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Gravediggers carry on tradition of diligent work

Fred Dornback, Blackberry Township Cemetery superintendent, digs a grave for an infant’s casket at the cemetery near Elburn.
Fred Dornback, Blackberry Township Cemetery superintendent, digs a grave for an infant’s casket at the cemetery near Elburn.

ELBURN – The shovels worked in tandem, each scooping out the sod, then the topsoil, sticky clay and heavy rocks, to create a 24-by-24-inch grave to hold a 19-inch casket.

Digging graves by hand is something that still happens under some circumstances. Full-sized graves are dug by backhoe, but those for cremations and infant burials are dug by hand, said Fred Dornback, the Blackberry Township cemetery superintendent and sexton, as he and groundskeeper Curtis Lubic carefully dug neat corners with square-edged shovels.

They used probes first to measure out the depth and width before they started.

“The typical grave sites are 36 inches across with a concrete vault that gives us three-quarters of an inch on either side to be exact,” Dornback said as they worked on a recent afternoon. 

Vaults probably began as a way for cemeteries to make money, Dornback said, but they also served a practical purpose for the ease of maintenance.

“A wooden casket would disintegrate and collapse in the ground,” Dornback said. “A vault prevented the land from collapsing.”

An older burial site nearby without a vault requires yearly additions of soil to keep the plot level with the rest of the burials, Lubic said. In winter, they use a pickax when the ground is frozen, he said.

The Blackberry cemetery was founded Jan. 25, 1860, as an initiative of Odd Fellow Lodge 222 in Elburn, Dornback said.

The township took over July 1, 2007, overseeing the maintenance of the 2,800 people buried there.

Its history is readily evident.

An old stone building dated 1890 was used as a morgue, storing remains from winter until spring when the ground was soft enough for burial, Dornback said.

In the 1800s, before the advent of backhoes, a gravedigger would be paid 50 cents for hand digging a plot 36 inches wide, seven feet long and six feet deep, Dornback said.

The laborer would be responsible for filling the grave after the burial.

When they need a full-sized grave, the cemetery contracts with Weiland Excavating for the work, he said.

Most cemeteries do contract with excavating companies for that service, such as Mark Christopherson of Professional Cemetery Services, who digs graves for the Geneva cemeteries.

Christopherson said it takes about two hours to dig a grave with a backhoe, and sometimes he has lots of rocks to maneuver through.

“I had one the other day that had giant boulders,” Christopherson said. “What would they have done with a shovel?”

Christopherson said he puts plywood down to protect the turf from damage. In most cases, he will put a pile of dirt next to the grave and then fill it once the burial occurs.

“If I know in advance that it’s going to be a huge funeral, I will haul the dirt out and then haul it back in,” Christopherson said. “I will leave a pile of dirt next to the grave, so the mourners can drop a handful of dirt back into the grave at the ceremony.”

And so it will be with the burial for the small grave Dornback and Lubic are digging, as they will have a small amount of dirt for the family to drop into the grave.

“Some families want to put a shovelful of dirt or flowers or other things in,” Dornback said, and he said they try to accommodate those wishes.

A short distance away, a new plot is laid out with bright orange markers. Dornback said the grave is marked to be dug for a man in hospice.

“I mark spaces available with cones, and the families come in on their own time to choose,” Dornback said. 

Dornback pointed out other grave sites where couples are buried.

It is tradition, he said, for husbands to be buried on the left side and wives on the right side.

It also is a religious tradition for a burial in an east-west direction to have the head be to the west.

“That means on Resurrection Day, when the casket opens, they can look east to the rising sun,” Dornback said. “When we bury people north and south, the head is to the south so they will face east and the rising sun.”

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