't one to be found.

But that was no reason to get complacent, and I always kept a weather eye open for the first signs of a zombie uprising. The job was pretty low-stress, but I had absolutely no desire to stay there after dark. And neither did anyone else that I worked with. I don't know where people got the idea that cemetery work is done at night. We just worked normal hours, from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and didn't hang around at the end of the day. The only person crazy enough to do that was the guy who lived there.

As you can imagine, it's difficult to find a tenant for a house that's in a cemetery, which is why this particular house was leased out rent-free. Anyone could live there, as long as they could do two things. They'd have to mow their "front lawn" (the strip of grass between the house and the fence), and they'd have to ignore the fact that at any moment they could have their souls turned inside out or ripped to shreds by supernatural horrors from beyond the grave. The tenants got a place to stay, and the cemetery had someone on-site after hours if vandals or punk kids broke in and started screwing around.

The only time we ever saw the bodies is when other people came in and started messing with them. Like the time that somebody broke into one of the private crypts and left an arm in the bushes. The rest of the time, the job was just putting big boxes into bigger boxes and then dumping a lot of dirt onto them. When it comes to corpse exposure, cemetery work is probably the least unnerving of all the death services industries.

We never saw the bodies, and we never saw the mourners. Like shoe-cobbling elves, we did our work unseen, getting the blue-and-white pavilion ready for the service before disappearing back to the machine shop. We set up chairs, and did our part to make the grave look less like the yawning chasm of infinity that waits to swallow us all. This was accomplished with sheets of artificial grass, like those you find on mini golf courses, draped down the sides of the pit to disguise the bare soil. The steel sling that lowered the casket was placed on top of them, to keep them from slipping out of place. With the dirt from the excavation carted away in the dump truck, it looked like the grave was a natural formation that had always been there, and hadn't been slashed from the earth just that morning or the day before. Once everything was in place, we kept out of sight until the service was over and everyone was gone. Then we'd clean it all up, and fill in the hole.

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