Emery T. Steffey remembers his first day at work:
"There was a funeral the next day, so I had to dig the grave. I started out digging, and was going pretty good. When I was about halfway done, the supervisor came over and told me he had bad news. I said, 'What bad news? Aren't I doing a good job? He said, yeah you're doing a great job. But the grave's in the wrong place."
That was March 15, 1926, and Steffey has been the head gravedigger at Glenwood Cemetery in northeast Washington ever since. "That supervisor said to be a gravedigger you need two things: a weak mind and a strong body." The 76-year-old, ruddy-cheeked man laughed. "I guess that's me."
His 54-year career has not been particulary pleasant, he said, "but somebody's got to do it. My theory is, when you bury somebody that's the last thing on earth you can do for them."
As a profession, gravedigging has never been popular. The hours were long, the pay low and the prestige even lower. Armed with a pick and shovel, the man sweated through summers and froze through winters, shoveling dirt so the dead could rest.
Still, there were pleasures.
Walking through the lush green grounds, resting up against a cool headstone beneath a tall shade tree, a graveyard could be heaven on earth. For many gravediggers, it still is.
Horace Fegrguson stuck his shovel in a mound of dirt and lit up a Camel. At 78, he is perhaps the oldest gravedigger in the Washington area. "I used to be wild, chasing the girls. And I've drunk enough whiskey to flood a battleship.But I've worked all my life. I don't even know how it feels to be tired," he said in a raspy voice.
"Every time I dig up a grave, I look for the skull. If I ever find one, I'm going to wash it up, polish it and hang it on the wall as a souvenir. As long as it doesn't start talking. If it did, I'd have to bring it right back here."
Ferguson started digging graves with his father as a child. They were paid $5 a grave. Fifteen years ago, he began digging graves full time for the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Churchin Alexandria.
He is a familiar sight in the neighborhood, wearing high-top black sneakers, striped suspenders, a cap covering a shock of curly white hair and riding his moped to work every morning.
He whistles while he digs.
'Usually a religious hymn, or something," he said the other day at Colman's Cemetery in Alexandria where he figured he had dug a few hundred graves. Years ago, he considered buying a backhoe, then decided not to. It takes him only a few hours to dig a grave 8-feet long, 3-feet wide and 4-feet deep.
A few weeks ago, he dug nine graves in six days. Although cremations are cutting into the business more than ever, the work is steady. "People are dying like flies," he said. "More people in the world, more people dying." He now gets $90 a grave.
But the profession, he said, will most likely become extinct."Young people today don't want to dig graves," he said. "They don't want to work at all."
People make fun of him, he said, when they find out he's a gravedigger. "But somebody's got to do it. Besides, it's the safest place in the world. Nobody's going to bother you in a graveyard."
Feguson said he will retire when "they're ready to put me in here." But he won't dig his own grave. "Oh no, I'll let somebody else do that."
Godfrey Hewlett, 40-year-old head gravedigger at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington, leaned against a white tombstone in the breezy afternoon sun. "I love it here," he said. "I didn't like inside work. I'd see the same people doing the same thing day after day."
He said he worked at Gusti's Restaurant as a cook, then joined the grounds crew at Washington National Cathedral before coming to Mount Olivet in 1962. "Here it never gets monotonous, because you dig a different grave every day."
During the heavy season (late fall, early winter), Hewlett digs five or six graves a day. It used to take him seven hours to dig a grave 5 feet deep and 8 feet long. Now the orange back hoe, its huge body whirring and bucking, can churn one out in 20 minutes.
Most people buy concrete liners and vaults, which are lowered into the ground by machine. Then the dirt is filled in and sod placed on top.
In 1962, Hewlett earned $67 for a six-day week. Several years ago, the men joined a union. They were, Hewlett said, the first cemetery in Washington to have a union shop. Now, the salary is approximately $250 a week for 5 days, with sick leave and vacation. They also received new titles: wmachine operators.
The union, he said, was "the best thing that's ever happened here."
Ask Hewlett to describe life in a cemetery and he'll shake his head. "I've seem some wierd things," he said, reciting a checklist of the macabre. "One time I had to dig up the grave of a woman who had been buried for five years. The body was decomposed, but her hair had kept on growing. It was white and real long."
One morning they found the body of a woman who had often visited her husband's grave. She had suffered a heart attack on his tombstone.
One Washington real estate mogul, who had been married twice, insisted on being buried between his two dead wives "to keep them from arguing," Hewlett said.
Another man buried his mother in the middle of six lots. "He didn't want anyone else near her," the gravedigger said.
The "gypsies," Hewlett said, are the most flamboyant. "They have parties at the burial. They dance, drink, eat, cry and throw money in the grave."
Perhaps the most bizarre incident involved a young woman whose husband had died in a car accident a year before. The widow would show up at the cemetery, and sunbathe on his tombstone in her bikini.
But for all the ghoulish goings-on Hewlett said he's not a superstitious man. "Only the living can hurt you," he said.
As for his own demise, Hewlett said he'd prefer to be cremated, saving his family the unnecessary costs of a funeral and burial. "It's a big rip-off, really, burying people."
The average costs of a funeral today in the United States is $1,400, according to a government study. In Washington, the cost can easily be twice that amount.
