An Interview with my Dad, the Gravedigger
Starting from an early age, I would proudly boast to anyone who would listen that my dad was a gravedigger — which he is! Sure, his “official” title is cemetery grounds keeper (but that just doesn’t sound as cool!), and he truthfully does a lot more than just dig graves. But he’s still a gravedigger! He’s also the man I credit for getting me into horror and, ultimately, leading me to write for this website. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him about his work an his love for the genre. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
INTERVIEW WITH GRAVEDIGGER STEVE TOLLE
So Dad, how long have you been grave digging?
I started working in the cemetery the summer of 1982 when I was 21. I worked through a temp. service for 2 years, mostly cutting grass. Then I was hired by the cemetery to work seasonal March – Dec. until 1992 when I made a year-around employee.
What does your average work day look like? How does it vary?
My work varies daily depending on the season, the weather and number of funerals each day. If not attending to funerals I spent most winter days shoveling snow, in the spring we spend a lot of time cleaning up debris left over from the fall cleanup of leaves which is the biggest job in the autumn. During the summer I spend much of my time keeping the grounds in a safe and neat order according to our rules and helping the many visitors we have at that time of year. When a family desires to move a deceased family member to a different location within (or out of) the cemetery I am chosen to do the exhumation because I have the patience and skill to do a safe and through job.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering doing what you’re doing?
You must like to work outside in any weather and be able to be handle people in very distressed states of mind. You must have enough strength and endurance to do some very repetitive physical labor on a daily basis.
I know you consider yourself a taphophile and are therefore fascinated with death and how different cultures handle it. What can we learn from the way different cultures handle death?
Our way is definitely not the only or maybe not even the best way to handle death. Every culture develops their own style of mourning but every person has to face death and learn how to grieve and hopefully continue living their life.
Did your love for the horror genre inform your decision to become a gravedigger? Has it informed how you treat or experience your profession?
I guess it fueled a morbid curiosity in me at a young age. So when the chance came to work at the cemetery I thought it would be interesting and a big shift from the two years I spent previously working in a microfilm factory. No, the horror genre rarely creeps into my mind at work. But sometimes mostly around Halloween time it is fun to imagine certain scary stories happening in the real world.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen and or had to do?
One time I was doing an exhumation of an 11 year old girl from a very old grave. She was the last one of a long list of removals one spring. Me and my co-worker Tony had to pick up the rusty, dirt encrusted casket to put it in a hearse when the bottom gave way and she fell out right on to our feet. Our boss at the time was standing there and bolted away yelling at us to take care of it. So, then we had to pick the body up and slide her back into the now upside down casket to be taken to the mausoleum for entombment. I will never forget her, a dried leathery face and long spidery hair over the white satin dress she wore.
What’s one of the grossest things you’ve seen and or had to do?
The grossest thing was to track down and remove the source of a terribly putrid smell in the cemetery to a large gravesite in one of our old sections where someone had buried numerous pig heads on this one family’s graves. Probably some kind of vengeful Voo Doo or Gypsy magic which I know to be harmless unless you are a true believer in the magic which I am not.
Why do you think death, and horror fascinates you? Why do you think it fascinates others?
Because after all this time on Earth mankind does not really know for certain what happens after death other than the physical decomposition of our bodies and that is very frightening.
Like your son, you have a large library of books on death and horror. What books in your library do you consider essential reading for beginning horror fans and taphophiles? What books do you consider essential reading for seasoned horror fans and taphophiles?
I am drawn to vampire stories because I love the idea of immortality. To have all the time in the world to do anything and everything. And a well told ghost story is always fun. Any books of interesting epitaphs is always an easy way to start a cemetery library, then famous people’s deaths and it grows from there as you peruse book stores or Amazon.
What film, book or TV show, etc. (in the horror genre) has come the closest to portraying your profession accurately?
None that I know of, gravediggers are just people doing a job which is hard, monotonous labor. We see the aftermath of death every day and must be able to let it go so we can enjoy our lives; which can be a challenge at times.