Cemetery Life 

For those who work at the municipal graveyard, the story of our city lies six feet underground.

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Missoula's gravestones run the gamut, from small, temporary cement slabs, which often stick around for decades, to a massive block of hand-cut India granite that stands about five feet tall and, according to Waters, likely costs in the neighborhood of $65,000.

Somewhere between those two extremes sits the boulder gravestone belonging to architect A.J. Gibson. Gibson's emphasis on building with stone and brick rather than wood, which is vulnerable to fires and erosion, helped reshape Missoula's landscape. With his emphasis on longevity, Gibson helped brand the growing community a permanent social and commercial hub.

Gibson and his wife, Maud Lockley, died when a train hit their car on New Year's Eve in 1927. He was 65. Speaking perhaps to his love of design, Gibson's headstone quotes the song "America": "I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills..."

Final words like Gibson's fill the cemetery. For instance, there's the suicide note a family had engraved in white lettering on a 14-year-old girl's marker. The final note was taken from a poem originally penned by an anonymous author. "I turned my back and left it all...," it reads. "Tasks left undone must stay that way, I've found that peace at the end of the day."

Walking from the young girl's stone, Waters points to another thing that fills the cemetery: pennies. Tradition holds that a penny left graveside signals the deceased was visited and therefore held in high esteem. Waters says there's one stone down the way that's had the same penny on it for eight years.

Waters pulls his jacket tighter against the late winter breeze and talks about lessons to be learned at the cemetery. After all, it's tough not to grow watching grieving neighbors grapple with loss.

"I think that people just don't appreciate life enough," he says. "People are too stressed. They're always doing stuff to other people. Families are doing stuff to each other. And when it's all taken away from you, you realize all the stuff you shouldn't have done or maybe you should have done. You get to start to be more sympathetic, more understanding, more compassionate and really start to understand the true meaning of helping people, especially through hard times."

With a yellow measuring tape, two groundskeepers in baggy blue work pants mark the spot, then slice a niche through grass with a shovel. There's only a foot between graves in many places, so there's not much room for error when digging a grave.

Today the groundskeepers are burying cremains, or the ashes of someone recently cremated. The cremains fill a small pine box wrapped in a green velvet bag. The men place the package into a white "poly vault" that looks like a cooler and acts as protection from the elements. There's no family here on this mid-March day. The woman goes into the ground alone.

"I don't know if she has any family," says Ron Regan, the cemetery's maintenance manager. "We don't get into the history too much out here. We're the gravediggers."

click to enlarge As part of the cemetery’s spring cleaning, the grounds crew collects trinkets left graveside. Many of the nicer gifts are kept and stored for one year as a courtesy provided by cemetery staff. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • As part of the cemetery’s spring cleaning, the grounds crew collects trinkets left graveside. Many of the nicer gifts are kept and stored for one year as a courtesy provided by cemetery staff.

For the past 10 years, Regan, a 51-year-old Missoula native, has overseen the facility's grounds-keeping operation. The job involves ensuring burials and funerals go smoothly, keeping the lawn up to snuff and being a professional empath of sorts. He thinks less of the cemetery's past or future, and stays focused on the day-to-day responsibilities.

The biggest worry for Regan—and a universal fear among gravediggers, he says—involves the possibility that someone could be buried in the wrong place.

"We double check that three times before we even dig. That's a big one, because if that ever happened it would be a bad scenario," he says. "Don't ever think it can't happen. In cemeteries around the world it's happened."

There's never been a mix-up like that under his watch, Regan says. Although, there was some confusion years ago surrounding where to inter a woman who had remarried her brother-in-law.

"When the family got out there, it was wrong," he says. "They didn't want her buried next to their uncle. They wanted her buried next to dad."

Regan handled the mix-up before the woman went into the ground. Situations like that highlight the surprising complexities of a gravedigger's job.

"You have to be able to read these people," Regan says. "How many times do you go to the hospital and visit a friend and say, 'How are you feeling?' You know, 'How do you think I'm feeling? I'm here'...[You] ain't doing well, usually, if you're at the cemetery."

Graves present hazards, too. As coffins decompose, dirt sinks into them, creating soft patches of land. On the surface, though, the grass remains tout. The result leaves an invisible void, which amounts to a booby trap—more humorous than dangerous—that someone can step into, and then fall.

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