THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
Preservation and farewell in Greensboro’s city cemeteries
With two bare hands wrapped around the flattipped shovel, Brian Norris doesn’t have to step on the top of the blade with his work boot very hard for it to slide halfway into the earth. Norris works his way around what looks like a metal window frame laying on ground, slipping the blade into the dirt to mark of the edges of the grave.
Sheldon Becton stands in the middle of the rectangular plot, his feet holding a bar in the middle of the metal frame. The backhoe Becton had eased off of a nearby trailer stands idling at the foot of the grave, rumbling gently. To the left, on top of two boards of plywood, a black U-Dump trailer waits too, its bed empty.
The two-man team works silently, removing the frame before Norris notches and removes a triangular section at each corner, which he will toss into the bottom of the finished pit providing just enough breathing room to ease the cables out from underneath the vault and casket. Stepping back from the outline as Becton climbs into the backhoe, Norris lights a cigarette and leans on the U-Dump truck, smoke slipping through his moustache and past his reflective work glasses and white hardhat.
The newest cavity in the Maplewood Cemetery is a short distance from the veterans’ section, closer still to the back fence. Tufts of buttercups poke up a head above the closely cropped grass. Balloons marking Mothers’ Day turn and glint in the half-hearted breeze, performing a low twist and then returning, gesturing slightly when the wind dissipates.
The cemetery itself resembles the proportions of Becton and Norris’ handiwork, almost catty-corner to the southeast corner of NC A&T University and just below East Market Street. It’s small enough to see from edge to edge across the width, but the length and slight roll in the land puts the shorter sides out of sight from each other.
Maplewood is one of the three active cemeteries maintained by the city of Greensboro — active meaning there are still burials, about 250 a year. The city also keeps up Union Cemetery, the oldest black cemetery in town. Founded by four churches when black residents were still banned from Green Hill Cemetery near downtown, Union filled up in 1918, and Maplewood opened to fill the void.
The city’s cemetery division, a part of the parks and recreation department, has dwindled in size in the last few decades from more than 20 people on the maintenance staff to eight with three part-time seasonal workers and a small administrative staff headed by Mike Moye. A former funeral-home director sporting a goatee like a number of his employees, Moye has overseen the division looking after Maplewood, Green Hill, Union and Forest Lawn cemeteries for six years.
The cemeteries are mostly self-contained operations — maintenance workers like Becton and Norris are cross-trained to do everything from opening and closing graves to planting azaleas, channeling storm water, mending fences and cutting down trees when roots interfere with plots. Mowing around headstones is no easy feat — some cemeteries require flat grave markers to streamline the grass-trimming process — but they do it all, operating out of Forest Lawn or Green Hill and splitting the work in Maplewood.
In other ways, the cemeteries operation is simple. Moye isn’t evaluated on how many plots he sells like some for-profit graveyards, and each plot is the same price regardless of its “view” or location: $1,200 after an upcoming $150 hike, the first in seven or eight years, he says. Vandalism or theft of bronze markers is rare compared to other cities, and the ground is never too cold to open a grave. Services, headstones, caskets and vaults are all handled by outside organizations.
THE DEEPENING HOLE
Under Becton’s direction, the backhoe stretches downward, its claw designed to be the exact width of a grave opening and blades on the sides to assist with a clean cut. Scratch marks run along most of the head of the hole, made by the stubby, forklike claw tip. An extra hardhat and a small US flag rest by Becton’s knee as he adjusts the backhoe’s levers at Norris’ direction, trying to work a rock the size of the claw out of the way. The U-Dump starts to fill up — a typical grave creates two or three loads, Becton says — and the backhoe occasionally emits a grunt, heaving the earth loose.
Becton never anticipated he would end up doing this type of work. He laughs when asked how he started in this field, and says his friends still tease him about his unusual profession sometimes.
“My job is not the most important in the world, but you can’t mess up,” Becton says. “You have to care.”
It’s easy to see that he does. He is affable and has a gentle, open demeanor, and he talks about his job with a level of contentment.
There’s some salt in his goatee now, after 22 years working in cemeteries. He left Guilford Memorial Cemetery, the largest in the city according to Moye, when a job opened up with the city 14 years ago.
