Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Where people say goodbye... '

'Crypt Keeper' says needs of families top priority

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Dave Watts comes face-to-face with death every day.

The lanky 43-year-old is a groundskeeper and maintenance man at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery, a sprawling Jewish cemetery in the North End. In plain terms, he's a gravedigger.

He enjoys his job. His grandparents used to manage the cemetery. Watts remembers playing hide-and-seek among the tombstones when he was a kid.

When he was 14, he was hired to cut the grass at the cemetery.

"Sometimes, when I walk through I smell the flowers and the grass and it reminds me of my childhood," he says, laughing. "Kind of strange, huh?"

He moved on from grass-cutting to a career as a concrete man. He'd pour basements, sidewalks and stairs. It's physically demanding work that hurts a body. The hours are long. You wear out eventually.

Four years ago, he came back to the cemetery.

"It's still physical work but it's a different kind," he says, his soil-caked work boots stretched out. "We have to move stones sometimes. We put a roller in but you have to be really careful. You don't want to be breaking any stones."

To dig a grave, you start by marking out the plot lines. Watts then shovels a thin outline in the ground. The backhoe digs out most of the dirt.

"A grave is at least six feet by three-and-a-half feet," he explains. "The coffin has to have at least three-and-a-half feet of soil on top. I like to dig down at least six feet."

In warm weather, Watts can dig a grave in under half an hour. When the ground is frozen, it can take two hours of scraping to get below the frost line.

After the machine has done its work, Watts jumps into the grave.

"I finish it by hand. You want to even it out. Make it look nice for the family."

The gravediggers used to line the graves with fake grass. They've stopped that practice, although some families want a layer of grass over the coffin.

The needs of the family come up frequently when Watts talks about his job. It's tough to see the grieving relatives, he says, many of whom he's seen at other funerals. He does his job with a quiet dignity.

"I don't start the tractor, putting dirt back over the coffin until the family has left, until the cars are gone," Watts says.

"You have to be careful because you're burying someone's family member. If they want to have certain things done, we'll do them."

Although Watts is not Jewish, he has become aware of Jewish burial traditions through his work.

"I get to know the rabbis," he says. "One thing you have to be very careful of is not to smash the coffins. There's not supposed to be any metal in them so you can't just dump soil on top of them."

He admits he has been moved to tears at some funerals.

"There was this one guy, I guess he was about my age. The widow was there with the kids. She was crying so hard. She was laying on the coffin and begging us not to lower it."

He blinks away tears at the memory.

"You can't forget something like that," he says gruffly.

"There's one tombstone that says 'survivor of Auschwitz.' That kind of things get to you. You wonder who this person was, what they had to go through before they came to Canada."

His hours are regular, eight to 4:30. He sometimes works Sundays. Saturday is the Jewish sabbath and burials are forbidden on that day.

He earns roughly $30,000 a year.

Watts says he gets some teasing about his job.

"A lot of my friends call me the Crypt Keeper," he says with a tight smile. "It's a job. It's another day at the office for me. Some people get weirded out about it. Other people say: 'Oooh, cool!' It's not cool. This is where people say goodbye to someone they love."

He still loves wandering through the cemetery. There's a peacefulness to his workplace.

"If you're here at night, it's quiet. It looks so lovely and dark."

His job has convinced him of one thing. He wants to be cremated, not buried.

"I don't want to be put in the ground like that. Sometimes you're digging out a grave to bury someone next to their husband or wife. The smell is atrocious. It's like rotten eggs times 20.

"I've gotten sick a few times. You realize what's actually going on under the soil and the grass."

He doesn't believe in an afterlife.

"My personal belief is once you're done, that's it."

The office phone rings shrilly. A co-worker has locked his keys in his truck and needs rescuing.

"Just another crazy day at the graveyard," Watts says with a smile. "Some days are just like that."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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