Strange Cemetery Stories: What's that sound?
WARNING: While this is written in the same lighthearted spirit as the "Crazy Cemetery Stories" series, it does mention details of death and cemetery operations that could be disturbing to some individuals. As always it is never intended to be disrespectful to the decedents or their families.
After working in a cemetery office for nearly six years I managed to learn the ins and outs of cemetery operations from the office to the grounds. It was an interesting learning experience. Things that were commonplace after a while weren’t that way at the beginning. And even after six years the commonplace could seem anything but.
This is a collection of anecdotes about the sounds of the cemetery.
- 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...
- Crazy Cemetery Stories: Lost and Found
The fourth of my collection of little stories based on my office job at a cemetery... Pardon me, are those your knickers?... Read this to find out!
What is that tapping?
There are certain moments that seem to stay perfectly preserved in memory. The sights, the sounds, the feeling. One of those was a very still, gray morning at the cemetery where I was employed.
It was late fall and there were no leaves on the trees. The smallest sound seemed to carry for miles. Aside from the grounds crew, I was the first one to arrive. It was eerily quiet as I walked from my car to the office. Then I noticed an odd tapping noise. Sort of metallic. Tap tap tap tap .
I stopped for a moment to listen. I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from and couldn’t see anyone, staff or visitors, on the grounds. Still wondering what the odd noise could be, I went about my morning.
So, what was that tapping sound? That, my good readers, was the sound a probe makes when someone is probing a grave. I learned this much later when I had the opportunity to watch the Superintendent perform the act. And I heard that odd sound.
Allow me to explain. For the most part, each grave in the cemetery measures roughly 3 feet by ten feet. Enough room to accommodate a grave marker and the dearly departed, nestled in their casket, placed inside a burial vault (essentially a fancy concrete box that keeps the earth from crushing the casket).
Usually this burial vault is neatly centered in the grave. Notice that I say usually. It would be nice if it could be counted on to always be the case. Sometimes things can be off here and there. Better to know this before the teeth of the backhoe go crashing into the vault of Mr. Smith. For this reason, it is a good idea when digging a grave between two already filled graves to do some probing of the graves on either side.
And how does one probe, you ask? By using a probe (essentially a very long stick designed to penetrate earth) to locate the burial vault by probing around the plot until you hit it. That odd tapping noise I heard that morning was the sound of the metal-tipped probe hitting the lid of the vault.
Tap tap tap tap. Echoing throughout the grounds. No doubt to the houses across the street. I wonder how many of our neighbors, or visitors to the cemetery, heard that sound and wondered what it was? I wonder what they would think if they knew the answer?
That sound is forever embedded in my memory, along with the image of that eerie, gray fall morning. The feelings that accompany it are an odd mix of creepiness of a cemetery and comfort of a crew going about their work to be sure the job is done right.
A not uncommon question in the winter months was, “Are you conducting burials?” That seems like a silly question to ask a cemetery, but in the dead of winter in the Northeast US it makes perfect sense. Deep snow or deep frost can be prohibitive to the operations of some cemeteries. Well, not us. The answer was always “yes”. Two feet of snow, we were open. Three feet of frost, we were open. I think a freak hurricane could have hit us dead on and we would be open for business!
Burying in three feet of snow is not such a difficult thing. There are methods in place to locate the graves and plows and snow blowers to clear them off. Three feet of frost is another matter. The cemetery I worked at was a not-for-profit and not in the best of financial situations.
We did not have the luxury of warming pads to melt the frost that some cemeteries have. Instead we merely broke through the frost with brute force or chipped it away with forced patience.
I recall siting in the office and hearing a loud pounding. Feeling my chair shake as the backhoe slammed into the frozen ground, or scraped along the frozen earth. It was hard enough some days to watch them dig the grave of an unfortunate soul. To hear and feel it shovel by shovel is another thing all together.
And then there was the jackhammer. More than hearing the noises from the hammering, a crepy sound when you know that the "constuction site" is a grave, I heard the stories from the crew. Chipping through the frost. Inch after inch waiting to hit soft dirt. Hands shaking, arms shaking, body shaking. Outside in the bitter cold.
But that is how it goes. The families came and went without a second thought. The extra thanks came from the funeral directors. They knew that Jim or Fred was out there, sometimes for hours, chipping away until the job was done. I don’t know if I will ever see or hear a jackhammer again without that coming to mind.
- Crazy Cemetery Stories: Spouses, Spouses, Everywhere...
Having a second or even third spouse can be complicated enough in life. Have you ever thougth about what happens after death?!
- Crazy Cemetery Stories - Won't You Be My Neighbor?
A few more noise-related ditties in this collection. It's enough to wake the neighborhood!
The shot heard around the grounds.
The cemetery where I was employed has had the honor of laying to rest thousands of veterans. Usually the committal service for these individuals included military honors performed by the local honor guard.
For their own reasons, some families will decline military honors for their loved ones. I never asked why. First and foremost, my job was to respect the wishes and privacy of the family.
On one particular occasion, I was privy to the reason behind the decision of a particular family. They opted to include military honors with one exception. No rifles were to be fired. It turns out that this particular gentleman took his own life using a gun. Completely understandable why the family would not want gunfire at their final farewell.
The committal service was lovely and went off without a hitch. The honor guard performed their duty and presented the flag to the appropriate family member. And then, as the service ended and it was time to depart, there was a sound. Was that? No. Couldn’t be.
Yes. It was a single gunshot. Unfortunately timed, but not an unusual sound to those of us familiar with the area. The cemetery is adjacent to several farms. One of them includes large fields of corn and air cannons to scare away the crows. Loud enough to scare the daylights out of you as you drive by with your window down. I know from experience! And loud enough to be heard on the grounds on a still day.
In this case, one of the shots was perfectly timed at the end of this particular service. Did the family hear it? I don’t know. The funeral director did. The grounds crew did. If the family did hear, did they know what it was? I suppose I will never know. I will never forget that service. And I will always wonder what, if anything, the famiy thought of that odd sound.
That Mud Sucking...!
I did not personally hear this sound, or witness this event, but the way it was told to me has the sound and image ingrained into my memory as if I was there. I hope I can do it justice as I retell it to you.
One burial option offered is to have an urn, rather than a casket, buried in a traditional grave. We actually permitted two urns per grave. It actually makes financial sense if you are open to cremation. Only one grave to buy, a smaller grave marker, smaller hole to dig means a smaller burial fee, etc. Anyhow, I digress. Back to the story…
One sunny afternoon, a memorial advisor returned from the grounds and was bursting at the seams to tell me about something that happened at the grave. Always looking for something to break up the day, I was all ears.
This service was for the burial of an urn in a traditional grave space. As was the usual case, the family departed, leaving the advisor or grounds crew to place the urn into the grave. It had been very rainy the day before and the bottom of the grave was very wet. Not a surprise. The surprise came when the urn was placed.
The family opted for a very pricey, and very heavy, bronze urn. When she placed the urn into the grave, it became apparent that the bottom was full of mud. The heavy urn began to sink into the mud. And it continued to sink. As it did, it made a loud sucking noise.
The urn kept sinking, now out of sight. The mud kept sucking. The noise kept coming. She swore to me that the darn thing was still sinking and sucking when she left the graveside!
How deep was that mud?! I am convinced that darn urn made it halfway to China before stopping. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a garden in China where a very nice bronze urn happened to pop up one morning!