Spook hunters OK, busy cemetery workers say; but beware, clear out by 10 at night

Bob Johnstone removes leaves from around grave markers at Orchard Mesa cemetery, where the tasks involve mostly maintenance, not just digging graves, according to David Nave, the crew leader at the cemetery.

In the next few days, David Nave expects to be buried in work.

For reasons unknown to him, springtime and late October and early November are the busiest times of year for burials at Orchard Mesa Cemetery. As cemetery crew leader, Nave, 47, expects to spend the next couple weeks digging graves and preparing for funerals, tasks that usually only make up 10 to 15 percent of his job. The rest of his time is spent working on sprinklers and irrigation, picking up leaves or shoveling snow, mowing, trimming around headstones and maintaining about 800 trees.

“When you’re working in a cemetery, you have to have a fair amount of knowledge about horticulture,” Nave said.

Though busy, Have said he’s usually gone after 5 p.m. If a visitor wants to search for a spirit around Halloween, that’s a “personal choice,” Nave said. Just be out by closing time at 10 p.m.

“After that, they might get a courtesy call from one of Grand Junction’s finest and get escorted out,” Nave said.

The only time Nave is in the cemetery after dark is when a funeral runs late and crew workers have to wait for the mourning party to depart.

“There’s a few times we’ve been out here with flashlights burying” people, Nave said.

When a funeral comes up, workers use a backhoe to dig a grave at least 24 hours ahead of interment. If it’s wintertime, Nave and his colleagues use an electric jackhammer to break through the frost before bringing in the backhoe.

“We put boards over it so no one falls in,” Nave said.

It sounds like spooky work, but Nave insists it’s not depressing.

“Emotionally, sometimes physically, it’s not a job everyone can handle. But most of my co-workers like what they do,” he said.

Nave said he began working at Grand Junction Memorial Gardens in 1991 “as a necessity.” But he learned to love the work. He left Memorial Gardens in 1996 and worked in parks before returning to cemetery work nine years ago.

Nave said his family understands his job, but he usually gets a strange look when he tells other people what he does for a living.

“It’s usually a facial expression that says, ‘Oh my God, you work with dead people?’” he said. “It freaks some people out.”

Others ask him if he sees bodies, which he usually doesn’t.

There are less-than-enviable days on the job, such as the days he has to disinter a body, something that usually happens once every two or three years but has happened five times in the past year. Then there are the better days, such as when he gets to witness a military funeral with full honors, something that tugs at Nave’s heart as a former member of the military. Some days are just fascinating, such as the day of a car club member’s funeral, where 200 classic cars made up the funeral procession.

Each day is one to deliver respect.

“We have a pun that we’re the last to let you down. It’s more of an honor than a pun,” Nave said.

People leave more than their loved ones behind in a cemetery. Stuffed animals are a common site on children’s graves. Other people leave coins. Glass is not allowed in the cemetery, but that doesn’t stop people from leaving a variety of liquor bottles.

“People come to share a drink with their long-lost loved one and put a can of beer on a headstone. In a couple days in 100-degree weather, it explodes all over the place,” Nave said.

The cemetery has many sections, and some headstones are old enough to include birth dates from the 18th century. One of the newer parts of the cemetery is a baby section, which Nave pushed supervisors to create.

There are about 20,000 grave markers in the cemetery, Nave said, although the number of people buried there probably is closer to 30,000 because some people couldn’t afford headstones long ago. Someday Nave will be added to that total. His ashes will go next to his wife, who died in January. The idea of spending the rest of his days where he spent many of his living ones doesn’t frighten him.

“Death is part of life, and I’ve accepted that,” Nave said.


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