Money  /  Retrieval

Picket Lines in the Graveyard

A history of cemetery workers' strikes.
“Capital is an historic necessity, but so too, is its gravedigger, the socialist proletariat.” Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet 1916

In fiction and legend, the gravedigger’s profession is traditionally envisioned as a solitary one, a silent dance between two momentarily entangled strangers—one finished with life’s labors, and the other still wielding a shovel. The act of burial itself has both captivated and chilled the living for at least 130,000 years, since Neanderthals and early homo sapiens began digging pits to hold their dead. Burial practices can vary widely between various cultures, but Europeans (and their eventual colonial spawn) decided long ago that the ideal place for our departed friends was six feet underground, preferably pumped full of chemicals and sealed in a big, heavy wooden box—and that it was someone’s job to put them there.

Of course, a gravedigger’s (or, in modern parlance, a cemetery worker’s) job is not what it used to be. Now, these workers operate heavy machinery, maintain cemetery grounds, and dig foundations for headstones and monuments; the classic horror movie trope of the lone disheveled gravedigger with his shovel and menacing cackle doesn’t quite apply. These are skilled workers whose world straddles maintenance, construction, and landscaping. They’re the first on the scene at a funeral to ready the grave, and the last to say goodbye to the deceased. It’s tempting to romanticize the gig, but even with the aid of modern advancements, digging graves remains hard, dirty, intensive labor that can wear down the physical body and take a mental and emotional toll. “Gravediggers are just people doing a job which is hard, monotonous labor,” cemetery worker Steve Tolle remarked in a 2017 interview for his daughter’s horror blog. “We see the aftermath of death every day and must be able to let it go so we can enjoy our lives, which can be a challenge at times.”

It’s not all bad, though, and for some, it beats working in an office. In Studs Terkel’s 1974 classic Working, Homer Martinez, a gravedigger and caretaker at Shalom Memorial Cemetery in Illinois, told Terkel that, “I have this question all the time: ‘How can I take it?’ They ask if I’m calm while I bury people. If you stop and think, a funeral is one of the natural things in the world.”

It’s not all that solitary, either; cemetery workers now generally operate in teams, and the actual burial is completed in minutes, as long as the earth and the weather cooperate. Gravediggers are no strangers to cooperation on the job, nor are they afraid of collective action. A number of unions currently represent these workers in the U.S., including SEIU’s Cemetery Workers’ and Greens’ Attendants Union Local 265. There’s a long history of gravediggers going on strike.