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Gravedigging can be a Pain



Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

Being a live-in caretaker or gravedigger as the cool kids typically term it, for a historic cemetery that has been a part of our community since colonial times isn’t all glitz and glamour. Every so often it can be a genuine pain in the neck; well more like the lower back but still. You would think it would be pretty cut and dry. Dig graves, bury people, throw away wilted flowers, pick up trash, rake the leaves, keep the grass cut, and lock the gate every night. Sounds easy right? Well, let me tell you. It is not even close to the real truth. Every once in a while, it can become an enormous hassle.

When I accepted this job, there wasn’t a useful handbook that outlines your duties as other jobs have. I had a grizzled elderly supervisor who had buried more people than the black plague. You would think someone like that would be a wellspring of information merely waiting to be tapped. Well, keep on thinking that. He maintained a firm belief that the best experience was a hands-on experience. I would spend all day finishing a hot and muscle-straining job, then that night he would inform me of the easier way to do it. When I say I learned my lessons well, it is because I learned how not to perform them first. To my old boss, any day that you keep all my fingers and toes was a good day. But he wasn’t all bad, his stories were the best. I remember after work I would sit for hours listening to him. He could make you pee your pants with his stories. Be it either a scary or funny story; you would wet yourself from fear or laughter.

Some stuff like general yard work, mowing grass, trimming bushes, weed treatment, and pest control is simple. Most of it should be done on a weekly basis to maintain the cemetery in pristine condition. To prevent overlapping, you designate specific days for each section of the cemetery. And always remember to exercise caution when performing upkeep in Section One, as it contains some of our oldest graves. Those duties are so straightforward even a child could understand them. These are also the duties they use when advertising the job. I will let you in on a secret. Those represent about 20 percent of the overall jobs I perform.

One of the big requirements is you should always remember your manners. Respect all mourners. The cemetery receives visitors daily, who should be given distance while they pay their respects. Avoid using loud equipment and/or tools entirely in that section while funerals are in session. With that in mind, new plots are to be dug at least 24 hours before scheduled funerals. However, three days is preferred. New graves have a tendency to whisper. But after two days, those voices usually fall silent. If you do hear them, it is best to disregard them, since they tend to ramble on and on about nothing but nonsense. They may have eternity, but I work on a schedule.

And let’s don’t forget about the different protocols. If we discover any signs of vandalism, we are to document the incident and report it to the main office. They will evaluate the proper procedures. If the gravestones themselves are disturbed or broken, report it and mark off the area. Repairmen will be dispatched to correct the problem. Do not disturb them as they work, they are fickled. I think it is because they only work the night shift. Besides they are blind and mute, so the conversations are always one-sided.

Now if you want lively conversations, go talk to Tim. He has worked here since we only had one section. He is the best cobbled together group of people you will ever meet. The only problem I have with the big guy is he eats black licorice continuous. And when he talks to you, it’s all you can smell. Most people don’t have a problem with it, but I don’t like black licorice. I have tried providing him with different candies, and he refuses them. I even offered him various licorice flavors, but he repeatedly says.

“Those taste like medicine.”

Obviously, it does, you have killed your taste buds with years of eating that sickenly sweet black licorice. I am surprised you can taste anything. If you ever see him, he looks like he has a jaw full of tobacco. Well, it’s not, it’s licorice. Other than that, he is a great guy. He would give the shirt off his back. If you ever need help, he’s always there to lend a hand. Naturally, he will be needing it back after you are finished.

Another unspoken rule is; under no circumstances should you read aloud the Latin and Coptic phrases carved into the headstones in sections Two and Four. Of course, historians always find their way to sections One through Four. That is where the prettiest and oldest graves and headstones are located. And guess who gets to clean up the mess they create by reciting an ancient motto or creed while reading aloud the names carved into the stone. I don’t understand why the cemetery doesn’t limit what can and can’t be on the gravestones and markers. I have asked, but no one knows. I guess we are an equal-opportunity cemetery. I also guess common sense is not extremely common.

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I know what you are thinking, if you don’t do that, you should be OK. And your mostly right. Except that isn’t the only problematic area in the cemetery. If you are in section Three and encounter a pale woman with a noose around her neck standing motionless among the headstones, it is best not to engage her. Merely continue doing whatever you are doing like she isn’t there. If you have any, spread some sea salt around. Ignore any weeping and or cackling you may hear in this section.