Becton started when he was 19, making almost double the minimum wage after being set up with the gig through a summer youth program where he grew up in Washington, DC. He moved to Greensboro to briefly study computer science at NC A&T State University before returning to his cemetery skill set.
“I always figured I’d be working behind somebody’s computer,” Becton says, adding that he appreciates that he’s able to work outside. Who wouldn’t on a soft May day like this, watching Becton peel back the layers of rich soil in a quiet expanse?
Shawn Bulla stands a few paces from the backhoe, watching the men work. He isn’t part of Becton’s team, based at Forest Lawn, or Norris’ at Green Hill — he’s a vault man. He’s only been on the job for 15 months, including a three-month training period, finding the gig with Carolina DORIC in Snow Camp after briefly as a gravedigger.
As Becton’s trench starts to reach its full depth, exposing dirt in multiple shades of brown and a streak of grey, Bulla notes the water pooling at one end. Sometimes, if there’s too much, he says, the grave needs to be pumped or the water could cause the casket to float up. This time it’s okay, and after Norris checks the height of the neat pit using a notch in his shovel, the city employees clear out until the afternoon — it’s a same-day service and burial, and they’ll be back in four hours to fill in the hole.
The job isn’t all digging graves and filling them in, but death is more present than in most lines of work. Everyone isn’t cut out for it. You see things. Not ghosts or zombies, but a man who comes to visit his son every day. Burying a daughter a few days after laying her mother to rest because the stress of death was too much. A woman sobbing, harder than you’ve ever seen someone cry probably, just sitting in the same spot and weeping for an entire day.
Becton recalls one co-worker who got sick when they were exhuming a baby’s grave because he started to think about his son. Employees like that don’t last. The ones who do talk about death with a tone of acceptance.
“To me dying is just a part of life,” Moye says, an unsurprising line from the former funeral director. “We don’t have any type of control over it generally.”
While some people, like Becton, extract a level of peacefulness from spending time in what is basically a park where people happen to be buried, when Moye visits cemeteries in other cities, it’s not about serenity, but his occupation. He knows he couldn’t be a steel worker, walking on beams by the top of a building, just like some people can’t stomach working in a cemetery. But this is his calling.
THE VAULT MAN
The silly bands around his left wrist give away Bulla’s fatherhood status — his daughter put them there a few days before and he just left them — and he recently struggled with a burial of a mother and her baby who died in a car accident. Death might bother him sometimes, but like Becton and Moye, he is detached enough to make it work, which he plans to do indefinitely.
Death may be more present in his thoughts because of the danger of a misstep while working with a 3,000-pound vault than his proximity to the recently deceased.
“This job right here will kill you,” he says, pausing to count the number of times he wrapped a metal cord around a crank on either side of the grave. “It ain’t hard, but as soon as you get comfortable that’s when you mess up.”
Bulla’s company specializes in vaults, from plain concrete ones — “grave liner vaults” like this one in Maplewood — to elaborate, steel-topped personalized designs with anything from an 18-wheeler to a family pet. He’s seen vaults emblazoned with the Harley Davidson logo, Duke or UNC colors and a picture of a church. For six or seven days every week, Bulla travels to burials like this one, working between 5 and 14 hours a day depending on how far it is from his home in Graham, and sets up an elaborate crank system to lower the casket and vault into the grave.
“It’s a real interesting job,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. I wish I got into it 15 years earlier.”
The 39-year-old’s friendliness is detectable through his gruff voice, and Bulla explains what he is doing with each step. His care and precision are evident in his process, checking and double-checking everything, readjusting the placement of what seems like pieces of a Rube Goldberg machine repeatedly.
“Once you get set up it ain’t nothing but a waiting game,” Bulla says, referring to his daily process in terms that could be describing life and death more generally.
It takes a couple of hours for Bulla to prepare for a service, complete with Astroturf grass, chairs and usually a tent. This funeral service is minimal — the deceased was in the care of social services — so no tent, six chairs and the basic vault will do.
“I try to do every service like I was going to bury my momma,” he says, crouching to measure “aluminum skids” with a level and peering at it from under a camouflaged UNC hat.
