Gone but not forgotten: Heartaches are part of the job

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 9, 2004

There are the teddy bears and the toy cars and the faded photographs that adorn the graves of the children, of course. Those are always tough. And there are the solitary mourners who can be seen at most any hour of the day placing flowers or just simply kneeling at the grave of their loved one.

In Fred Hall’s line of work you get used to heartrending sights.

“There are some people that visits the graveyard four, five times a day,” confides Hall, whose black Stetson hat and belt buckle the size of a ripe grapefruit make him appear to be as much cowboy as cemetery groundskeeper.

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“They come at seven in the morning, they come at lunch, they come in the middle of the afternoon … and then you’ll see ’em again when we close.”

He pauses before adding, “Course, there’s some you won’t never see anymore after you close the grave.”

Hall is cemetery groundskeeper for the City of Demopolis. It’s his job to make sure that whoever opens and closes the grave does it right, that the grass is mowed and the trash picked up. Mostly he just tries to keep things looking decent.

“I’ve been on the job since ’95 or ’96,” Hall says, adjusting his hat. “No, it’s been longer than that. I’m guessing it was ’94. You know how time flies.”

Doubtless those who now call Riverside Cemetery home would agree with that last sentiment.

It is a warm late winter day with brilliant sunshine that portends the approach of spring. Hall is cleaning flowers from the graves at Riverside. Cut flowers are good for four or five days in this kind of weather, less once the summer heat kicks in. Artificial flowers keep a lot longer, but even they don’t last forever. When they start to look too ratty, Hall piles them in the back of his pickup truck along with the other trash he collects during his rounds.

And, while he tries to be lenient, he must also remove the assorted mementoes people place on the graves of their loved ones. It is against cemetery bylaws to leave objects on a grave due to the hazard they present to workers should they be caught in a lawnmower or weed trimmer.

While Hall does not consider his chosen profession morbid, neither does he discount the opportunities for reflection that it affords to those so inclined.

“It’s something you get accustomed to,” he allows. “I can’t say you ever get used to it entirely, but you get accustomed to it. Somebody has to do it.”

The job has taught Hall to discern those things he can change and given him a certain stoic acceptance of those he can’t.

He shrugs, “I get blessed out three or four times a week. But I try to put myself in the family’s shoes. They’re undergoing a real stressful time in their lives — which is what I try to convey to the people that we contract to open and close the graves and cut the grass.

“On the whole, most people I deal with are pretty nice. Course, you know as well as I do there’s some people you ain’t going to please no matter how hard you try.”

Given his profession, Hall says it is not uncommon for people to expect him to have profound insights into the meaning of life and death — although he himself makes no such claim. He recalls such questions were in the minds of many in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. His son was among them.

“He was still pretty young when it happened,” Hall says. “But it really bothered him. I told him the way I was taught is that life goes something like this: You can’t worry about tomorrow, because we’re not none of us guaranteed we’re going to see it. So you do your best and when you lay down at night you say your prayers that you’ll be given another chance.”