We maintain twelve sections in our cemetery. Section one, the original cemetery dates back to before the town of Present was officially founded. We have the distinction of having the founder of the town in the North-west corner of section one. You can’t miss it, the town many years ago decided to erect a statue on his grave in his honor. It is a nice 12-foot marble effigy. He stands there smiling as he watches over the cemetery. It really is quite charming.

We also have the unfortunate distinction of having hounds. I can describe them as being medium to large-sized dogs. There are seven of them in total, that come in two colors. They are either pure white with dull red eyes or near black with yellow eyes. I call them royal pains. They tend to stay in sections one to seven because they enjoy the taste of older bones. But they sometimes visit the other five sections. Every morning after a night of prowling I have the pleasure of picking up trash from overturned garbage cans, scattered vases, and flower arrangements. But the big cherry on top of it all is finding all the bones they dug up. These nuisances will dig up a grave then carry off a choice bone, gnaw on it for a while and leave it lying. Then like an Easter egg hunt from my youth, I have to find all of them. And if I miss one, you can bet whoever lost it will let you know it is gone. I remember last year I spent a week searching through the mud in the small pond in section four looking for a single finger bone. I can only guess one hound wanted to have a swim and dropped it. Thankfully they only come out a few days a month.

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With all these different things happening inside the tall brick-walled cemetery with a double iron locked gate, we must have a large turnover in our workforce. Certainly not. Sure a blister or sore muscle is part and parcel of the profession. I carry muscle ointment and adhesive bandages in my pocket every day. Really the worst most will experience are lacerations, concussions, contusions, tinnitus, canities, partial blindness, festering lesions, amputations, memory loss, and sometimes bouts of violent psychosis or even a stray possession. Truth be told, those things could theoretically happen with any job.

When I think about it, I must make this job sound like the worst thing ever. No, not really. Every job has its good and bad points. Besides my job is very important. It is an essential job for society. I understand the average person holds police, fire, ambulance, and healthcare workers in high regard. They keep you from seeing the ugly part of life. Well don’t forget it’s my job is to take the final product of that ugly part, the dead, decaying, disease-ridden carcasses, and dispose of them properly. I am the reason why you can walk down the street without having to walk over decomposing bodies. Nor do you have to see the rotten end product. I would not have another job. It is just, that sometimes the grind gets to me. Take for instance this task I just completed.

I let the last of the soil fall from the shovel onto the patch of newly disturbed land. I say a little prayer silently. Unquestionably, this time I have made it deep enough. The first time I had buried Mr. Deetz. It was just another job. Dug a hole, host a ceremony, filled in the hole, end of story. Ordinary stuff. This time, the 3rd time I had made the grave much deeper and the sweat poured off my body. I wiped my brow with my handkerchief, planting the shovel in the ground, and leaned heavily on it. I don’t mind giving our dearly departed a proper burial, even twice sometimes. But three is really pushing my patience. I have other jobs and responsibilities. I do not have time to replant people who don’t take the hint that they are not of this world anymore. Some people can be so cantankerous.

The moon is just now peeked over the trees. My lantern gives enough light to work by, but not enough to disrupt anyone. I gazed at the world going to sleep around me, and I stand in awe of the moonlight over the frosty fields of graves. This is such a pleasant peaceful area; nothing and no one around. Only the headstones and your thoughts. I watched as the glowing orb rises higher into the sky, illuminating it with a deep almost eerie glow. The delightful cool air feels good after a job well done.

“Nighttime is always nice,” I say to no one in particular. “Especially clear moonlit nights like tonight. The moon casts a soft silver ray on everything. The beauty is surely unspeakable. The whole of the nature looks bright and appears in celestial light. People of all ages enjoy a moonlit night.”

I take this majestic moonscape as an ample reward for me completing this necessary task. The night air feels good to my overheated body. Minutes pass as I stand transfixed by nature as I gather my strength. I was so enchanted that I don’t notice a dirty hand break through the fresh dirt. Hearing a noise, I look down.

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Sighing deeply I mumble, “That’s it, third time’s the charm. I’m done.”

This guy just doesn’t get it. You are gone. Your family has accepted it. Society has accepted it. We mourned and celebrated your life. Now it is over. You have been granted your eternal rest. Life has left you behind, so you may return to the dust. But to receive this reward, you need to stay put. No relocating. No cross-countries trip. No plane, train, or automobile ride, just a nice long stay in a box underground.

I squat down closer to the mound of dirt being broken open and say. “Mr. Deetz. Guess who has an appointment with the crematorium.”

Credit: Mortimer T. Graves

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