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The World of the Cemetery Sexton/Caretaker

Sexton n. Church custodian charged with keeping the church and parish buildings prepared for meetings, caring for church equipment, and performing related minor duties such as ringing the bell and digging  graves.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Long before the garden-style cemeteries of the 1800s, burial grounds were located on church grounds, and it was the job of the church sexton, or caretaker, to manage the burials in the cemetery. While today most cemeteries are privately owned, either by a corporation or a cemetery association, and graves are no longer dug by hand, the cemetery sexton still plays a vital role in the health of a cemetery.

At a high level, the role of a cemetery sexton is to take charge of,  care for, and supervise the cemetery under the direction of the  Cemetery Board or other governing party. But what exactly does that entail?

Opening and Closing Graves

One of the main functions of a cemetery sexton is to open and close graves for interments. In order to do that, the sexton must know where the plots are physically located in the cemetery, the
dimensions of the plots, and which graves are filled.

It is the sexton's responsibility to open graves without disturbing prior interments. It would not be a happy event for the backhoe to hit another casket. In some cases this means that the sexton must probe the ground to make certain the neighboring graves will not be disturbed.

Selling Plots

Another major function of a cemetery sexton is to be able to show prospective buyers lots that are available for sale. That means that the sexton must not only keep up with what plots are filled, but also what lots are sold. The sale of a cemetery plot is much like the sale of any real estate and usually includes a deed.

Placing Headstones

Similarly, once a headstone is shipped to the cemetery, it is the cemetery sexton's responsibility to know where the monument is to be installed and direct the installation. In many cemeteries, it is also
the sexton's responsibility to notify the installers when the stone arrives. In most cases this also includes arranging for free installation of military markers that are shipped to the cemetery for installation.

Grounds Maintenance

The cemetery sexton is also responsible for the grounds, turf, andlandscaping maintenance. This includes mowing, filling holes and sinking graves, the upkeep of trees and plantings, the cemetery fence (if there is one), signage, and any memorial areas in the cemetery.

Rules and Regs

One of the least favorite jobs of a sexton is enforcing the cemeteryrules and regulations. This includes when people can visit, appropriate conduct in the cemetery, grave decorations, and litter.
Most modern cemeteries have rules about what can be installed at a grave, and what can be placed at a grave. Some cemeteries do not allow plantings at graves, holiday decorations, lighting, or other
memorabilia, while other will allow some or all of these things. Many cemeteries have rules about live and even artificial flowers and post signage stating their policy. This helps to keep the cemetery clean and fresh of pots of dead flowers throughout the harsh winter.

It's all about the Map

 Modern cemeteries are typically platted out and every square inch is accounted for. The cemetery may be comprised of different lot layouts in different sections of the cemetery. There may be differing sizes of graves and usually some smaller crematory plots. A map is created and each grave is identified by some naming or numbering scheme, usually identifying sections, blocks, lots, and plots, and it is the job of the sexton to maintain this map. This map is essential in the ability to do their job.

Not a Mason

It may seem that the sexton has an obligation with regard to themaintenance of markers and monuments; however this is not the case.The monuments are owned by the purchaser and installed on private property (the purchased lot) and it is really the responsibility of the family to perform any cleaning or repair. However, some cemeteries do step up and try to repair and curate old broken stones which have long been forgotten. This is purely a voluntary action on their part, and if they do it, it's because they love their cemetery.

Not a Genealogist

While many people contact cemetery sextons to find out genealogicalinformation on past interments, answering these types of questions, and doing genealogy is NOT their responsibility, and if they choose to provide this information, it is purely of their own free will.

Your Faithful Caretaker

Always remember: it is not the job of a sexton to know what isinscribed on the stone, or the relationship of any individual to any other individual, or to fix a broken stone; it is the sexton's job to
keep up the cemetery and to know which lots are filled, what lots are sold, and what lots are available. They have to deal with the finality of death, eternal resting places of loved ones of the
living, and be sensitive to the emotional state of the public, sometimes during their time of great loss.

It's not just a job.

Source:  Graveside Chronicles, by Linda K Lewis, Chronicles Editor of The World of the Cemetery Sexton

Abstracted from USGenWeb Newsletter, June 2007, Vol. 4, No. 5

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