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FEAR AND LOAFING: Grave Matters

While seasoned employees find ways to relieve stress, our reporter finds nothing to laugh at

 

Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Eric Burkett picks maggots out of a strip of rolled-up sod, popping them into a Tupperware box.

"The bass love these," he says, expressing anticipation for a weekend fishing trip in Gunlock, Utah.

Dissociation is a psychological imperative in Burkett's line of work. Since June, he has earned $9.50 an hour as a landscaper. Because he works at Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park, however, his job includes opening an average of six graves per week.

"There is no best part about this job," the 35-year-old Las Vegas native says. "It's just a bunch of death."

Since Burkett was a tyke, he has seen himself in only one career.

"My father and my grandfather were both carpenters," he says. "But the carpenters union was a little slow, so my friend was working at the graveyard and got me in."

Residential construction may have died off in Las Vegas, but dying off is a lively business. In 2006, 13,774 death certificates were issued in Clark County, 10 more than in 2005 and 939 more than in 2004. (Burial is the choice of 24 percent of Clark County residents once they become former residents, according to the Southern Nevada Health District. About 59 percent are cremated and 17 percent are shipped elsewhere.)

"Back up!" landscaper Lenny Nunnelly yells at me.

A 2,300-pound cement vault bobs and weaves as it dangles by chains from the backhoe I'm commandeering. I'm expected to lower it into the hole, and I've overshot my mark.

Of course, I've been taught how to operate the four knobs that control up and down, left and right, forward and back and the angle of bucket scoop. And, of course, I've already forgotten.

My new technique is to apply a small amount of forward pressure to each knob, just to see what happens.

"That's too far!" Nunnelly continues, waving frantically.

To be honest, I wonder if I have gone too far. Someone will be laid to rest tomorrow morning in this vault. (I specifically asked not to be told who.) And the feeling that I don't belong here is stronger than usual and unfamiliar; entirely unrelated to my skill set.

The cemetery is no place for funny business.

Later, Burkett sets me straight.

"You've got to have a sense of humor to work here," he says. "If you don't, you'd go home and put a gun to your head. It can be that depressing."

He cites the funerals of children as the most painful.

"When you see a mother burying her little baby and she just breaks down and wants to jump down in the hole with them," Burkett says, "that can wrench you up inside.

"But you still have to do your job."

To combat the gloom, Bunkers' eight landscapers sometimes pull schoolyard pranks on one another -- after ensuring that the coast is clear of mourners. Burkett describes a ritual for the newest crew member: "After we dig a hole and get everything ready, we'll go to the bottom and hide under the sheet. Then we'll pop up and watch them freak out."

The latest new guy, Eddie, "just took off running," Burkett says.

My approach to death is not much braver. I don't wish to achieve immortality through my work, as Woody Allen once said. I wish to achieve it through not dying.

Physically digging a grave was easier than I thought -- thanks to grounds superintendent Albert Moore, who sat in the passenger seat of the John Deere 300D and told me which knobs to move which way. (Each of Las Vegas' eight cemeteries has a similar backhoe; manual burials tapered off in the '50s.)

Mentally, though, it was tougher -- especially the part where I had to even out the dirt on the bottom with a rake while brushing against the walls of two occupied graves. (Incidentally, the title of a certain HBO dark comedy notwithstanding, bodies here are buried 4 feet under.)

"Did you tell him about floaters?" Burkett asked Nunnelly.

For a job with no best part, there certainly is a worst. When re-digging a grave to bury the top half of a double interment, the original casket sometimes floats atop a stagnant pool of irrigation water.

"There gets to be a white foam on top," Burkett said, "and we have to get inside the hole and, like surfing, try to get the casket to tip one way so we can put the water pump below it."

Burkett described the smell as "something you'll never forget," adding, "ever!"

"Did you ever clean a Porta-Pottie?" he asked me.

As a matter of fact, this summer ...

Burkett cut me off midboast.

"It's 10 times worse," he said. "And the flies instantly come. They instantly know what's going on."

Lowering the vault is challenging enough for me. That's because the distance between it and the adjoining two vaults will be 6 inches on each side. (And you thought living space was getting tight in Las Vegas.)

"They're dying to get in here," Nunnelly joked earlier.

One wrong move and Nunnelly can easily require his own vault. In addition, this $700 chunk of concrete -- and several nearby gravestones valued at twice as much each -- could rest in pieces.

"Some of the gravestones out here cost 15,000 (dollars)," said Burkett, who knows because he broke one during his first month on the job. (Dirt is shuttled from the grave to a storage area via a trailer pushed by the backhoe. So a left turn for the driver translates into a right turn for the trailer. "I didn't get that concept right away," Burkett said.)

Fortunately for Burkett, the stone wasn't expensive, and Bunkers replaced it for free.

Nunnelly yells at me again. This time, a smile consumes his face.

"Perfect!" he exclaims.

I have laid the vault down like a pro, and no one is more shocked than me -- or humbled. It is unlikely that any of the other work I do in this life will last as eternally.

"It's not crooked or nothing," Nunnelly says. "We got guys been here a while can't do that."

Frankly, I'm just happy that no one died.

Well, no one since I got here.

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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