25 Jun Working at a Cemetery Is a Unique Experience
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"Working at a Cemetery Is a Unique Experience"Written by Nick Botic
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Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
So I work at a cemetery. Pinelawn Memorial Park to be exact. My family has owned it for nearly five generations, and I’ve been working there since I was 12 (officially since I was 15). Cemeteries, I know, are sort of inherently creepy, and despite my family being in the…dead…people…business(?) since long before I was born, I still have always found it to be a weird place, and for much, much more than the obvious reasons. I posted a couple of my stories related to Pinelawn here in the past, but I decided to put them in a more concise format as well as add several more.
Growing up, I heard stories aplenty of weird things that happened at the family cemetery. One thing I’d always been told is that even though weird things happened, no one that’s ever worked there had ever been harmed (other people are another story). I suppose I should begin with the very first one I ever heard, per my mom. Some weird stuff had happened before this, I guess, but since it was the first story I’d ever been told about Pinelawn, this is what made me weary to ever be there by myself, or at night.
Something like 100 some-odd years ago now, the cemetery was obviously much smaller than it is now. At that time, there were around 120 bodies buried here. Apparently, the city wanted to develop, and they wanted to buy the particular land that my family owned, effectively shutting us down. My family fought it, and a deal was reached to sell them the land we had, if the city would then also pay a portion of the land next to it, on which my family could continue the business.
The city acquiesced, and they partially paid for an equal amount of adjacent land; my family, at that time, also bought several more acres past that, which we’re still filling up to this day. Anyways, when that happened, my family had to inform all the other families that the remains of their dearly departed loved ones were going to be moved into new plots. Work began on that, and as bulldozers and other large shoveling equipment wasn’t yet common, it all had to be done by hand.
All went well for the first roughly 2/3rds of the moves. The ground was dug up, the caskets were retrieved, and they were moved, along with their headstones, down to the new, freshly dug plots. The final third is where things got weird. Back then, caskets were generally made of wood, and rather than crafty woodwork designs made, a decorative cloth was laid over it. These wooden caskets more often than not weighed roughly equal to or less than the body they contained. All this is to say that in many cases, the weight of the body inside was discernible from the casket itself.
Well, when they got to that final, northernmost third of the land that the city had bought, the caskets became lighter. The sounds of the corpses within, e.g. slight sliding, a jerky step making a limb fall to one side, hitting the inside of the box, etc., began to become fewer and farther between. Eventually, with the last 20 or so caskets, they felt like there was nothing inside at all. With the permission of the families, the cemetery employees opened these caskets they thought were empty, and found just that to be the case. The insides of the caskets were bare, and looked as if there hadn’t ever been anything inside them.
This was quite a bit of a scandal, as I’m sure you can imagine. My family, both publicly and privately, swore up and down that the land had been untouched since the caskets in question were buried, and that the absence of any contents as well as the cleanliness of the caskets themselves was simply impossible. It took some years for the reputation of Pinelawn to recover, but alas, it did.
My grandpa worked at Pinelawn starting in the ’60s, but lived there his whole life. The house that my family built on the property (one that I actually live in now; it’s been passed down generation to generation), is about 30 yards back from the main office. His room was on the second floor, facing the cemetery itself. By then, some 40 years after the missing body incident, the cemetery had grown quite a bit alongside the town/city itself, with several hundred burial plots.
Just before they begin, there is a thin concrete walkway about 20 feet from the main office leading from the road that goes through all the different sections (back then it wasn’t split up into sections, but there was a main road around the area of plots). On either side of that walkway are two huge trees and a lamppost. One night when they were kids, my grandpa and uncle were up late, my uncle happened to look out their window and swore to my grandpa that he’d seen someone walk behind one of the trees. The lamppost illuminated the very first handful of plots and headstones on the other side of the road, but at that point, they were undisturbed.
