When someone thinks of a person in this role, perhaps they picture the stereotype of a dust-covered man digging a grave open with just a shovel and his own determination. While that image fits well in a Charles Dickens’ novel, it’s completely unrealistic in today’s world, as a sexton is far more than a glorified grave digger.
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The easy answer to the question “What does a cemetery sexton do?” is “everything,” but that would not do justice to these unsung heroes at a cemetery. It sounds like a role based in the early 1800s but rest assured, cemetery sextons are still considered to be valuable assets to any well-run cemetery.
What is a Cemetery Sexton?
To put it in general terms, a cemetery sexton is in charge of the cemetery. They help to coordinate care of the cemetery, manage the legal and public record aspects of burials, and also help with overall recordkeeping.
Sextons are the people that in essence make sure that your loved one’s resting site is taken care of over the long run.
As a caretaker
At minimum, a sexton functions as a caretaker for a cemetery, organizing and reviewing all the upkeep and maintenance required to keep it looking manicured and clean. They not only address the appearance of the cemetery, but also make sure that the cemetery runs safely and securely, according to taphophile and “tombstone tourist” Joy Neighbors.
Of course, the most important part of a cemetery sexton’s job is laying the dead to rest. The sexton may take part in the actual opening of the grave, lowering of the casket, and closing of the grave. The sexton may also hire staff to help physically perform this task. Either way, it is the responsibility of the sexton to make sure the burial is done properly.
The sexton makes sure the grounds are maintained to the best they can be. This generally includes the cutting and watering of grass, pruning trees and shrubs when needed, and removing debris. The sexton is also responsible for making sure the headstones are set correctly and fit within the cemeteries requirements.
As a manager
While there are cemeteries who have an office staff including a manager, for our purposes, our focus is on one where the sexton oversees office responsibilities as well as the grounds.
In the role of manager, the sexton’s responsibilities include the processing of essential documents, such as burial permits and disinterment permits.
They record all of the information regarding the bodies that will be interred at the cemetery. This information can include date of arrival, date of burial, if the body is placed in a receiving vault ahead of time.
Plus, the sexton has to make sure that each step of the process complies with city, state, and federal regulations as necessary. If you’ve ever heard the term “sexton’s records” and wonder what they are, they are simply the deeds and land ownership maps maintained by the cemetery sexton. These records aren’t just important for the cemetery’s sake, as they are also of interest to others.
According to an article from the Grand Forks Herald, these records can provide information such as who purchased the plot, deed owner, or any transactions involved with a plot such as inherited plots, sales, or transfers. Of course, a cemetery sexton will also have basic information about the deceased as part of the “burial register,” such as age, date of death, and date of burial.
The challenges of recordkeeping
Many cemeteries throughout the United States were established more than 160 years ago. That’s a lot of records to keep track of on paper – especially during the days of handwritten entries. Back then, a cemetery sexton may have been able to keep track of everything. But as years passed, that job would have become quite the undertaking (pun not intended).
For example, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, has 560,000 people interred in their 478 acres. This cemetery contains records of every body buried there from the moment it opened in 1840, according to Bloomberg. It wasn’t until 2009 that a group of college students and volunteers started going through the many years of materials and information to begin digitizing everything. After seven years, they were still only halfway through.
Cemetery Sexton Duties
If you think the job of a cemetery sexton entails merely burials and interments as well as maintaining the appearance of a cemetery, you’re going to be surprised. The duties of a cemetery sexton are much more than digging graves. In fact, they often tend to have staff for that.
The sexton’s duties can be more administration-based, including office work, staff management, groundskeeping, sales, and more. If it has to do with the cemetery, it’s the sexton’s business.
Perform or oversee burials and interments
The cemetery sexton is responsible for all burials and interments, whether the sexton does the actual physical work or not.
As the sexton oversees every aspect of the cemetery, they must know how to do every job in order to train the staff or step in to fill the role when necessary.
Sextons are also in charge of performing or supervising burials and interments, whether they are underground or inside public/private mausoleums and columbariums. Outside of the graveside ceremonies, they work to help maintain the aesthetics of the cemetery and grounds. You may see them doing things such as mowing, trimming, clearing brush, fallen trees, and branches.
They will also work to manage the safety of the grounds, including marking out graves and keeping the cemetery safe from unwanted visitors. Part of the upkeep can include things like checking periodically for damage to stones or monuments, as well as coordinating with the gravediggers or a backhoe operator when they will need to dig a new grave.
When it comes to running the cemetery and maintaining it, they are also in charge of operating some of the heavy machinery involved. They include the following:
- Backhoes for opening graves
- Mowers, trimmers, leaf blowers, etc.
- Tractors, trucks, dump trucks, gators
- Equipment maintenance
Cemetery sextons also go by the term superintendents. Not unlike other kinds of superintendents, a cemetery superintendent’s duties can also include office management. Regardless of whether or not they have another person managing the day-to-day operations of the office, they are required to have access to these details like burial records, the number of plots sold and available, issuing burial permits, issuing disinterment.
Management of a cemetery also includes selling both pre-planned and immediate need cemetery plots, organizing burial needs, coordinating with the funeral home regarding arrival times, and verifying the dimensions of headstones and gravemarkers according to cemetery regulations.
However, cemetery sextons are also your best bet for any knowledge regarding headstone etiquette, alongside appropriate flag placements for all major holidays. So if you have any questions about cleaning a gravestone, regulations involving decorations, or what else is included with the fees, they are the person to ask.
Relating to cemetery size
The duties a sexton is responsible for can depend on the size of a cemetery. In a small cemetery in a small town, for example, the sexton may perform all of the duties necessary on the grounds.
This person maintains the physical cemetery grounds as well as the cemetery’s records. But regardless of the cemetery’s size, the sexton wears many hats.
How Do You Become a Cemetery Sexton?
If a job as a sexton sounds like the right fit for you, here’s information about qualifications and other things to know. As mentioned previously, a sexton’s duties can differ greatly between a small cemetery in a rural area and a large one in a metropolitan location.
The general qualifications to become a cemetery sexton regarding the physical duties include:
- Experience or familiarity with landscaping maintenance machines
- Ability to lift and carry 50 lbs
- Perform the physical duties of the position
- Work during all kinds of weather
- Willingness to take training in (including but not limited to) equipment usage and equipment maintenance
Sextons must also have a keen eye for organization, leadership, and administration as they are in charge of managing the paperwork for cemetery operations. It can also include having skills like customer service, communications, record keeping, and computer skills.
No matter what type of cemetery you work for, the desire to help others during their time of grief with compassion is a necessity.
More Than a Job
Sextons can have a job that is more than just running a cemetery, as they are the go-to for any questions and issues related to burials and graveside ceremonies. But they are also the ones that help take care of your deceased loved ones, and help you maintain a relationship with them as time goes on. If you’re interested in a job that’s much more than its description, a career as a cemetery sexton may just be for you. You could be the sexton for a cemetery or graveyard.
- “A Sexton Speaks – An Interview with Dan Wilson, Vincennes City Cemeteries.” A Grave Interest, 5 March 2011, agraveinterest.blogspot.com/2011/03/sexton-speaks-interview-with-dan-wilson.html
- “The sexton: What does it take to care for a cemetery?” Grandforks Herald, 12 October 2015, www.grandforksherald.com/news/3859283-sexton-what-does-it-take-care-cemetery
- “The Cemetery as Archive.” Bloomberg CityLab, 4 April 2016, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-04/brooklyn-s-green-wood-cemetery-will-digitize-millions-of-archival-records