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Worker reflects on nearly life-long task of digging graves

December 16, 2011
By Sam Shawver ( , The Marietta Times

The phrase "six feet under" hasn't applied to the grave-digging industry for some time, according to Tommy Burke-and he should know.

"I've been digging graves practically all my life," Burke, 44, said. "And since I began the graves have always been four feet deep.

"I think the idea that graves are 6 feet down probably started years ago when people were afraid animals might dig them up," he said.

Article Photos

SAM SHAWVER The Marietta Times
Tommy Burke, left, of Burke’s Farm and Backhoe Service in Lowell, and assistant George Hill open a grave site Tuesday.
morning at the Riverview Cemetery in Williamstown.

Bill Shingleton, who delivers vaults to area cemeteries for Carr Concrete Corp., agreed.

"Back then they buried people in wood boxes, not concrete vaults," he said. "I know of less than a dozen graves that are six feet deep."

Burke, Shingleton, and Burke's assistant, George Hill, were preparing a grave site for a burial in Williamstown's Riverview Cemetery Tuesday morning.

It was the first of two vault deliveries for Shingleton that day.

"I'll have to go back to the plant and pick up another vault to take to Parkersburg for a 3 p.m. burial," he said. "It could be a long day."

Burke, from Lowell, operates Burke's Farm and Backhoe Service, which provides grave-digging and maintenance services for at least 15 area cemeteries in Washington and Wood counties. His father, Donald Burke, Sr., started the business in 1981.

"Dad began at the Rainbow Cemetery in Muskingum Township, where a lot of our family is buried," Burke said. "I took the business over in 1992. Dad's 82 now but still helps out in the business and on our farm."

In addition to digging, mowing, and other maintenance services for area graveyards, Burke also runs a farm, raising Angus beef cattle, as well as performs some backhoe work on municipal and township water and sewer lines.

"I always seem to have something to do," he said. "We also re-seed graves and level gravestones that have fallen over."

Burke noted that the grave-digging business has resulted from the needs of modern society.

"It used to be that families would get together and dig graves when they were needed but with the coming of the industrial age there were more people who didn't have time to dig and maintain grave sites," he said.

Burke prefers to open grave sites with his backhoe and said he's only dug one grave by hand.

"It was in the late 1980s and for some reason this family wanted the grave hand-dug, so my dad said we would do it," he said. "That's a bunch of work, especially when you have mechanical digging equipment."

Burke said he always uses the backhoe now but added there are some cemeteries that don't allow the operation of mechanical equipment on their property.

Although there will be a continual need for grave-digging, the work can be sporadic and the hours aren't always the greatest.

"But we're better than the post office-working rain or shine, and even on holidays," Burke said. "I had to dig a grave just last Sunday, another on Monday and one more on Friday last week."

He also works in the most frigid of temperatures.

Even on the coldest days the ground in this area is never frozen more than about 6 inches below the surface, he said.

"But you still have to break that topsoil loose before you can dig," Burke said, adding that a worse situation is when a freshly-dug grave occasionally fills with water.

Shingleton has had some personal experience with the water-filled holes that have to be cleared before a vault can be lowered into the grave.

"I just have to use a bucket on a rope to bail out the water," he said. "It can take some time."

Burke keeps a pump in his truck in case he runs into a water problem.

"I guess I've dug graves in nearly every cemetery in this area," he said. "Every year we dig about 250, including some for cremations."

Graves for urns containing the remains are posthole-size, about a foot square, Burke said.

"We see more of those every year," he said. "It seems to be catching on."

Burke began digging graves with his father at a young age and has worked in the business ever since.

"I thought it was kind of a weird business when I first started working with my dad," he said. "But someone has to do it.

"It's not something you can just start doing with a backhoe," Burke said. "It takes some experience to know how to dig a grave. Many times you're working in a very crowded space and can easily dig into an adjacent grave site."

He said rocks can also pose a problem and large ones may have to be jack-hammered out in order to open a grave.

"One time when I was working alone it took eight hours to dig a grave because I had to use the jackhammer," Burke said.

After digging the grave and lowering the vault into the ground at Riverview Cemetery Tuesday, Burke, Hill and Shingleton placed grass-like carpeting around the site, erected a blue canopy and placed several blue velvet-covered folding chairs where family members would sit during the graveside ceremony later that morning.

Asked how they feel about their work preparing grave sites for the dead, Shingleton said it's like many other occupations.

"It's just a job we do, and it brings a paycheck," he said.

Burke said digging graves and putting up monuments has never been an issue for him. But one thing he doesn't like to see is vandalism and destruction of grave sites.

"They don't put fences around graveyards to keep the dead people in," he said. "It's the live ones outside the fence you really have to grave sites about."



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