It’s quiet and calm at Holy Name Cemetery and Mausoleum. When I pull in from the rush of 440, I’m greeted by neat, well-manicured rows of new gravestones. Further down the lane are older, ornate stones that dot the hills of the 68-acre cemetery. Some plots are marked with gigantic crosses that tower over more modest hand-carved statues. Some date to the 1860s.
On the side of the cemetery that borders West Side Avenue are several mausoleum buildings as well as the main office. Here I meet Robert Mauriello, director of operations, and Steve DelMauro, superintendent. Both work for Holy Name Cemetery and Mausoleum as well as all the Archdiocese of Newark Catholic Cemeteries, including small parish cemeteries
“We used to call them churchyards,” Mauriello says of the small church graveyards. “If the parish is no longer there, they come into the Archdiocese. We have Saint Peters and Saint Andrews. We maintain them whether there are still burials there or not. There’s still perpetual care on every grave.”
There’s a lot more to the job than simply digging graves. “We don’t call them gravediggers,” Mauriello says. “We say cemetery worker, because they do everything. It’s a big misconception that it just revolves around that, but they don’t just dig graves.”
Tales from the Crypt
For a cemetery worker the day begins at 7 a.m., with funeral services starting around 11. The morning is spent preparing for upcoming funerals. Today one will be held in the garden mausoleum with the service by the crypt.
Cemetery workers open the crypt whose granite door was previously prepared by workers who hand-applied letters that spell out the deceased’s name, birth date, and death date, along with any other inscription requested. Some of the vaults are decorated with cameos that include a photo of the deceased or symbols that connect to his or her life.
A mausoleum chapel is available for funeral services. Each month a mass is held there to honor all who died that month.
Mauriello says that the mausoleum is just as popular as the plots. Also growing in popularity is the cremation option.
“Being Catholic, human cremated remains are supposed to be put in the cemetery. They’re not supposed to be kept at home,” he says, noting that an urn on the mantle today could get lost as generations go by. Holy Name offers outdoor plots for urns as well as glass- or marble-fronted mausoleum niches. “This way that person is memorialized, and they’re in our records,” Mauriello says. “If they’re not interred in a cemetery there’s no memorialization. It’s here to eternity. With Catholic cemeteries it’s forever. In this business even if the cemetery isn’t active, it’s still maintained. There will always be a place for somebody to go, and that’s important, people need that.” The diocese website has a Find a Loved One searchable database that covers Archdiocese of Newark Catholic Cemeteries.
Eight Feet Under
If today’s funeral were outdoors, things would go a little differently. The grave would have been opened the day before. DelMauro says that it typically takes about a half hour to dig a grave in the warm months. It’s a different story in winter when they sometimes use a jackhammer to get through the frozen earth. It can take twice as long to dig a grave in those conditions.
“Our men are here when it’s 100 degrees or pouring rain or two feet of snow,” Mauriello says. “During Hurricane Sandy we were having funerals. We’ve never turned away a funeral.”
After the grave is dug, they cover the hole with wood. “When you try to dig straight down, and you’re going down eight feet, the sides start falling in. They’ll put wood everywhere so that if anyone is walking over there it won’t slide.” They abide by the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “There are markings on the planks so that if anybody is walking over there they know that there’s an open hole. Safety is our main concern. Safety and family.”
All the soil is moved away from the gravesite for the funeral service. A faux grass sheet is laid down on the earth that surrounds the grave on the day of the funeral.
Next they set up a device that lowers the casket. All the cemetery machinery is maintained by cemetery workers and stored on the premises.
On the day of an outdoor funeral, the foreman would escort the procession to the grave. Workers would take the casket from the hearse to the grave, set it up, and arrange the flowers while funeral goers wait in their vehicles.
“Once they’re done, the funeral director instructs the family to come over, and our men disappear. The funeral director now runs the service with the priest, and once they’re done the family gets back in their cars, and our men lower the casket. They proceed to take all the equipment off the grave and backfill it with soil.”
Another duty of the cemetery worker is building the foundation for the gravestone so that a monument setter can install it. This can be done when a plot is purchased in advance or shortly before a funeral. A memorial counselor handles sales on duty daily in the mausoleum office.
When a funeral is done the work has just begun for the cemetery workers. “They have to keep an eye on the grave to make sure that it stays level and safe for everyone,” Mauriello says.
Maintenance is ongoing. Cemetery workers care for the paths that meander through the rows of gravestones. They trim the grass and the stately, old trees. Seasonally, they switch out the themed faux flower arrangements that decorate many graves.
The cemetery uses a flagging system. Whenever a cemetery worker notices a grave that needs to be filled in with soil to level the ground, they put an orange flag on it. If they see a grave where the grass looks sparse, they put a green flag in the ground to indicate that the area needs to be seeded.
“It’s a process that we just keep going through every day,” Mauriello says.
We catch up with a couple of cemetery workers who are raking the grass near a freshly dug grave that’s ready for a funeral service tomorrow. Frank Matos and Aristedes Silva have been cemetery workers for many years. Mauriello says that most of them have been working at Holy Name for more than 15 years.
“All the men are more than just workers. They’re devoted to it,” Mauriello says. “It’s a manual job, but you have to be compassionate. You have to understand that this is not just a job; we’re doing one of the corporal works of mercy: burying the dead. It’s a ministry. This is holy ground. Years ago people had a misconception about cemeteries. A cemetery is not a morbid place, it’s a nice place. It’s a place to come and pay your respects. It’s peaceful.” –JCM