CAMAS — On a sunny late October day, leaves whose lives had recently come to an end gently floated to the ground, finding a home on any one of Fern Prairie Cemetery’s 1,300 occupied graves.
That is, until William “Will” Zalpys shoos them away. As a commissioner for Clark County Cemetery District 1 and a maintenance worker for the city of Vancouver, Zalpys oversees the grounds of three cemeteries in Vancouver, in addition to the Camas-area graveyard.
“Here (at Fern Prairie) I almost do everything. I have a double title; I’m the elected commissioner and I’m the chairman. I have the title of the sexton, which means I run the burial grounds,” he said.
But on that Wednesday, Zalpys was tending to other work. He ushered in a large funeral procession and helped a local funeral director place bouquets of flowers on the grave of a man in his 20s whose life had recently ended.
“You usually get a lot of people when they’re that young,” Zalpys said, directing dozens of cars filing in for the burial service. “It’s sad.”
The gig at Fern Prairie supplements Zalpys’ day job with the city of Vancouver, where he oversees maintenance at Park Hill Cemetery, Vancouver City Cemetery and Fisher Cemetery.
In Clark County, rural areas are broken into cemetery districts, which are maintained through a property tax. Fern Prairie employs three commissioners and a secretary, and a student who helps occasionally. At Fern Prairie, Zalpys only works about eight hours a week. On special occasions, he will leave his job with the city to take care of Fern Prairie.
“I took an hour-and-a-half vacation time today off my first job because I knew (the funeral) was going to be big. But on average, I work at least eight hours (a week) and in springtime, it could be more,” Zalpys said.
He doesn’t do any grave digging, though. These days, he said, that is done by contractors hired by the funeral homes.
Quality of life
Zalpys started working in cemeteries in 1997, after escaping busy Los Angeles for “quality of life” reasons, he said. He worked as the head groundskeeper at UCLA for 10 years.
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“This has been the most stressless job I’ve ever had. Compared to UCLA: beepers and phones and earthquakes and all sorts of stuff,” Zalpys said. “Then I got the cemetery. I like history, so it was a fit for me. I like doing the grounds. A little inside, a little outside.”
When he was elected to run Fern Prairie in 2002, there was an overhaul, he said. The previous commissioner resigned after some alleged mishandling of finances, Zalpys said.
“It was a bad situation when they were here. But that’s OK, it’s really nice now. All these plants, that’s Will. He’s done it all. It was just shabby. The road was gravel,” said district Secretary Eileen Abernathy, 86, who has worked at Fern Prairie Cemetery since 2002. She works on Tuesdays.
“We have two push mowers now. I’m proud of what we’ve done,” she said.
Many cemetery improvements have come from local Boy Scout projects organized by Zalpys. He also started selling natural burial services and added smaller grave plots for cremains.
Additionally, he channeled his love of history into his job by improving signage and grave markers at the cemetery, where the first occupant was laid to rest in 1855. Two Klickitat Indians are buried there. He found the information inscribed on a stone.
“I put a little history of what I found out. I did find out they were Klickitats. I went up to Klickitat County and even found a book that mentions these people,” he said.
‘They’re still around’
Back at the cemetery, more than 100 people had gathered around the young man’s grave, near a Japanese maple with deep red leaves. Zalpys directed the hearse, helped reattach a part of the frame to a photo of the deceased man and placed the photo next to the grave. People could be heard grieving.
“The hardest thing is taking care of babies. I don’t have to do eulogies or speeches, but it’s hard,” Zalpys said. “Sometimes families just don’t know what to do so you step in and help them keep going. You’re looking out for what they need help with.”
Often people think of cemeteries as eerie places, sites for supposed hauntings.
But Zalpys, a Catholic with a Lithuanian heritage, thinks the word “haunted” is too negative.
“Haunted comes with a scary (connotation). For us, this is a place you’d come for the opposite. It’s probably some of my father’s Lithuanian background. The Lithuanians really revered their ancestors,” Zalpys said. “On Facebook recently somebody said there was this old abandoned Lithuanian cemetery in Illinois, and that it was haunted. I wrote ‘Lithuanian cemeteries aren’t haunted because we don’t fear our ancestors’ spirits.’ ”
His parents are buried at Fern Prairie Cemetery, marked by a black gravestone near a dogwood tree. He plans to be buried there too.
“I have their photos on there. I do see them every day, in a way. It is comforting. I’m glad they’re here. My grandparents are back in Chicago; once every 10 years or so do I get to see their grave. Every birthday or occasion I’m still treating them almost like they’re still around,” Zalpys said.