The sad truth about cemetery work is also its saving grace – there will always be more bodies.
The average coffin in my yard in Baton Rouge only lasts about two years to be honest with you. I don’t think many folks would be pleased to hear that, but with the tributary running so close and the already high water table, even the ones I craft from high-quality materials don’t make it past five years.
I know this because I am the one who digs the holes, and when you’re in the death-for-profit business, you’ve got to learn to recycle.
The mahogany varnish, which although providing a nice coffee aesthetic, does little to hold out water or insects. Even the coffins with the layer of steel between the wooden boards rarely make it past year four. While the pamphlets and brochures in my office suggest a steel layer between the wooden boards, what finally makes it into the product is an aluminum-iron polymer, one that doesn’t resist the oxidation process too well. Just one of the secrets that goes into running a cemetery.
After the initial coffin is compromised, the body will decompose much quicker. Dissected by a menagerie of underground creepy crawlers and quickened by the combination of both aquatic and in-ground bacteria, the body doesn’t last more than a year.
But the beauty in this can be found in the grass, and as the twenty-six-time recipient of the Best Cemetery Award, I care an awful lot about my grass.
The internal organs typically go first, eaten by the microbes that already exist in the body but were previously held down by the immune system. After these have begun to mush, the skin follows suit, contracting like a wet latex glove.
Most people think death comes to you like a glass of warm milk before bed. Nobody tells you the milk has gone sour. Instead, death comes to you like a glass of napalm. Or at least this is what the wind tells me on some of the colder nights. Just one of the secrets that goes into running a cemetery.
Next to go are the muscles and major arteries. Soon after the skin tears, exterior microbes and life forms work their way inside and bacteria export all the juicy nitrogen, vitamins, and oxygen like the leftovers at a barbecue.
Once into the soil, these nutrients are passed through the water table and other organisms rapidly. This process occurs real quick considerin’ the water table and tributary. You know what they say about real estate? It’s all about location, location, location. Just one of the secrets that goes into running a cemetery.
In his cheap black suit from the Macy’s clearance rack, the detective enters my office arrogantly.
The clock reads 8 p.m.
Only a few more hours before digging time.
Most people don’t know ‘bout the grave digging business, but it’s not the simple work common folk might have it out to be.
While some cemeteries use big machines with gnashing teeth and snarling exhalations of smoke, a good grave digger will do it by hand.
No gloves. Just a shovel, a waterproof set of work boots, and me. That’s the way you ‘ought to do it.
If living is hard enough to kill a person, then I reckon dying should do the same.
More than that, it comes down to the grass, and I care an awful lot about my grass. Big machines with their reckless abandon force their way into the earth aggressively, and while it may not seem like they’re moving much more than dirt, they are.
The best grass demands to be happy, undisturbed in its natural process of photosynthesis. So a good grave digger will let his grass grow tall in the sun and carefully tuck each blade of grass into a new resting place while it sleeps. After all, this is how most people would want to die. Unfortunately, death comes to you like a glass of napalm.
“Mr. Sykes I presume?” The detective begins.
“Yessir, boss sir.” I say back to him. “How can I help you today?” I stand up and shake his hand. He squeezes assertively and waits for me to break contact. I oblige him. After all, the death-for-profit business is still a customer service industry.
“You the owner of this here property?”
“Yessir, boss sir.” I reply.
“We’ve had some complaints of grave robbin’ in the neighborhood, and I was hopin’ I might be askin’ you a few questions if you got the time.”
“Nobody done died today, sir, so I got all the time in the world for ya. But you never know. Something might come up.” I laugh. “As far as your inquiring and the like, uh, I ain’t had no grave robberies, so I don’t know why you be findin’ yourself way out here.”
The detective pulls out a chair to sit across from me at my desk.
“Well, a few of the other cemeteries been noticin’ some funny business, and I just want to chat with you. Maybe thinkin’ you might seen some people around here that don’t belong.”
“Everybody belongs here, boss sir. Most of ‘em just don’t know it yet.”
“Maybe we can take a walk? I hear you got the finest grass this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Sure would like to see it and enjoy the night air after a long day in the office.”
“Yessir, boss sir.” I stand up and open the door for him. “You want a drink first, sir? It’s a mighty big property if you want the whole tour.”
“Not right now. But I appreciate the hospitality.” The detective tips his ten-gallon hat. I take a bottle of water from my cooler and place it in my back pocket. The door shuts behind us.
The night air is the most refreshing part of grave digging. Like a snug blanket and a cold pillow, it hugs you as you breathe it in. Even after the sun begins to set, the humidity lingers for a few more hours, draping on you like a neat single malt scotch.
This too is good for the grass.
We’re almost a quarter-mile down the road before the detective speaks up.
“So how long you been doing this?” He says and begins to light a cigar.
“Oh, grave digging is the only thing I ever knew. My daddy’s dad did it, and his daddy before him. Yessir, boss sir, we’ve been here a long time.”