"In this life, nothing's free," said Frank Markowski, general marketing manager for six Catholic cemeteries in the Washington area. "The costs of interment is soaring, because land is getting scarcer, the business is getting more competitive. The cost of digging graves is skyrocketing."
Not to mention the cost of bronze (for caskets), granite (for headstones) and engraving. "It's like buying a car," he said, noting all the options, including a grave with a view.
"This woman refused to be buried in this lovely lot on a hill because it was behind a column. She said she wouldn't be able to see anything," he said.
Markowski said he was astonished to discover how bizarre the business can be. "We have women who buy their husbands plots and bury them. The next year they come back and say they've changed their minds. They want to be somewhere else. Women also have a fear of water in the grave. And Italians want to be above ground.Don't ask me why."
Cremations, he said, are less expensive (costing about $500) and are definitely rising in popularity. The cremains, as the ashes are officially called, can be buried in small plots or stored in a cemetary's mausoleum. Crematories, Markowski said, "are extremely popular on the West Coast. It's the coming trend in the industry."
Peter Wilson, a softspoken 28-year-old native of South Carolina, came to Washington in 1966 as a Senate page, dropped out of George Washington University and three years ago went to work at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, the ritziest resting place in town.
The cemetery has no more lots to sell, only small plots to store cremains. Like other crowded graveyards, there is no room for a back hoe, so all the graves are still dug by hand.
"It's a peaceful place to work, a contemplative environment," said Wilson, who earns $160 a week as a cemetery groundkeeper and occasional gravedigger. "I enjoy digging graves. It seems to satisfy some primeval urge to dig in the earth. I like being around death. It reminds me of the transitory nature of the body. My parents think it's wierd, I guess, but mostly I just like being outdoors."
Wilson works with another 28-year-old, Ann Smith, one of the area's only female gravediggers.
"It's hard work," Smith said. "But I don't know whether I'd ever admit that to the guys."
Smith said she always had a fascination with cemeteries. "I knew I wanted to work in one," she said. A professional musician (she plays and teaches the viola), Smith graduated from Michigan State University and began working at Oak Hill nearly four years ago. "I generally say I'm a gardener. When I say I'm a gravedigger, the reactions are varied. It runs the gamut from 'How grotesque' to 'What a nice job.' But I've never associated cemeteries with death. To me, it's a peaceful private forest."
The term "six feet under" no longer applies, gravediggers say, since most of the graves dug in the last several decades have been five feet deep, or less. Years ago, when pine boxes were used, the extra depth was necessary to prevent the ground from sinking once the boxes started to rot. Now, with the use of concrete liners and vaults, the problem has been eliminated.
Of course, if family members choose to be buried "double depth" (one on top of each other) as opposed to "regular depth" (side by side), the graves are deeper.
R.J. Constanzo, superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, wears a tie tack with a small shovel on it:
"We don't call them gravediggers anymore," he said. "Now they're known as engineer equipment operators. I guess the new term sounds prestigious."
Arlington Cemetery, the largest burial ground in the country has 170,000 occupied graves. Sylvester Smith figured he's filled 50,000 of them over a 33-year career.
"I came here when I was 17 and worked my way up to gravedigger," he said.After a stint in the Army, Smith returned to make grave digging his life's occupation.
"At first we got 52 cents an hour. Now the back hoe operators get $10 an hour," he said. The machines arrived in 1955, he said, and now most of the graves are machine dug. "The quickest grave I ever dug by hand was 45 minutes. It made me feel great," he said.
Sometimes the men buried 19 people a day. "One time I was digging a grave and my foot went through to the one underneath. That kind of shook me," Smith said.
But there's one day at Arlington none of the men will forget, especially Clifton Pollard, the 59-year-old worker who dug the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
It was Sunday morning at 10 a.m. two days after Kennedy had been shot, Pollard said. "It took me 30 minutes to dig the grave using a backhoe. It was 8 feet long, 5 feet deep and 3 feet wide. It was a funny feeling when I first started out. But it was an honor, too. I felt so proud afterward. It's a feeling that will never leave me."
Pollard also dug the grave of former CIA director Allen Dulles, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Clair Chennault. "There's so many, I can hardly keep them straight," he said.
Pollard retired last week after 36 years. "It's a thankless job," he said sadly. "Very few people want to do it."
Jim Thompson's calloused hands bear the brunt of digging thousands of graves. He shows a few to a visitor. "Bozo," "Scoopie," "Pitty Pat" and "Powder Puff" rest in peace next to "Pierre," "Stinky" and "Bijou."
For the last 12 years, Thompson has been digging graves at the Aspen Hill Pet Cemetery in Silver Spring. "I always liked dirt anyway," he said.
The cemetery, which dates to 1920, holds the remains of "Jigs," the RKO-Keith English bulldog featured in the "Our Gang" comedies, and eight of the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's dogs.
"There are 39,000 pets buried here," he said. Dogs, cats, horses, ponies, gerbils, turtles, goldfish, monkeys, hamsters and the remains of 20 humans who wanted to be buried near their pets.
The cost is $200 and the animals are buried in children's caskets. It takes Thompson 35 minutes to hand dig the graves, which are usually 3 feet deep.
"I used to get a lump in my throat," Thompson said, noting that he wants to be cremated and buried in the Aspen Hill Pet Cemetery. "You know, they say you have to bury people because it's law. Here, they bury out of love."