If you’re curious about what gravediggers really do, an online search may surprise you. Rather than learning about someone who digs graves as a profession, you may find information instead on the monster truck named the Grave Digger. While that may be interesting, it’s not quite the same!
Jump ahead to these sections:
Gravediggers have been an integral part of the funeral and burial business for many years, but aside from the self-explanatory title, what else do gravediggers do? Do they only come out in the dead of night? What do they use to dig the graves? Is gravedigging all they do?
In this article we’re going to cover what modern gravediggers really do and how their profession and job responsibilities have evolved over the years.
What’s a Gravedigger?
The role of a gravedigger is all in the name–it is someone who digs graves. As a result, they are a necessary part of the post-death process. While it may not be pleasant for some to think about, death is a part of life. Over the past century, it has been common practice to bury or inter bodies in a cemetery and as such, burying the dead has been accepted as part of the experience.
In modern times, we attend graveside services, observe funeral etiquette, and say our final goodbyes by laying a hand or flowers on the casket or perhaps tossing dirt into the grave. But people do not typically stay around to watch the gravediggers fill (or close) the grave.
The responsibility of filling the grave falls on the shoulders of the cemetery sexton and their staff. Mourners move on to a reception for the family or head back home. Once the family and guests are off the grounds, that’s when the gravediggers would get back to work. We may not consider gravedigging as a creepy or even sinister job today, but if we go back into history they used to be.
History of gravediggers
Burial practices have been in place for at least 100,000 years, as burying the dead was a necessity to keep animals from the remains. It also helped to keep the living safe from any diseases that might come from dead bodies.
The old-fashioned way
Until the end of the 1800s, the family of the deceased held responsibility in caring for their loved one, the funeral, and their eventual burial. It was also common for friends and neighbors to help out. This practice held out longer in rural areas than in cities, where cemeteries and the business of funerals became more common.
According to the National Home Funeral Alliance, while family members (almost always the women) prepared their loved one’s body, friends or folks in the community would go to work building the coffin and digging the grave.
Is there another word for a gravedigger?
Gravediggers have also been referred to as cemetery sextons and caretakers. The Old English definition of the word sexton is someone who cares for and maintains a graveyard, specifically one on church property.
Oftentimes, when a gravedigger is referred to as a cemetery sexton, they tend to have more responsibilities than just digging graves.
Modern Gravedigger Duties
A gravedigger’s duties depend on the types of responsibilities they hold. If a gravedigger’s sole duty is digging graves, then their role is to open a grave, place the casket inside it properly, and close the grave once again.
Even though it is common to see modern equipment like a mechanical excavator being used by gravediggers, you don’t want to put away that shovel just yet. There will be times when a grave will need to be dug by hand, due to rough terrain or an area where a backhoe won’t fit.
The cemetery sexton gravedigger
When gravediggers are also cemetery sextons they have the responsibility of caring for the entire cemetery as well. Cemetery sextons are responsible for the following:
- Digging the graves by machine or by hand
- Maintaining the cemetery grounds
- Keeping the cemetery’s records up-to-date and in order
- Assisting families with sales and presales
- Working with funeral homes and monument companies
They will also be responsible for running the staff and explaining the physical duties listed in the next section below on grounds staff gravediggers.
The grounds staff gravedigger
For a large cemetery that requires grounds staff, a gravedigger (or gravediggers) and cemetery sexton are two separate roles. It can be far too much responsibility for each role for one person.
In this case, gravediggers may also be referred to as cemetery workers or burial ground custodians. They might also be responsible for other grounds work, such as:
- Using backhoes for opening graves
- Maintaining the grounds with mowers, trimmers, leaf blowers
- Helping to install gravestones and markers
- Using tractors, trucks, dump trucks, gators to remove or add material
- Cleaning and maintaining grounds equipment
The freelance gravedigger
If you’d rather work for yourself and have the opportunity to work for various cemeteries, you could become a freelance gravedigger. As a freelancer, you will need to build relationships with a few cemetery sextons and management. There are cemeteries who don’t have full-time staff available to dig the graves themselves, so this is where a freelance gravedigger could step in.
Keep in mind that unless you have your own backhoe or other large digging equipment, you’ll be digging the graves by hand. This is not as rare as you might think. There are people who have been hand-digging graves on a freelance basis for years, and it tends to be a job that generations of family take on.
As with any self-employment, you’ll need to look into the business side. You’ll probably want to get insurance so you’re covered in case of injury, etc.
How Do You Become a Gravedigger?
In order to have gainful employment as a gravedigger, you must remember that you will work in all sorts of weather such as extreme heat or cold temperatures, rain, or snow.
It is also physically challenging, and may require specific training or licenses. According to Career Trend, you must have “sensitivity and respect for the dead” as well as for those who are grieving.
If you are interested in finding a job as a gravedigger, you have to maintain a relative amount of physical fitness.
Should you work for a cemetery that uses digging equipment like a backhoe, you must always be prepared for when you will need to dig a grave the old-fashioned way – by hand. These situations can include the burials of urns or infants. It could also be because the grave location is in an area of the cemetery that is not accessible with large equipment.
Also, you have to keep the precise measurements and location in mind for each grave. Not only does each person or family have their own plot, but each grave needs to be in its proper location so that you do not dig into another grave.
You may need to have specific training or meet certain requirements to work in a cemetery. As with many jobs, it’s never a bad idea to consider working your way up.
If you have no experience, you can start by getting a job in cemetery maintenance or general grounds-keeping. This will allow you to get to know the cemetery and learn about the process of gravedigging. In addition to learning about the process, you can find out what licenses are important to obtain to use specific machinery such as a backhoe.
It can sound very physical and precise, but you must also be prepared for the emotional challenges related to becoming a gravedigger. You’ll be digging graves, not just holes in the ground, and those graves are going to be for people of all ages. Gravediggers have said that digging a grave for a child or infant can be very difficult, even if they don’t know the family.
As a cemetery employee, you will be dealing with people who have lost a loved one. Their emotions could be raw with grief or they could still be in shock over the loss.
Being a Gravedigger Can Be Rewarding
Working on the cemetery grounds as a gravedigger can be a unique way of seeing all of humanity. You have the opportunity to observe people managing one of the most important parts of their lives. And as you work, you get to help people through their grief by caring for their loved ones in a way no one else can. You’re helping their loved ones, quite literally, rest in peace.
If you're looking for more on cemeteries, read our guides on green cemeteries and how cemeteries make money.
- “The History of Home Funerals: From Family Tradition and Back Again.” National Home Funeral Alliance, www.homefuneralalliance.org/home-funeral-history.html
- “How to Get a Job at a Cemetery.” Career Trend, 5 July 2017, careertrend.com/how-6704548-job-cemetery.html