“Anything interesting happen the last few nights?”
“I don’t quite know what you mean, sir. Digging graves ain’t much for excitement unless you know where to look.”
He takes out his notepad as he takes his first puff.
“And where does one look for excitement in a cemetery?”
I stop walking and squat down on the lawn.
“You see this grass, boss sir?”
“Each blade of grass I care for is like a person. It requires proper nurturin’, tenderness, firmness, a good meal, a good sleep. We walkin’ right now on my children.”
“That’s a lot of children.” He drifts off, looking out onto the grounds.
“Well, I don’t have any of my own. Ain’t much women out there be interested in a man who lives in the death-for-profit business.”
“So, no strange faces been walkin’ around here? People you don’t see normally?”
“Not really, sir. And I’m watchin’ all the time too. People who come round here only be doing so to pay their respects.”
“Of course.” He nods his head to me.
“You have any leads on the troublemakers?” I ask as we move on.
“No, not really. Nobody seems to know all that much. Me even being here is all just from conjecture and the like. Preliminary sorta stuff at this point.”
I nod and match his pace.
As we walk, the sun descends past the tree line in the distance and turns the sky that beautiful yellow that it so often does. Each time I see it though, I never fail to appreciate it. Each sunset is someone’s last somewhere. By itself, that is serenely beautiful. This too is good for business.
“What can you tell me about the land?” He says to me and offers me a cigar.
“I can tell you anything you might like to know,” I say, turning down the cigar. The smoke ain’t good for the trees – they’re just a little less vocal about it being that way.
“Anything, boss sir. Who is buried where, soil content, names,and dates on the tombstones, the age of the trees, down to when each blade drank last.”
“That’s impressive for a 15-acre property, Mr. Sykes.”
“17 acres, boss sir,” I correct him. “But oh yes, I take pride in what I do, sir.” I sip my water bottle. “And when you care for it like I do, the property is your only friend. You give it your time and secrets, and it’ll do the same for you.”
“So how many friends you fix’ you have buried here?”
“394 sir. Plus the children. Can’t forget about the children.” I chuckle.
“So who do we have buried over there?” He points to a pair of tombstones nearby. Flowers from last week rest against the granite slabs.
“Why, that be Mr. Clyde and his wife. Been with us since 1974. Daddy buried them in front of a small crowd in our mahogany set. Real lovely people. Never causin’ no fuss for me.”
“And over here?” He points to a freshly moved patch of dirt with no tombstone.
“That be Mr. Flaherty. He came in yesterday. Still not sure what to make of him, but the other folks in the neighborhood don’t seem to pay him much mind.”
“Ain’t it, uh, uncommon for him not to have a name tag on his tombstone?” The detective takes another drag from his cigar.
“Not as uncommon as you might think. Mrs. Flaherty don’t come from much means, so I told her I’d give him rest, and that she can just finish up later. Ain’t nobody ever known for paying their bills when they dead. Matter fact, we have lots of folks who ain’t finished paying what they owe yet.” I point to a few similar graves as we pass them.
The detective moves on without another word to me. Sometimes he jots notes in his little book as we walk the trail. Sometimes I see him twirling his fingers, countin’ something, but I don’t know what.
The rest of the walk is mostly silent. The good thing about working with the dead is that I only have to talk and listen when I want to, but the bad thing is practice don’t lend itself particularly well to other social situations.
Underneath the southern live oak tree close to my office, we stop for a quick breath as the tour comes to a pleasant close.
“Do you mind if I take a look at your files real quick while I’m here?” He says to me and puts his cigar out on his shoe.
“Not at all, boss sir.” I tell him. “Don’t know what good that might do for your investigation here though. Like I told you, I ain’t see no hooligans around here.”
“Just to know if you have any friends that might be worth stealin’ from.”
“I see you, sir. You smart. Take a look at whatever you might need to.”
Inside the office, I show him the filing cabinet.
“Any chance I can make copies of these?” He asks.
“I don’t have no copier here, sir. But like I told you, I got all the time in the world for you today.”
“That’s mighty fine of you to say. I’ll just do a quick look through then. I been around long enough to know the big names when I see ‘em.”
“Biggest names, sir, would prolly be the Tuttles, the O’Connells, and Mr. and Mrs. Treveon. But take a look see if it’ll help ya. Tuttles and O’Connells been around here since the 1940s in two of our biggest mausoleums.”
“And how many of those do you have? I counted nine.”
“Oh, boss sir, you sure are smart.” I say. “We have 10 on this property.”
“How many in each one?” He says, quizzing me.
I laugh. “Well. We got six of ‘em that sleep four. That’s the Tuttle’s, O’Keef’s, Sharper’s, and the Gambon’s. Two hold 12 – big families they are. That’s the Holding’s, and Childress’. Last one sleeps five. That’s the Petebrew’s.”