He’s seen $20,000 caskets and all sorts of designs on vaults, but hasn’t thought much about what he would want on his own. A pond, maybe, with deer, ducks and other wildlife he says.
The lid is sometimes set at an angle — very dangerous, he says — but this one is wheeled off the vault and rests flat in the air, waiting. Bulla scrounges up a stick and breaks off a small piece as an additional safety to keep the lid from rolling back.
Then he steps inside of the open vault, which rocks gently on two metal cords mostly underground, adding the final pieces to lower the casket into the vault before waiting for the hearse to arrive.
The four cemeteries It seems like there is an endless amount to discover in a cemetery — people nicknamed “Pouch,” a tree as old as the Civil War, the family name of a neighbor and a coworker, a friend’s full name on a headstone, someone named “Zebulon” and another named “Snookie,” a marker with a lighthouse and a boat, the cemetery gatekeeper’s house, the artistry of headstones and monuments… There is so much individual and collective history preserved, so much to mull over and so much that can’t be known. Each of the four has a distinct character, landscape and feel, alternating between neat rows and intentional clutter and unfolding in their own ways.
A casual visitor at Green Hill Cemetery might miss the monument to 300 Confederate war dead, but not during this time of year. Confederate Memorial Day, celebrated on May 10 in North Carolina, means a fresh round of small Confederate flags near the entrance on Wharton Street, drawing visitors’ attention to a small sign explaining the Confederate burial ground.
What distinguishes Green Hill from the other cemeteries the city manages are the towering monuments and spires, a statue honoring fallen firefighters, a secluded Lunsford-Richardson family plot tucked behind a wall and a small picnic area with tables under a gargantuan tree.
Forest Lawn has several benches of its own, including a few that are elaborate headstones. The cemetery is appropriately named, hidden behind tall pines and two adjoining parks farther west on Battleground Avenue than Green Hill. Wind chimes and a few birdhouses dot trees throughout the cemetery’s domain, which currently encompasses two fresh graves and the occasional balloon. Wreaths clipped to headstones, photographs affixed to markers, an antique-looking picture of a motorcycle reading “The world’s best” and a few trashcans full of fake flowers decorate the terrain. Two bushes blooming with pink flowers look like shoulder pads next to one headstone and a painted US flag adorns a drain cover by the veteran’s section.
Arguably the most interesting headstone in the city, with a multi-paragraph analysis and call to arms on the backside, is the marker for the victims of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre in Maplewood Cemetery. Four of the five labor organizers and anti-racist activists who were killed by the Klan and Nazi coalition are buried around the headstone, which urges visitors to “Live like them. Dare to struggle, dare to win” on the front and calls people to “Fight for revolutionary socialism and workers’ rule” on the back.
Most of the people buried in Maplewood are black, Moye says, which is unsurprising considering it was opened to replace Union Cemetery when it was full. Though it was opened in 1928, Forest Lawn is the most diverse of the city’s cemeteries, Moye says. He mused that, despite racial integration in other parts of life, people often self-segregate when it comes to the very end.
Death, in many ways the great equalizer, didn’t provide common ground across races in Greensboro’s burial sites until the last few generations. Union Cemetery is significantly smaller than the rest, a few blocks south of downtown on Elm Street. Established in 1880 as a burial ground for black residents, it’s the only one of the citymaintained cemeteries that isn’t bound by a fence. Much of the land appears to be empty, an unused field sloping sharply in the back with a stream along the northern edge.
Numerous headstones don’t list a birth date, some referring to an approximate age — many of the inhabitants were likely born into slavery. Some markers are so faded it’s hard to feel or read the engraving, while others bear recognizable names like Hairston, Mendenhall, Price and McAdoo. One headstone is emblazoned with what looks like a Masonic pentagram inside a circle, and while a few are more ornate than others, on the whole it is the simplest of the four cemeteries.
The occasional headstone in each of the scattered cemeteries offers a line exploring the role of memory and death. “What we keep in memory is ours unchanged forever” and “As long as there are memories, there is no death” stick out on different grave markers in Forest Lawn, while one in Union keeps it simple: “Gone but not forgotten.”
