I’m trying to sell a burial plot to a middle-aged couple as we wander through the cemetery of our church. Suddenly the plot thickens. A coffee truck driver starts winding his way through the new housing development under construction next door and repeatedly blares his horn just when I’m trying to market our cemetery as a peaceful resting place. I wonder if someone really can wake the dead. Even if there was a book called “Cemetery Plot Sales for Dummies,” I doubt it would address my noise dilemma. Note to self – sell plots on weekends or evenings when the construction has paused.
A couple of years earlier, I was cornered by someone on the cemetery board. They needed someone to fill the sales gig. “I don’t want to volunteer on your board … it’s a dead-end job!” I said. That line got laughs but didn’t deter the group from unanimously voting me onto the board since the guy I was replacing was moving. Now I know why he got out of Dodge. He must have heard about the new development.
At age 65, I became the young punk on the board bringing fresh energy and good bone density. My sales job description reads “responsible for selling plots and increasing revenues.” That seems morbid because apparently, I need people to die to be successful. But rest assured I’ve engaged in no unsavoury activity.
It’s surprisingly energizing to help people make decisions about which choice of burial or cremation plot makes sense for them and their families. Most discussions are with people doing advanced planning. They are comforted knowing their kids will have one less thing to deal with after they check out, while I’m comforted when their cheque is deposited into the cemetery account.
Our church in Markham, Ont., needs to sell plots to not only meet the needs of our parishioners but also to cover ongoing maintenance costs at the cemetery, such as grass cutting and repairs to fences and old headstones.
My meteoric rise on the board continued when the president retired a couple of months later and suggested I assume his role. “I’m new,” I replied, “Shouldn’t some of the other board members be considered ahead of me?” But his laughter said it all: no one wanted the job.
Now instead of being mired in middle management like I was for many years in the corporate world, I’m running an organization in my retirement years. I’m dealing with regulatory authorities, monument companies, fence contractors, people who open and close graves, property maintenance and church members.
I was determined to jump-start our lacklustre sales and boost our bottom line by advising parishioners that prices would go up significantly soon. (We haven’t increased prices in over 10 years while our costs have risen noticeably.) It worked, my phone rang off the hook, because everyone loves a deal, even at the cemetery. With apologies to Irving Berlin, “There’s no business like death business!”
But my campaign went too well and I sold all the available plots. Now I have to scramble and hire a contractor to precisely map out where additional new plots will be located on our remaining vacant land.
The cemetery board season is like baseball with lots of action from April through October. No one wants to buy a plot in January when the cemetery is covered in snow and ice. So my winter assignment is to write the year’s cemetery summary to be reviewed by the congregation in the annual general meeting. My report is a low priority for most people and I resist the strong temptation to simply write: “Some people died and we buried them.”
I might be a rising star in the cemetery business but one of my sons-in-law is decidedly unimpressed with my new career: “That’s dark Steve … very dark!” I don’t blame him, young people want to focus on work, raising kids and partying. It’s up to the older generation to run church cemeteries since we’re retired and able to volunteer.
I am really starting to get into this job. Some days I find myself sitting in my folding chair in front of numerous old plots from the 1800s trying to decipher what’s written on headstones. I want to figure this out before they are completely unreadable due to erosion from the weather and salt spray from the adjacent road. I need strong daylight and something gentle to brush dust away. Sometimes it takes several minutes to figure out a name or a date to add to our records.
In my searches, I’ve found a couple of old, buried, flat markers by using my steel-tipped walking pole to dig into the ground. It is exhilarating – like I’m an archaeologist making a new discovery. At this rate, I’ll soon be known as the “Headstone Whisperer.”
Now I’m looking into the feasibility of providing a wider array of burial options like a scatter garden or a columbarium to add more choices beyond cremation and burial plots. I’m on the road touring other cemeteries that provide these options and taking copious notes and pictures. When I find myself benchmarking our bylaws against those written by several other boards, it really hits me that my transformation into a cemetery nerd is just about complete.
Steve Watson lives in Markham, Ont.