“And the tenth?” He steps in quickly.
“Oh yes sir, my mistake sir. That’d be the Darnell’s. Fits 16 real tight like.”
He flips through the filing cabinet rapidly, taking a note in his little book every now and again.
“Is this all the files for the people here?”
“Indeed it is, boss sir. Everyone who ever come here since my daddy’s daddy is in that there cabinet.”
“Well, thank you so much for your time Mr. Sykes.” He says, flicking the last file into the back of the drawer. “You’ve been mighty helpful, and your new friends at the Musker Sheriff’s Office sure do appreciate your cooperation.”
“Been a long time since I made a new friend that I didn’t have to bury,” I say.
He laughs, and I hold the door open for him. The detective tips his ten-gallon hat one more time, and I close the door. The locking mechanism clicks shut.
“But I guess I’ll just have to keep on patient,” I whisper to myself.
I lay on top of my bed, my eyes waitin’ for the moonlight to drip in from the windowsill above me.
Finally, it seeps onto the foot of my bed, and I lace up my work boots for diggin’ time.
The clock reads 10:37 p.m.
With the stars over head, glistening beautifully like the sunset from earlier, I gently push my shovel into the earth beside the grave of Mr. Laraza.
Each scoop, I carefully set down onto the grass, doing my best not to disturb the children.
I’m only three feet down when the car pulls into the driveway of my office, arrogantly, just like before. It’s headlights shine brightly across my property, and a silhouette begins walking forward.
I wipe the sweat from my brow and lay my shovel down silently.
“Wasn’t planning on seeing you again so soon detective,” I say to him.
“Well, Mr. Sykes, I was hopin’ I wouldn’t have to be back so soon, but I just had a few questions I couldn’t sleep without havin’ answered. You mind if I have you clear a few things up for me?”
“I’m in the middle of this here project, boss sir. You sure it can’t wait until morning?”
He places his hand on his holster. “No, Mr. Sykes. I just can’t sleep until I know.”
“Well alright then,” I reply and climb out of the hole.
Again, we walk silently back to the office, and his footsteps trail behind mine loudly. The sound of his leather detective shoes screeches raucously against my ears, scraping my brain like a fork on an empty plate.
I open the door to the office and pull out the chair across from my desk, and I motion for him to sit. I take my place across from him. I fold my arms neatly across my chest and recline.
“So what is it that’s keepin’ you up tonight, boss sir?”
“Well,” he begins and takes off his hat. “When we was walkin’, I counted 59 tombstones without a name, and 341 headstones.”
My hand grips the shotgun tied to the underside of the desk and my finger eases its way onto the trigger.
“Then I counted nine mausoleums, which you first accounted for 53 people.”
“Yessir, that’s the right number.”
“Plus the 16 Darnell’s.”
“Yessir. I don’t quite follow sir.”
“And then I counted your files. You sure that’s everyone?”
In a flash, my shotgun is on the table, resting gently on my name plate.
“So why don’t you just say what you think you already know?” I say and raise my eyebrows. “And don’t even think about pullin’ your little pea-shooter at me. I can make a grave needed just fast as I can dig one.”
He raises his hands in the air.
“You sure you want to be pointin’ that at a member of the sheriff’s office?”
“Oh, well, boss sir. I don’t reckon I want to be doing much of anything. But I do reckon you got some questions you still curious about.”
“Well, seems like you and me both know you got more bodies in here than you say you do. 59 unmarked graves, plus the 16 Darnell’s packed real tight like puts you just a stretch over 394.”
I laugh. “You know, mister boss sir, funny you should say that. Just last week Mr. Flaherty told me the same thing.”
The hammer snaps forward and the pin strikes the primer. In a brilliant spark, the gunpowder ignites and jettisons the lead projectiles just above his tie. You know what they say about real estate?
Half of his face dangles against his chest – the cheap suit from the Macy’s clearance section. Not a drip spills onto his hat. The jaw bone protrudes from where the bullets had torn through his head, and I take another sip from my bottle of water.
Outside, next to Mr. Laraza, I meticulously place the last shovelful of dirt over the detective, and I pat it down by hand, putting fistfuls of fertilizer into the freshly lain soil.
The familiar night air, filled with tender humidity cloaks me as I finish another day’s work in blissful silence. The good thing about working with the dead is that I only have to talk and listen when I want to.
“You see detective? I can tell you anything you need to know about this property. While the best soil requires its nutrients – – the zinc, the calcium, the nitrogen, the iron, selenium – it is the blood that makes the grass grow thick.”
I pick up my shovel and rest it against the southern live oak near my office and light up the remnants of the detective’s cigar. As I exhale, the billows of smoke drift into the night like another soul put to rest on my property. In the background, I can hear my children coughing, screaming for me to put out the tobacco, but I pay them no mind.
The sad truth about cemetery work is also its saving grace – there will always be more bodies.
Just one of the secrets that goes into running a cemetery.