My grandpa and uncle stood at their window for a little while, with my grandpa ultimately teasing my uncle for being scared. However, when they woke up the next morning, the police were there. In the hours between when they looked out the window and saw the burial plots undisturbed (about 4 am) and the time they noticed the commotion (about 7 am), seven of the plots had been dug up. The headstones were stacked very deliberately, like a house of cards, and behind them the caskets were atop one another, the first one laying flat, the next one straight up, then flat, straight up, flat, straight up, with the final one flat. With basic casket dimensions taken into account, that’s nearly 30 feet high.
I’m sure you can imagine, even with machinery in the present day, that would take at least a little bit of time to accomplish. But nope, back in the 1950s, this was somehow done in a span of less than 180 minutes, with no one that lived in the house able to hear it going on.
I suppose I should tell you one of my own. Obviously, as time has gone by, improvements and additions to the cemetery have been made, namely the crematorium. I’ve had a number of odd experiences with our crematorium, which was built on as an extension of the main office. One such instance was in 2012, following a funeral for a very large man, roughly 375 pounds. I got the retort (cremation chamber) preheated while my wife (then-girlfriend) Kimmy set up a movie to watch while the body was being cremated (she was nice enough to wait with me). I used the elevating platform and then slid the body in, closing the door to the retort afterwards and going to sit down.
About 5 minutes after I’d shut the door to the retort, while Kimmy and I were beginning to watch the movie, we heard a thump. Neither of us paid it much mind, but a few moments later, there was another, and then another. I stood up, worried that the man may have had a pacemaker still in his body, however unlikely, as he had had his organs removed. As we got up and walked over to the retort, the thumping and thudding got more hurried. We looked through the front window of the retort and couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
The body inside was flailing about, both of the deceased’s arms and legs were bouncing around like he was in extreme pain. Now, it isn’t odd to see body parts move while the body is being cremated; as the limbs are broken down, they will often contract as muscles and tendons snap. But this was most decidedly not that. I went around to the side of the retort, where we have three longer windows that give us a profile view of the body. The dead man’s fingers were balled up in fists, and were banging against the windows, and his legs seemed to be kicking downward, as if to get out. As I watched from the side, the man’s mouth opened, and first groans began emanating from within, then screams.
The man had been confirmed dead nearly 80 hours prior. There was no way, absolutely no way whatsoever, that he could still have been alive. His organs had been removed for fuck’s sake. But for about 20 seconds after we’d gone to up to the retort, the corpse inside the cremation chamber screamed and flailed his arms and legs about, as if he were being burned alive. Then he simply stopped. Kimmy and I were in shock. Neither of us said anything for a few minutes, and when I was finally able to find words, I advised her to not ever mention it again. It was an anomaly, air escaping from the lungs, an excess of strained muscles and tendons snapping; I said whatever I could to justify it enough to move past it. Even so, it’s something that has never left our minds.
Another quick one was actually just last year. The addition to the main office that contains the cremation chamber naturally has an exhaust. I was sleeping one night late-November when Kimmy shook me awake. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me to look at the office. I got up and went to the window, and saw that from the exhaust there was thick smoke pluming out, as if a body were being cremated. Seeing as we’re the ones who operate the crematorium, and neither of us were there, this absolutely should not have been happening.
I had Kimmy call the police while I went over to check on things; a fire of over a thousand degrees was likely burning inside, one way or another it had to be turned off as quickly as possible, at the very least controlled. All the lights were off and the doors were locked, as they were every night. I went inside, and the inside of the retort was bright with flames, but there was nothing inside it. We meticulously clean the cremation chamber after each use, and while the flames alone would likely produce some kind of smoke, the smoke that we saw coming from the exhaust was the kind of thick, gray and black smoke that could only be produced by something actually physically burning.
I shut it off and went around to check the windows and postern doors, which were all intact and locked. There is a ladder that leads to a ceiling exit, but that too was locked from the inside. The police showed up and took a report, but there was really nothing to be done. It was attributed to someone having left the retort on before leaving, even though Kimmy and I both knew the other hadn’t done that. That’s one that I’ll forever ponder.
I have many, many more, both from my own experience (namely the mausoleums, Halloween nights, and the grass being cut) and instances passed down from my family from years ago. I’ll work on typing those up and posting them soon.
🔔 More stories from author: Nick Botic
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