Cemeteries offer some permanence, though encroaching moss and 100 years of weather suggest otherwise, but what is being partially immortalized? Becton says he would rather remember people for their lives rather than their deaths, but a cemetery is more of an attempt to create a memory that is “unchanged forever.” Wishful thinking, maybe, but memorializing the dead by permanently preserving a plot of land and carving their name into rock helps ensure that they won’t ever disappear entirely.
Working for the cemeteries division entails more than just digging and filling holes — at least more than just holes for the deceased. As the temperature claws its way past 80 degrees in the early afternoon, Moye oversees four employees at Forest Lawn while they plant red and white encore azaleas that will bloom twice a year.
“There’s more than one kind of hole dug in a cemetery,” Moye says, leaning against a tree and chuckling a little.
Three seasonal employees, who work for the division part-time from May to October, and a fourth regular employee plant 18 of the azaleas by the entrance in less than 20 minutes before repeating the process along a road inside the cemetery.
Forest Lawn, which is set about an eighth of a mile drive from the front gate, is surrounded by parks, a walking path and trees off of Pisgah Church Road. Only two-thirds of the cemetery’s land is being used for burials, Moye says, estimating that the city will still be burying people there in 80 years.
Moye grew up in Georgia halfway between Macon and Atlanta, and you can hear it in his voice. His parents’ best friends were a funeral director and his wife, exposing Moye to the intricacies of the job at an early age. His father didn’t approve of his desired career path, but after going to school for engineering, moving to Greensboro with Bell South in 1978 and traveling all the time, Moye was ready for a career change. He worked a stint as a funeral director with Forbis & Dick before transitioning into his position with the city.
It’s quiet except for a riding mower —more insulated from traffic than the other city cemeteries — and after returning a call to a resident who might buy a plot, Moye lit a cigar before helping the work crew drill more circular holes for the flowering plants.
Bulla watches from a distance with one of the two George Brothers funeral home employees, his khaki work pants and light green shirt with his name sewn on it contrasting their black suits and ties. They stand in plain sight, but even if they were farther away the half dozen people clustered for this sendoff would notice them because the of the stillness of the open field.
Observing the end of the service it is easy for the mind to drift and consider what it would be like to eavesdrop on one’s own funeral unseen, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn peering through the church ceiling. The question ubiquitous in self-help books, “How will you be remembered?” seems inescapable in a cemetery — that is, unless working in one five days a week can overexpose you to death enough that you accept a lack of control over death and grow at least somewhat desensitized to the idea.
The last service attendee slowly loops around the veteran’s section and drives towards the front gate; Bulla walks towards the graveside.
One of the men from the funeral home — “country boys,” Bulla calls them —wheels the lid back over the casket draped with flowers and rapidly cranks the vault up to meet it. Once the Astroturf is peeled up, Bulla takes over and gracefully lowers the vault into the ground. While the men carried the vault equipment towards Bulla’s truck, Becton and another maintenance worker approach with a load of dirt, backing it up over the plywood and raising the trailer bed.
With Becton at the wheel, this time to fill the hole in, the four other men take turns shoveling and raking dirt into the rectangular pockmark. The country boys, who look more like mafia men covering up a crime in their crisp suits and shining shoes, make quick work refilling the earth.
One of the guys scoops up flower bouquets laying on the ground that belong to adjacent plots — the flowers were moved to avoid damage during the grave opening, service and closing. As he screws a bronze holder back into place, one of the George Brothers’ employees comments that 1,300 similar ones were recently stolen from Guilford Memorial Park Cemetery to be melted down for profit. Someone else jokes that it was likely an inside job.
Like a candle on a cake, Becton presses a temporary nametag encased in plastic into the grass at the foot of the grave. Clods of dirt hang together, some spilling over the edges of where the metal window frame had outlined the grave, but most perch atop it.
Closing the grave takes less than 30 minutes, and the men split up and leave in the hearse, trucks and the U-Dump trailer. Sometime soon, after the first rain, some of the guys will be back to tamp, top and reseed the top of the grave, which will shift subtly as the vault and dirt settle. Until then, it’s just a waiting game.