Feature Story

The Lament Of The Grave Digger

Editor’s note: One hundred years ago, in the May 1916 issue of Park and Cemetery magazine, this most interesting article appeared.

Ever since the author of Hamlet put the grave digger into literature, there has been an impression in literary circles that there is something more or less humorous, philosophic, or romantic about the grave digger.

Consequently, when the grave diggers in one of the Philadelphia cemeteries recently went on strike, the more or less humorous reporter of the Ledger was sent out to interview, and produced the following philosophy or lamentation of the grave digger:

Grave digging is healthful. It makes fine muscles. But it isn’t very exciting or profitable. That is why the grave-digg’ng force in a large cemetery has walked out, and another is about to. The grave diggers want it known that they are not striking for the excitement, but for the money.

“Those graves are hard to dig,” said one of the men in the Fernwood Cemetery today. The Fernwood force is all ready to strike if the Holy Cross diggers are successful in the strike they have carried on since Monday. It may be said in passing, that if the Holy Cross diggers do not get their raises, they have at least got the “goat” of every undertaker in the city for the manner in which they are spoiling funerals. Funeral after funeral has driven into Holy Cross Cemetery to be halted by the absence of the grave diggers, who swear they’ll get a raise if they have to strike for a year.

“We have to dig in all kinds of weather,” continued the Fernwood digger Frank Pumley, who is married and has three children, including a daughter 19 years old. “We dig in water up to our knees, and under a sun that drives the thermometers to 120. Below zero weather is also frequent.

“A grave digger digs two graves a day. He has a helper, and in the morning after the grave is marked out by the superintendent, he must dig it in four and a half hours. Some graves are harder to dig than others. Some cave in, some are rocky. Then the size of the grave makes a difference. An ordinary grave is 7 feet deep, 30 Inches wide and from 7 to 8 feet long. For two coffins, the grave is 9 feet deep, for three, we dig down 11 feet.

”Graves are funny. Sometimes they behave and sometimes they don’t. I’ve known them to be fine until the funeral is driving through the gates. Then they collapse. I have known them to collapse after the coffin is lowered, too. Then we have trouble. The women faint, the men swear and everybody blames the grave digger. But we can’t help it. It's all according to the nature of the ground.

“I speak from experience,” said Pumley, “because I’ve dug graves here for 23 years. Diggin’ two graves a day, and sometimes three, I calculate I’ve dug over 16,700 graves in my time. I never had a vacation, ‘cause grave diggers don’t get any. If they want a vacation, they take it without pay. A grave digger gets $2 a day, so you see we don’t have the money to take a vacation.

“That's why the men are striking. Who can live on $12 a week with a family, when things are so high? Meat's high and loaves of bread are smaller. Everything's up but wages for grave diggers. I hear of the other workmen getting raises, but the grave diggers, no. We get no consideration at all. They must think we’re animals.

“The cemetery business is a good business. It costs a family about $8 for a grave, $13 if it is dug on Sunday. It used to be cheaper, but even graves have gone up. The cemetery has the grave dug in one morning by two men, paid $2 a day apiece. The grave costs the cemetery $2. About $6 profit on weekday graves, and $11 on Sunday work.

“The grave digger is not as mournful as people think. We whistle and sing and chew while digging graves. Why shouldn’t we? It isn’t our graves we are digging. We used also to have our little swig, but the cemetery officials cut that out. One of the diggers got drunk on duty and fell in a grave. So they cut it out. A drunken grave digger is funny all right,” the digger philosophized, leaning on his long-handled spade.

“Grave digging, though, is more nerve racking than you think. Sometimes the carriages drive through the gates and we’re only half finished. Then we must work like blazes. Everybody fusses. After the services, we lower the casket, four of us, into the grave. If it is rainy, the ropes or straps are slippery. The casket might slip or fall to the bottom. Also we might fall into the graves ourselves.

“I have seen both happen. Some time ago a strap broke. The casket fell with a thump and all the women fainted. Nothing was hurt. Another time two of the diggers fell over the edge onto the coffin. One of the diggers hit his chin on an iron-bound corner and knocked two teeth out. The woman then fainted, too.

“Once we were lowering a body when the side of the grave collapsed and we all fell in. The mourners were superstitious, and swore the grave was bewitched. But in all my life of grave digging I shall never forget an incident that happened 10 years ago. The hearse and carriages had just arrived. They were up on that hill yonder. The pallbearers prepared to take the coffin from the hearse. As one of the younger men put his hand on the rail of the casket to draw it out he fell dead. We took him away, held the services, and buried the pallbearer the following Sunday.”