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Crazy Cemetery Stories: Odds, Ends, Pets, and Parts
Nearly six years ago, I stumbled upon an office job at busy cemetery. During that time I saw, heard, smelled, felt, thought, learned, said, and did things I never dreamed in a million years I would. A constant stream of comedy and tragedy, it was one of the best and worst jobs I have ever had. And it was certainly never boring. These anecdotes are based on my experiences.
Before you start reading, keep in mind I mean no disrespect. I cared for each and every family served as if they were my own. I am honored to have helped thousands of people navigate through what is at the very least an uncomfortable experience. But this is life. Sometimes life is funny. And sometimes death is too.
Everything But The Kitchen Sink
Working at a cemetery, it is no surprise that I scheduled a fair amount of burial services for deceased individuals. That is the business after all. What might surprise you is the amount of requests to include other items. Some of them rather mundane and some completely outrageous. If the question posed by a family member was regarding an item to be placed in the casket, I always referred them to the funeral director. I advised them that I do not pack the casket, it is not opened when it is inside the cemetery gates, and it certainly does not pass through a baggage screener like your luggage at the airport. Whatever is in there is up to them and the funeral director. As with any other request, I always did my best to accommodate the family's wishes. If it wasn't impossible, illegal, or highly unethical, there was a good chance I could get it done. These little snippets are about some of the odds and ends scattered here there and everywhere.
Occasionally when researching burial records I would come across one marked very clearly "Foot Only" or "Leg Only". Yes. This is exactly as it sounds. Only that particular body part was placed in the grave. Never having scheduled this type of burial, I can only make an educated guess as to the circumstances. Considering these burials took place decades ago, I assume some poor chap underwent an amputation, for one reason or another, and the severed limb was placed in his plot to await the rest of him. In most cases, there was a burial at a later date for that particular individual. Well, the rest of him anyhow. Why on earth someone would feel the need to pre-bury their severed limb is beyond me. Perhaps they thought it necessary in order for them to reunite in the afterlife. And if that is the case I sincerely hope they found each other. I can't imagine getting past the pearly gates only to find loose limbs and legless folks hopping around. Or even pairs mismatched! And what about those poor feet still awaiting their owners. What of them? Oh, yes. They exist. Graves with a foot. No more. Looking at the dates of these records the owners are either a good 120 years old or dead and gone. But to where? Will they ever find each other? Have they made an otherworldly reunion? Or are they forced to remain as spirits hopping this earth on eery nights hoping to one day be complete?
As I assisted with a service one day I had a moment to chat with the funeral director. He told me a story I will never forget. At a funeral service, as he was preparing to close the casket, he was approached by a friend of the deceased. The gentleman presented a small photograph, face down, and asked the director if he would please put it in the jacket pocket of the deceased, but do not let anyone see. The director honored his wishes and slipped it in. Without looking. To this day he does not know what it was of. And I will forever wonder. A favorite mistress? An illegitimate child? Or something more innocent. His best friend? His favorite pet? A dog of course. Or maybe his truck. You know how guys are with their trucks. I am sure that must be it. Had it fit in the grave I bet he would have been buried in it.
Would you mind digging that up please?
Funeral Directors must get a hundred times more odd requests than cemeterians. These are sorts of requests you do not want to mess up. You do not want to be the one responsible for ruining the final tribute to a lost loved-one. It is amazing how they keep it all straight. Sometimes they don't. Being the type of business that a cemetery is, you aren't always held to conventional hours. For a time it was my responsibility to carry the on-call cell phone evenings and weekends. Just in case an emergency need arose for a family to make arrangements, or to assist the funeral homes that are open on the weekends. One Friday evening I got an odd call. A funeral director. He had a request. Could we please re-open Mr. Wilson's grave so that he could remove his tie! Apparently he had instruction that Mr. Wilson was to wear this particular tie for the funeral services, after which it was to be removed and included with the items to be returned to Mrs. Wilson. Well he forgot. Now the family is understandably upset. Could we please assist him in retrieving the tie? Um, no. It's not as if you can walk over, pop open the casket, grab the tie and be done with it. The process is more akin to breaking into a Pharoh's tomb. The problem is that once a burial is completed it just about takes an act of God to get permission to open up that grave and remove the deceased. Even if permission is obtained, Mr. Wilson is resting comfortably in a sealed casket, in a sealed concrete burial vault, under several feet of earth. Needless to say, Mr. Wilson is still resting comfortably just as he was placed. Wearing his tie. Heck. If that tie was so important to him, let the guy keep it.
A Man, His Parents, and a Dog
One very common request these days is to bury an urn in a full-sized grave. This trend stems from cremation being far more economical. Even though the size of a grave is massive comparison to tha of an urn, NY State law allows for only two deceased humans per grave. I will repeat - humans. Despite this, I can say for certain that there are thousands of folks at rest with Fido's or Fluffy's urn tucked neatly in the casket with them. Can I tell you who they are? Nope. Remember. The funeral director packs the casket. But what if there is no casket? What will become of the dearly departed and and their beloved pet? I cannot say for sure. I would never officially allow the burial of a pet in a cemetery for humans. But that doesn't stop people from asking. A funeral director came to the counter one day with just that question, among others. In his hands were a small box, a wooden urn, and two framed photos. Could we please put all of this in the grave? Turns out it was Mr. Howard, photos of his parents, and the cremated remains of his beloved dog. I gave my usual fuzzy answer. We are not legally allowed ot bury pets, but I am sure all of that will fit. What you do at the graveside is your business. As if it wasn't humorous enough watching this not too coordinated guy juggle these things without dropping them, it became even more so when I learned that it was the dog in the urn! Mr. Howard was neatly packed in the black plastic box provided by the crematory. Does this mean that Mr. Howard's family loved him less than he loved his Golden Retriever? I do not judge. Love is not about the money you spend, right? What sort of person is going to spend good money on an expensive urn that is only going to go into the ground? I have a feeling it is the same sort of person that would shell out that kind of dough on an urn for a dog. I hope Mr. Howard and his dear companion are at peace. Tirelessly playing games of fetch in eternity. Looking down at his "frugal" family.
The Bionic Leg
My final anecdote brings us back to the matter of limbs. I refer to this particular limb as the bionic leg. I was caught completely off guard the day I got the call to arrange Mr. Clarke's burial. The funeral director informed me that the family had a special request. Could we please bury Mr. Clarke's artificial leg in the grave with his urn? Apparently it was no peg leg that could be cremated along with him. This was some sort of bionic super leg. Not knowing the protocol for fake limb burial services, I advised him I would check with the Superintendent and I would call him back. And that is what I did. And the response was something similar to "Are you f-ing kidding me? I guess so. Get the measurements." I must have had a weird look on my face because he clarified: "So I know what size hole to dig." So there I was calligd back the funeral director with the good news. We will be happy to accommodate Mr. Clarke and his limb. By the way, could you please give me the exact measurements. And I waited on hold while I can only imagine they got a measuring tape or yardstick or whatever and measured the limb as if fitting him for a new suit. And there I was filling out the burial order "Urn + Artificial Leg" followed by the dimensions. I wish I could have seen the look on the grounds guys face when the Super handed him the slip to go mark out the grave! And fifty years from now I would like to see the look on the face of the person who comes across that burial record. I bet it will resemble the one I had the first time I saw "Leg Only". Will they wonder like me what became of Mr. Clarke's naturally given limb? Did it fester with disease? Mangled in an accident? A snack of a shark? And will they wonder why his family had his bionic leg put to rest with him? I think we all know the answer to that. We wouldn't want Mr. Clarke hopping around in the afterlife now would we?