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Strange Cemetery Stories: The Monsoon
WARNING: This story is not my usual collection of humorous anecdotes. It is a short story based on my experience as an office manager at a large cemetery. It contains subject matter that might be disturbing to sensitive individuals, specifically details on the logistics of burial.
This is an account of the roughest night our crew experienced in the six years I was employed at this cemetery. The worst day of work the superintendent had in over a decade. A day I will never forget. All because of a little rain.
Some anacdotes on the lighter side of working at a cemetery
Six burial services were scheduled. With a staff of only seven, including the superintendent and his assistant. This was bound to be a busy day. Then there was the issue of ratio of equipment to burial services. Six services but only one backhoe, one set up truck, two dump trucks, and just two graveside set ups. A clear shortage of materials.
It was nothing we hadn’t come across before. It generally meant they set up the first two gravesides, take up the first burial party, make sure they have what they need and wait for the second. As soon as the first is finished, the guys break it down and bring that set up to the third graveside. In the meantime, the second burial has been led up. When that is done it is broken down and the materials go to the fourth graveside. It goes on that way, a sort of leap frogging, until everyone has come and gone.
It's enough to make your head spin. But not our guys. They worked like a well-oiled machine. Nine in one day I think was the record. Six of them arriving nearly at the same time and in the middle of a heat wave to boot. That was quite a day.
So six in one day wasn’t so bad. No heat wave this time. The forecast called for rain. That could always make things unpleasant, but it happens.
Fortunately, the burial parties lucked out. The rain held off for them. The first drops didn’t fall until the last service hit the exit gates early that afternoon.
Our crew did not fare as well.
It began as a light rain. No big deal. But light or hard, working outside in the rain is a lousy deal. With six graves to fill and only enough resources to do them one, maybe two at a time, it meant for a long afternoon. Again, nothing the guys hadn’t done before. They could knock that out no problem. Except for that rain.
The clouds kept rolling in, darker and darker. Bringing more rain. Sheets of rain. Relentless rain. The kind of rain that made it feel like you were standing in a shower.
From the safety of the office I watched the monsoon grow. The water running down the cemetery roads was like a river. I swear you could have ridden a canoe from the highest hill to the lowest point without running aground. On second thought, with the looks of the gushing stream, you better make that a whitewater raft.
Regardless of the weather, there were six graves to fill. The crew went one by one. Dump trucks of dirt. Dumping, filling, tamping. They had done it thousands of times before in rain, snow, baking heat, blasting wind, any condition you can imagine. Still, no one was expecting things to go down like they did.
As the graves sat waiting to be filled, water was running into them at an incredible rate. Too fast for it to soak into the ground, leaving these large, open holes to rapidly fill with water. Truckloads of dry dirt turned into pits of mud. Blinding rain made conditions difficult, nearly impossible, to work in.
From the office we could see the lights of the set up truck. The crew was using the headlights to see by. The large number of burial services meant working past the usual time of 4 pm. It was late fall and beginning to get dark already.
The radio beeped. It was the Super. I answered, “Are you guys OK out there? What do you need?” He made his request, “Does anyone down there have a ShamWow? It’s kinda wet out here!” He was in a great mood. It was one of those times you just had to laugh or fall apart. I advised him that we were fresh out of shammies and told him to stay safe and call if they needed anything.
The next call from the grounds wasn’t a joke. Nor was it a request. It was simply to inform the director that there was a situation. One of the dearly departed was trying to escape from her grave. The superintendent informed the director that he would remedy the situation, but the guys would rack up a good amount of overtime.
Our director was a very hands-on type. He decided to brave the rain and go out to the graveside. He could not believe what he saw. The high-end casket the family purchased was sealed airtight to keep water out. As water filled the burial vault (essentially a dressed up concrete box that protects the casket), the casket floated inside it until it reached the top, pushed the lid off the vault, and nearly floated away. The only thing keeping the casket from floating out of the grave and sliding downhill was that it was caught on part of the heavy vault lid, barely.
The crew was pumping water out of the grave as fast as they could. They got the level down low enough to get the casket back in the vault and the lid on. Now to fill the grave before the casket could come bobbing back up! A truckload of dirt turned into muddy water. Another load went in with hopes that something resembling dirt would end up weighing down the vault lid, keeping it closed.
The grave was filled and it seemed that the casket would stay put. Then the superintendent got a call from one of his crew at another grave. This time the entire vault was beginning to float! They headed to the next one. Here they go again. Pump out the water, fill as fast as possible, hope everything stays down. Then a call from the crew at the previous grave. The casket escaped again!
Back to the previous grave. Pump out water, fill with dirt, hope like hell it works.
A third grave became unsettled. Now up to this one. Pump out water, fill with dirt, hope like hell it works.
Then the first casket pops up yet again. This lady just did not want to be buried that day! Pump out water, fill with dirt, hope like hell it works. Then went the second. They just did not want to stay put.
That is how the evening continued. The guys worked in the driving rain as it poured down their bodies, obstructed their view, and turned heavy loads of dirt to useless watery mud. After checking on the superintendent one more time, I closed up the office, feeling helpless. As I pulled out I could see the lights of the setup truck in the distance. I wondered how long they were going to be out there.
They could have given up. State law puts no time requirement on filling a grave. It must be done in a “reasonable amount of time.” There would have been no objection to storing the caskets in the mausoleum until the next day when they could be buried more easily. But that was not our style. The Super did not like to say no. If this was the day the family chose for burial, than this was the day that it would take place.
As I got ready for work the next day, I thought about the night before. I wondered how late the guys stayed and if those stubborn folks stayed in their graves. I thought about it as I drove to work. I was still thinking about it as I opened up the office for the day.
The superintendent was uncharacteristically late for work. As he walked into the office he looked noticeably haggard. He plopped down at his desk. I asked him, “Are you ok?” His answer was no! He got home late. They had worked until nearly 7 pm. He hardly slept, tormented by the hellish night of work. He was so distracted by worry that he missed his exit on the way to work, resulting in his excessive tardiness.
I asked if he had been out to see the graves. His reply was “No way. The hell if I am going out there. I don’t want see it. If there is something wrong, they will tell me.” He was right. No sense in running out to check. He knew the crew and his assistant had already done it.
Everything was fine. Caskets and vaults stayed put overnight, after being buried three times. The crew was in the process of repairing ruts in the soft ground and topping off where dirt had washed away.
The Super looked beat and not ready to go back out there just yet. I had never seen him like that. This was the guy who had nearly seen and done it all, including exposed corpses and burials in two feet of snow.
This guy and his crew dug every hole, supervised every service, and filled in every grave. Dozens of services a month. Hundreds per year. Yet that night was the worst he had seen . That night nearly beat him.
He did go back out there of course. There were burial services coming in that day.