“For a long time, it was just me and Tim out here,” said Brandon Bumgarner, smoking a cigarette during a work break.
That’s as long as you don’t count the souls buried in the ground and resting in the mausoleum.
Bumgarner and Tim Bongiorni are the two full-timers in a four-man grounds crew at Florence Memorial Gardens off of South Cashua Drive. Bumgarner has been digging graves and repairing grounds machinery for a little more than four years.
Bongiorni has been here for 22 years. He works on about 180 internment, inurnment or entombments per year.
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“There isn’t a spot on this cemetery these feet haven’t touched,” he said.
Many people think about death, of course. But the people who do the grave-digging, most likely strangers to the bodies they are burying, are often overlooked. Grave-digging – which today most often involves mechanized equipment but still a healthy dose of shovel, dirt and muscle – mixes a closeness to and distance from the dead.
“We’re hired to do a job,” Bongiorni said. “You just do your job.”
The entire job, it seems, is built around real tasks and unwritten rules that attempt to convey respect to the dead.
Cut the grass. Replace the flowers.
“It’s flat, it’s clean,” Bongiorni said, explaining what he hopes to achieve after every burial. “That’s out of respect to the family members that come back. We don’t want them coming back to a mess. It could be my mom there. I want it to look nice.”
But “not every grave is the same,” said Bumgarner, who wears a coffin tattoo on his chest.
Graves for babies and children are dug by hand, and physically and emotionally they are different than an adult grave.
“We had a little kid over here and the vault was half size,” Bongiorni said. “And it looked really weird sitting on top of the ground before they lowered it. You knew there was a little kid in there. I’m not real religious, but I know that they’re going straight to heaven. No ifs, ands or buts.”
Bongiorni’s mother is buried at the cemetery. He didn’t dig the grave. “It was a warm summer day,” he said. “I couldn’t bury my mom. I just didn’t want to put a ton of dirt on my mom.”
He has to maintain her burial marker just like any other at the cemetery. “I don’t do mom’s grave any better than any other one out here,” he said.
Bongiorni already has his burial plot picked out. Right next to his mother.
He hesitates to say he loves his job – telling others that one loves burying people doesn’t always come out right.
“All in all, it’s not that we love our jobs,” he said. “It’s that we have passion in it. I’ve never thought about quitting.”
David Brown, owner of the cemetery, started working at Florence Memorial Gardens within a year of Bongiorni’s start. “We were both brand new to the business,” Brown said. “He is very aware of families. He respects people. People come over here and ask for him.”
Brown believes in the importance of a well-maintained cemetery. Huge blooms of dandelions need to be dealt with. Fire-ant colonies can remove dirt and undermine the integrity of a burial marker.
“If it didn’t feel comfortable, people wouldn’t come out here,” he said.
Some families have picnics at the cemetery.
“A lot of cultures are judged by how they treat their dead,” Brown said.
And for Bongiorni and his grave-digging crew, that means doing their job well, through migraine headaches and 100-degree weather. “It’s gotta be right,” Bongiorni said.