Sextons, Cemeteries, and Opportunities [save to drafts]

A job outdoors with cut grass and lush flower beds appeals to me.  I am sure the right job as a grounds keeper might satisfy the appeal of being outdoors digging in plants and dirt.  And one might expect a job as a greens keeper at a high flying country club would be the pinnacle of a gardener’s profession, but I think the edge has to go to the sexton.

A sexton, of course, tends to the grounds and buildings of sacred places, especially cemeteries.  That strikes me as a noble profession with a very justifiably noble title.  In fact a person might confuse a sexton with one of the clergy.  (A sexton doesn’t have any official clerical responsibilities, does he?)  It is an old, dignified position that exudes a sense of place and tradition.  You might expect a sexton to carry engraved calling cards while a greens keeper might have a receipt for a Coke and candy bar ready in his pocket.

While all sextons should share the dignity and obligations of their important calling — we do we have some unsavory sextons in Dickens, correct?  Dark Shadows? Let’s just call them colorful characters — not all cemeteries are alike.

Certainly we should be proud of even the most humble of cemeteries (I have visited quite a few) and they require a special service unique to their fading memory.  Nevertheless, I would want to be the guy responsible for a large, very old cemetery, preferably one with rolling hills, mature oaks and elms, and a pond or two.  It should have an old chapel and mausoleum, built of heavy stone and fitted with thick glass windows.  While impractical, I would prefer the drives in the cemetery be of gravel, nothing more.  Hearses and old sedans sound best crunching gravel.  And of course the grounds of this cemetery should be thickly covered with deep ancient lawns, large overflowing flower beds, and just enough shrubs to break up the rhythm of repeating head stones.

Yes, golf courses are fine, and one would not be wrong to argue that they have thick lawns and so forth, but they are entirely different places.  First off, you get a better mix of people and activities at cemeteries.  At a golf course people golf.  They always move more or less in the same direction and do more or less the same thing over and over and over.  And guess what…in the winter?…no golf!  That just won’t do.

In a cemetery you never know who might show up.  Young and old, happy and sad, fit and feeble…there is room for everyone and let’s face it, when you go to a golf course people pretty much look the same in Cutter & Buck walking shorts and Palm Springs baseball caps.  My sense is golf courses sort of lost their dignity with the introduction of plastic bottles anyway.  Even the most elegant event can be dashed with a plastic bottle of Miller Lite sweating in your lap.  You don’t see bottle beer at cemeteries.  People still sneak in flasks, and with that there is dignity.

I also think people will be a bit more forgiving at a cemetery.  You won’t hear complaints about the condition of grass covering the graves in Section 6 the way you might hear someone gripe about a green or the rough.  People will be grateful old Uncle Dick is resting peacefully under the oaks, just as he wanted it, and the lawn is simply taken for granted.  That’s the way cemeteries should be.

I want to be at a place where I can wander and kick acorns, a place where I can stop and think, and there are few places so well suited for those activities than a cemetery.

And you can have some fun in cemeteries.  When I walk around Lakewood Cemetery in my neighborhood, I like to wander through the forest of giant marble obelisks and monuments marking the plots of Minnesota’s founding families.  If I notice a car coming from around the gate, I quickly adopt a family, stand respectfully before some giant tomb, and bow my head.  If nothing else people certainly appreciate seeing someone visiting a grave, even if I am pulling one on them.  Visiting graves shows continuity and respect, which is the life of a cemetery.  Plus I don’t think the occupant of an adopted tomb would mind the little joke.

Of course these giant head stones do put a bit of giddyup in a guy’s heart.  If you’re going to compete with the Pillsburys or the Fridleys and expect a forty-foot tall tower of marble to mark your grave, you best get a thing or two accomplished.  Otherwise erecting a giant monolith in your honor would just seem vain.

Being vain and being a sexton don’t seem compatible to my way of seeing it.  I’d rather be the guy in khaki pants — pressed of course, because I am a sexton — and blue chambray shirt clipping back the petunias while you bring little Johnny and Sally out to see where Grandpa steps off to heaven.  And when the time comes for you to catch up with Grandpa, I’ll dig a mighty fine place for you to rest, nice and square, carefully cut as to not disturb the neighbors.  Doesn’t that sound nice?

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