Cemetery Life 

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

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"You just hope somebody don't come out and grab you," Regan quips. "It just kind of gets to you a little bit."

Regan and his crew fill between 200 and 300 sunken graves a year. It's one of the chores they juggle in a constant effort to stay on top of the workload. Other days, especially as the ground thaws and lilac trees lining the cemetery perimeter bud, the groundskeepers groom the entire expanse. Spring is the busiest time of year, and traffic peaks during Memorial Day Weekend, when about 1,000 cars roll daily through the cemetery's gates.

As part of the cemetery's spring cleaning, Regan tags trinkets left graveside—teddy bears, birthday cards, Christmas wreathes, tequila, Copenhagen and Schmidt beer. Many of the nicer gifts are kept and stored for one year as a courtesy provided by cemetery staff.

The hardest gifts for Regan and his crew to pick up are the ones left in the infant's cemetery. On a recent morning, three deflated balloons hang from a blue spruce not far from a round canister containing a hand-written note and tiny Christmas stocking. The canister, painted with angels, sits beside a copper-colored stone belonging to a child who died the same day it was born.

"This is the section that none of us like to come to," Regan says, clearing leaves from the infant's marker. "A lot of us gravediggers don't talk about it. There's emotions out here."

Families sometimes hang out graveside. Cemetery regulars—often white-haired ladies and stooped-over men—come alone to stand silently under aspen trees. Workers from nearby businesses like the Roseburg Mill and Allied Waste walk among cracked stones during lunch breaks. And since the roads were paved in 2004—another modern upgrade—savvy recreationists take advantage of low-traffic cemetery streets.

"We have people who come out here and roller blade," Regan says.

Regan finally broke down and bought a "niche" in a massive granite wall that looks out onto the old part of the cemetery last year. His cremated remains will be stored there, along with more than 100 others. It's not far from where his grandparents are buried and across from a fountain that's still thawing in the spring sun. Called a columbarium, Regan and his team built the wall in 2002.

click to enlarge The cemetery continues to expand based on a master plan drawn up in 1964. “You have to plan cemeteries in thousands and thousands of years, because they’re permanent,” says director Doug Waters. “They’re there forever. I think that’s what I also liked about cemeteries—they’re planned for permanency.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The cemetery continues to expand based on a master plan drawn up in 1964. “You have to plan cemeteries in thousands and thousands of years, because they’re permanent,” says director Doug Waters. “They’re there forever. I think that’s what I also liked about cemeteries—they’re planned for permanency.”

If one shares a double niche, as spouses often do, columbarium expenses run about $400 per person. It's easy to see the financial incentive when compared to a traditional burial, which sets one back about $1,100, Regan says.

"It's very practical," he says. "The cost of funerals these days and everything, that is the best price."

Assuming a matter-of-fact demeanor, the maintenance manager points to his niche in the top right corner of the columbarium and lists who goes where.

"This is where I go," he says. "This is my mother-in-law. This is my nephew. My father-in-law is in here, too. I still have room to put someone in there if I ever had to use it. If not, I'm good with that. I really don't want to use it."

Regan not only earns his paycheck here, he'll spend eternity here. But he shrugs off the thought. Death is pretty simple to him.

"It's a fact of life...," he says. "I always say, you have a number on your ass, you just can't see it."

Waters also has a burial site picked out at the cemetery. Working next to where he'll be laid to rest hasn't made thinking about death any easier. He still worries about leaving everyone behind.

"The difficulty is thinking about leaving the loved ones," he says. "And, after you're gone, all of the issues they'll have not having you there."

As for Stubb, she'll be interred here, too. She's not sure yet if she will be buried or cremated, but she knows she'll rest on the same grounds as her grandfather. That means Stubb's not only helping to preserve the cemetery's story, and it's significance to Missoula, but she's also a part of it.

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