SOUTH PORTLAND — I had never given much thought to the cleanliness of graves.
But Larry Goodson has.
Goodson, a Portland Public Services foreman who has worked at municipal cemeteries for more than 20 years, takes a lot of pride in the appearance of the gravesites he prepares.
So after helping lower a cement vault into the ground at Forest City Cemetery last week, Goodson looked at the mud and water festering at the bottom of it and told me it needed to be cleaned out.
Even though a casket would be covering the vault floor later that day, and lots of earth would be shoveled on top of the vault, Goodson thought it was important to make it look tidy.
Would anybody even see the bottom of the vault, I asked?
“Well, probably the pallbearers when they place the casket over the vault,” said Goodson, 52, of Harrison. “But we want it to be clean. One of the things I like about this job is you can make it nice for people as they leave this world.”
That logic was hard to argue against. So I knelt at the edge of the grave and vaulted over the metal frame used to lower caskets into the vaults. I dropped about 6 feet down to the floor of the vault, which is basically just a cement encasement for the casket. Harrison handed me a dustpan and brush to sweep up the twigs, branches and grass.
But a steady rain was falling, and the dustpan didn’t work very well for muddy puddles. So, with a couple of small rags, I got on my knees and wiped the vault floor from one end to the other. When I got to the end, Goodson told me to wipe my shoe bottoms and stand on a rag so as not to muddy the area I had just cleaned.
Around the vault, Goodson and co-worker Chris Peterson had placed a series of boards as supports for the casket-lowering frame, along with lots of green mats to cover the boards and make the area look neater. I helped them set up chairs for the graveside service.
Later in the day, after the service, Peterson and Goodson would come back to lower the casket into the vault using straps attached to the metal frame.
As we worked, I realized I was getting pretty wet. But Goodson and Peterson didn’t seem to notice. They had worked in much heavier rain the day before. When it comes to digging a grave for someone who has just died, you can’t exactly wait out the bad weather, they said.
Still, I was surprised to find that burials at Portland’s two municipal cemeteries — Forest City and Evergreen — take place all year long. Hydraulic equipment makes it possible to dig in all kinds of weather.
But the two cemeteries don’t have full crews tending to them in the wintertime. The cemetery crews are Public Services employees, and in winter, they’re needed for other duties. Goodson, for example, works as a Public Services dispatcher during the winter, and spends the rest of the year at Forest City Cemetery. Forest City is located in South Portland but is owned by the city of Portland.
Between Portland’s two municipal cemeteries, there are about 250 burials a year. Anyone can be buried at the cemeteries, but Portland residents get a discount.
After we finished at the site of the graveside service, we moved to another plot, where Goodson had just begun digging a grave with a backhoe. Every few minutes he’d stop, and Peterson and I would use spades to chop dirt off the edges and make the sides straight.
“We need to keep it nice and square,” Goodson told me.
At one point, as I was straightening out an edge on one side, Goodson told me to stop. I had taken a little bit too much dirt, and the edge was collapsing a little bit.
Underneath the edge, I could see there had been a cave-in of sorts, and we could see the wall of the vault next to the grave where we were digging. I was told this is pretty common, since cemeteries are pretty compact. While digging, you’re bound to come across other vaults.
The vaults are marked by little metal markers that stick up out of the soil. Cemetery workers can find open plots by locating those markers and using a long pole to tap around underground.
Sometimes, Goodson told me, he has had to move vaults a few inches or so to fit new ones in. Sometimes, when doing a burial, he has had to move caskets to different vaults at the request of the family.
But the grave we were digging was just a one-vault job. At one point, Peterson and I jumped into the dirt hole to straighten out the walls. We climbed out periodically to continue straightening out the top edges as well.
“Here, use the back-saver model,” said Goodson, handing me a spade with a longer handle. “And stand up straighter.”
When Goodson is not working on burials at the 90-acre Forest City Cemetery, he works on maintaining the grounds. He and his co-workers cut grass, trim bushes and do whatever else is needed.
How did he get into such work?
“I’ve just always liked cemeteries,” said Goodson.
And he likes the one he takes care of to look as nice as possible.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: