Grave digger: A solemn profession

Evergreen Memorial Gardens grounds foreman takes his works seriously, offering respect to the dead and solace to the living

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

A morning with a grave digger

Greg Melum is the grounds foreman at Evergreen Memorial Gardens in Vancouver.

Greg Melum slowly drove his backhoe down a drenched road to dig a grave in the Garden of Hope.

The Evergreen Memorial Gardens grounds foreman had much to do before the 10 a.m. burial of a 40-year-old Vancouver homemaker. Holding a card with instructions, he led his small grounds crew in the hourlong process of preparing her grave during one of the stormiest mornings in recent memory.

It's difficult, but vital, work. In his 33 years tending to the 80-acre, family-run cemetery — where the dead also are buried in gardens of "Grace," "Faith" and "Time" — 53-year-old Melum has helped usher thousands into the unknown. Whatever that may be.

First, the team laid planks to frame a rectangle on the ground before cutting out squares of heavy sod. Melum shifted the Cat machine's long levers like a puppeteer to maneuver the backhoe's clawed bucket, digging out dirt in wheelbarrow-sized scoops. When the hole was a little more than 5-feet deep it was ready for a cement grave box, a protective tomb for the casket.

The 6-feet-under adage is a misnomer. Caskets, as they come in myriad sizes, are buried at different depths. Another grave on the agenda that morning was a "double dip," where someone is buried about 10 feet down so another coffin can rest on top when the time comes. Loved ones often prefer to be interred together, and stacking caskets is more affordable than being laid side by side.

As the crew was preparing to move to their next assignment, word came from Melum's radio that a hearse was arriving for a gravesite service. The team set up a canopy so visitors could be shielded from the downpour and put plastic chairs in a circle around the freshly dug grave.

When the hearse approached, Melum hustled to help haul the heavy light-pink casket, lifting it onto vaults positioned over the hole.

As he was about to move to another grave, Melum noticed a small splotch on one of the white chairs. He whipped out a paper towel and wiped the dirt away.

"I try to keep everything neat," he said.

Melum's attention to detail isn't lost on his boss, Brad Carlson, who took the reigns of the business after his father died three years ago.

"He takes such pride in his work," Brad Carlson said.

That's because Melum has learned a little care — a clean chair, bouquets arranged a certain way, a path free of fallen leaves — goes a long way for a mourning family. It's the least he can do.

Melum knows very well that such sadness touches everyone at one time or another. After all, death is definitive.

When he tells people he digs graves for a living, Melum said many are intrigued. Some are uncomfortable with the topic.

"It's something we're all going to face some time in our lives," Melum said from inside his musty workshop during a late-morning break. He'd buried two bodies that day and had another planned for after lunch.

He's worked his entire three decades at Evergreen alongside Joe Chipman and Terry Nichols. The other groundskeepers have been with the cemetery between nine and 15 years.

"Those are my youngsters," Melum laughed. "We're all good friends."

There are plenty of jovial times on the job, he said, but sadness still reverberates through the sprawling grounds. It's common for employees to observe people crying over the graves of their loved ones.

One older man makes regular trips to the outdoor mausoleum to press his body against the niche that holds his wife, with a stone wall between his heart and her remains.

Tears are a part of life at a cemetery. They came to Melum in the late 1980s when his mom was entombed. And again a few years later when his dad joined her in their niche built for two.

The last time Melum cried at work was in September when he buried his 25-year-old nephew, who accidently drowned in the Columbia River.

"I look at (his grave) every day," he said.

The toughest burial was for his beloved boss, Will Carlson.

The cemetery owner took Melum under his wing in 1981, hiring the 20-year-old grocery clerk on the spot when he popped in to apply. At the time, Melum was trying to find his path in life, and slogging away at Thriftway wasn't for him.

It quickly felt like more than a job. The cemetery became his second home.

"(Will) treated me like family," Melum said. "He was like an idol to me."

The soft-spoken worker gave his all from the start: removing weeds, cleaning grave markers and constructing casket holders. He eventually pleaded to his mentor that he should become foreman, the one in charge of digging graves for the hundreds ceremonially lowered into the earth every year. Melum got his wish about 13 years ago.

Then in the summer of 2010, 87-year-old Will Carlson was on one of his regular strolls around the cemetery when his heart gave out. He fell and hit his head, never recovering.

Despite his sorrow, Melum knew there was a job to do. He had to bury his friend. Because that's what a gravedigger does.

"When Mr. Carlson passed away and we had to take care of that one, that was the worst for me," he said.

Melum passes by the grave regularly, but there's little time for mourning with work to do. Everyday there's another grieving family, another hole to dig, another flower softly placed on the ground.

Melum isn't planning on it being his turn to go anytime soon. He figures he'll be at Evergreen until retirement, continuing to provide for his wife, Kena, and their two 20-something children as long as he's able. There are also the trips he enjoys, crabbing on the Oregon Coast or taking his quad bike for a ride on Sand Island.

He imagines when he does die he'll be cremated and be put next to his parents in the East View Niche Wall. But he hasn't given that inevitability much thought yet.

There's one thing he's certain of when it comes to dying. Melum believes in heaven, a place where he can "start all over again and be happy." With no more suffering, eternal bliss.

But the afterlife is a reward for the departed. The families are still here and in need of compassion. So Melum will be there behind the scenes to do right by those who pass through Evergreen.

"I'm making them happy as best I can," he said.

Outside his workshop, the rains broke and bright blue blanketed the sky. Gaggles of migrating geese circled overhead, looking for a spot to land and poke around for food.

Melum had another grave to dig before the day was through. The next morning, he would start again.

The work of a gravedigger never ends.

"Every year," he said, "it gets more and more."

Tending to the dead