Grave digger: Local man digs dirty jobSteve Meyer stands in a rectangular hole with his shirt off, perspiration beaded on his forehead, shovel in hand. The job he has been employed to do is back-breaking, dirty work, but also a necessary function in our society.
By: By Jarell E. Kuney, New Richmond News
Steve Meyer stands in a rectangular hole with his shirt off, perspiration beaded on his forehead, shovel in hand. The job he has been employed to do is back-breaking, dirty work, but also a necessary function in our society.
Meyer is a grave digger, a role he has played for the past 37 years.
He got started in this rather unusual occupation when his friend’s father, Willard Anderson, was caretaker of the Oakland Cemetery in Star Prairie. The grave digger at Oakland retired, and Anderson needed someone to dig a grave there.
Meyer, then age 20, and Anderson’s son, Tom, took the job, and then just kept digging graves after that first one. The year was 1975. By the mid-1980s, Meyer and Anderson were hired to also dig graves in the New Richmond Cemetery.
Digging a standard, full-sized grave that is 4 feet wide, 8 feet long and 4.5 feet deep takes Meyer approximately two and a half hours to finish. At an average of 13 to 20 graves per year, Meyer estimates he has interred approximately 400 people’s remains in St. Croix County during his long career.
During the early days of digging, he said they would go through about four shovels per year. Now, with fewer graves being dug, Meyer figures they need to replace only one shovel per year.
When asked why graves in New Richmond are still dug by hand instead of using the more modern backhoe method, Meyer explained that there is a lot more risk when using a backhoe.
“You never know what you are going to run into once you start digging,” Meyer commented, “especially in the older sections of the cemetery.”
If the older grave is off center by very much, damage can be done to the adjacent container. Hand digging a grave allows for adjustments and tolerances to be made.
Prior to 1960, graves in Wisconsin were not required to contain concrete vaults, although vaults were being used in some burials as early as the 1940s. According to Meyer, a wooden casket could simply be buried without a vault.
The law was changed to require concrete vaults because wooden caskets eventually rot and break down, which could cause leakage into the soil, and potentially contaminate the groundwater.
Some years ago when digging a grave in the Oakland Cemetery, Meyer said he and Anderson hit some rocks three feet down. When he lifted one of the rocks out of the grave, Meyer discovered that it was not a rock but a human skull. Upon closer examination of the rest of the “rocks”, they found leg bones and other parts of a human skeleton.
Since the body had apparently been buried in an unmarked grave (or the burial record and marker were lost), without the benefit of a casket, Meyer said they speculated that it was very old. As a result they could not identify the remains. Instead of moving those bones from that final resting place, they simply buried that skeleton deeper into the ground, and placed the new vault on top of the unidentified remains.
When asked if he ever had to dig a grave for someone he knew, like a relative or a friend, Meyer said he and Anderson had dug the graves for both of their fathers (Robert Meyer and Willard Anderson). While it made the digging much more personal, it was also a good way to keep the men occupied during difficult times in their lives. He said he has also dug graves for several friends.
“But the hardest graves to dig are for children,” Meyer commented, “because they have had their lives cut short.”
For most of Meyer’s long grave digging career, he has dug standard sized graves. However, in recent years, cremations have become a much more common practice. A burial for cremains requires a hole that is 16 inches square by 36 inches deep.
He estimates that in the past two years, the number of cremations has increased substantially, and now approximately half of all burials in the New Richmond Cemetery are for cremains.
Mary McGee, secretary/treasurer of the New Richmond Cemetery Association, concurs. She believes that the main reason for the increase in cremations is pure economics. The cost of a standard burial with the required concrete vault and casket has at least doubled in the past 10 years, causing many people to opt for a cremation at a fraction of the cost.
Meyer also talked about some of the difficulties encountered in grave digging such as tree roots, rocks and occasional cave-ins from sandy soil, which was especially an issue in the Oakland Cemetery.
Winter burials have their own unique set of problems, Meyer explained. Ten years ago, the New Richmond Cemetery Association invested in a propane gas heater which, when placed over the area where the grave is to be dug, thaws the ground. During the early part of the winter, it takes approximately one day of operating the heater to sufficiently thaw the ground for digging. Later in the winter, he said, it can take up to two days or more to thaw the ground.
In spite of the challenges of winter burials, Meyer admitted that he actually prefers the digging when the weather is cooler. To dig a grave in the heat of summer is much more grueling, he said.
Prior to getting a heater for winter burials, the cemetery association would use the cement block storage building on the cemetery grounds as a cold storage facility for deceased that needed to wait until spring for internment.
“One winter,” Meyer revealed, “we had as many as 18 caskets in storage.”
Some were being kept for neighboring cemeteries, but the majority were to be interred in New Richmond.
“When spring arrived, we had to dig as many as four graves per week just to catch up with the backlog,” Meyer recalled.
One of the more unusual burials Meyer encountered was when a husband and wife died within a few days of one another, requiring the difficult task of digging side-by-side graves. In another more recent burial, the family specified that the deceased had wanted to be buried with his feet pointed toward the New Richmond High School (now the New Richmond Middle School).
In order to accommodate this request, the family was required to buy two burial plots so the casket could be angled appropriately.
In his early days of grave digging, Meyer commented, being in the cemetery gave him “creepy” feelings and he never stayed there past dark. Nowadays, it gives him a certain sense of peace and serenity.
McGee was not sure when the New Richmond Cemetery was first established or which is the oldest grave, but grave markers suggest that people had been buried there as early as the 1860s. To date, she said, 3,468 remains reside in the cemetery.
Of those, 37 were buried there in June 1899, the year the deadly tornado leveled a large portion of New Richmond, killing a total of 117 people and destroying or damaging 300 buildings.
The New Richmond Cemetery is operated by the New Richmond Cemetery Association. Currently serving on the cemetery board are Joseph Langer, Wayne Tubbs, Vilas Rice, John Beebe, Ralph Carlson, John Helling, Mary McGee and Steve Meyer.
For Meyer, who grew up in the Cedar Lake and Osceola area, grave digging is a part-time occupation. His regular, full-time job is at the St. Croix Press as a press operator.
How much longer he will continue to dig graves he is not sure, but the physical labor serves to keep him in shape. His friend, Tom Anderson, quit the grave digging business a few years ago.
Now Meyer’s only companion in the cemetery while he digs is his dog, Tucker.