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Steven Blackford, one of the two cemetery caretakers employed by the city, trims an overgrown shrub in the Athens Cemetery on January 13, 2017. (EMMA HOWELLS | PHOTO EDITOR)

Cemetery caretakers strive to maintain respect on the grounds

Steven Blackford holds an odd job. 

Blackford found an advertisement for a cemetery groundskeeper in a newspaper when he was 16. Now almost 40, he has seen a few oddities in the Athens cemeteries.

But he likes the solidarity of it, especially when he finds his own realm as he mows the two cemeteries owned and maintained by the City of Athens. Despite it being a spiritual place that requires constant upkeep, the caretakers find destruction and mistreatment of the serene grounds.  

Starting at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, Blackford and Jeremy Zeigler walk the grounds of West Union Street Cemetery and West State Street Cemetery. The caretakers pick up trash, trim trees and bushes and dig small 2-feet by 2-feet holes for cremation remains burials.

The groundskeepers oversee everyone underneath the ground they walk on.

Because the West State Street Cemetery is at capacity, the workers won't dig any new graves in it. Instead, they upkeep its landscape to maintain the respect they say it deserves. They want the unmarked infant graves to receive just as much respect as those who were buried in the 1800s and those who are rumored to be buried with their dogs.

“There are some tough things that go on,” Ron Lucas, Athens deputy service safety director, said. “But we have to do it.”

The West Union Street Cemetery isn't at capacity, but the city holds the open areas for veterans and for those whose families cannot afford to bury them. 

Lucas said there are times when he’ll visit the cemeteries two or three times a week, but there are others when he doesn’t make it down at all. Though he does not always walk the grounds, his administrative duties allow him to oversee the different aspects of the cemeteries.

A few months ago, Lucas helped a man find his way from Kentucky back to Athens, after the man spent 30 years away, to bury the cremated remains of his mother in a family-owned cemetery plot.

“Just watching that, I just stood back,” Lucas said, remembering the ceremony.

The man and his wife burned sage in the cemetery while wearing traditional Native American attire. As the sage burned, two bucks and a doe walked around the cemetery, seemingly fighting for the doe in a peaceful manner, Lucas said.

“Watching him and his wife perform the ceremony, it was moving,” he said.

Lucas hasn’t experienced one of the hardest parts of his job yet, though he has been devoting more time to the West Union Street Cemetery since August 2015 when the Athens Cemetery Association turned the cemeteries over to the city, he said.

Finding unmarked infant graves for grieving mothers posed a challenge for past caretakers, Lucas said.

“Unmarked. Sad. It’s just, who knows,” Lucas said as he struggled to find the words to describe what past caretakers have told him.

He added that those are the tough situations he is not looking forward to, but knows they will happen.

“But again that’s part of the uniqueness and the challenge of it, trying to dig up that history, seeing where all this happens,” he said.

Other days Lucas will receive requests from individuals to walk through the cemeteries to visit family members or see where they themselves will be buried one day.

“There’s a sadness to it, but there’s also an ease to it,” he said, adding that the grounds staff interacts with visitors more than he does.

Sometimes, the staff sees the historic plots of land vandalized on various levels.

“Anything from spray paint to adult things,” Blackford said. “Clothing and any kind of vandalizing.”

One year, some kids vandalized one of the bigger headstones in the cemetery by smashing whiskey bottles on it, he said.

George Enevoldsen, deputy director of lands and buildings for the city, said most vandalizing incidents happen when people use the cemetery as a shortcut to get somewhere on West Union Street.

“At the other cemetery we’ve had more monuments actually broken, kicked over. I don’t know why,” he said.

Enevoldsen said he has realized some individuals have a lack of respect for the cemeteries, and the groundskeepers have to make up for it.

“It’s not a church, but it's kind of spiritually related to a church, so you’ve got to have respect for the property,” he said.

He added that sometimes vases are broken, wreaths and flowers are stolen and headstones are pushed over.

“This isn’t just an ordinary field that you mow and maintain, you have to have respect for the people who are here,” Enevoldsen said.


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