September 12, 2011

Reporter gets a handle
on preparing graves

Maine at Work: Bad weather doesn't halt cemetery maintenance, Ray Routhier learns. And tidiness counts for a lot.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Ray Routhier digs a grave at Forest City Cemetery with the help of Portland Public Services laborer Chris Peterson.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Ray Routhier climbs into a grave at Forest City Cemetery to help Portland Public Services foreman Larry Goodson clean the vault and prepare for a burial. The cemetery is owned by the city of Portland but is located in South Portland.

THIS WEEK'S JOB

TITLE: Cemetery maintenance foreman, Portland Department of Public Services

WORKER: Larry Goodson, 52, of Harrison

HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week

SALARY RANGE: About $17 to $20 an hour

DUTIES: Maintaining city-owned cemeteries. Goodson works mostly at Forest City Cemetery, where he maintains the grounds and does burials.

SURPRISING FACTS: There are burials at Portland's municipal cemeteries even in winter, thanks to hydraulic equipment. Of Portland's two active municipal cemeteries, the digging is much tougher at Evergreen than at Forest City because of all the tree roots. Even though Portland cemetery workers can dig most of a grave with a backhoe, they still need to use a shovel at some point to make it neat and square.

PERKS: Being outside in a wide-open green space. Knowing you're helping people "leave this world" in a nice way.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

MAINE AT WORK takes an interactive look at iconic, visible or just plain interesting jobs done by folks in Maine. Reporter Ray Routhier shadows a worker or workers, reports what he sees and tries his hand at some of the job's duties.

IF YOU'D like to suggest a job to be explored in this feature, email rrouthier@pressherald.com or call 791-6454.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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