Picture the life of a grave digger— callused hands from digging into hard dirt, a permanently stooped posture, working late into the night among the dead and pulling bare skeletons from the ground to exhume bodies…Now get rid of all those thoughts, because that’s not necessarily the job description.
John Barnes never thought he’d be digging graves for a living. In fact he’s been afraid to even enter a cemetery for most of his life.
“I’m the guy, that if I was driving down the road and a hearse pulled up beside me and we had to stop at the stop sign, I would turn just to keep from having to be beside that hearse,” he said.
Barnes refuses to watch scary movies. And now he’s in charge of opening and closing the graves at Rose Hill and White Oak cemeteries in Bloomington.
Digging a grave takes Barnes about 30 minutes with a backhoe—although he says he knows from talking to people who’ve had to dig one out by hand it takes about eight hours. To start, Barnes lays out the site using a plywood guide to be sure the lines are straight and the floor of the hole is level. The average hole is about 40 inches wide and truthfully, only about five feet deep. As Barnes digs a grave at White Oak his back hoe butts up against the edge of the grave next to it, uncovering the previously buried vault slightly. The two won’t touch, but Barnes says they’ll be no more than 5-inches apart, meaning he has to uncover the neighboring vault just to get this coffin in the ground.
The sod he unearths is used elsewhere in the cemetery and the dirt is stored, to close the same grave later and to build up fresh graves after a rain in an attempt to keep the lawn of the cemetery as even as possible. Barnes says by next summer, the grave he’s digging today should look like the ground was never disturbed. Barnes says he focuses on doing the best job he can every time—after all in the cemetery he wouldn’t want to risk it.
“Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I can say that like I told you before, I was a firefighter before I came here and I’ve seen a lot of things,” Barnesa said. “So somewhere in the back of my mind there might be something that’s not explained all the way…so ghosts…I don’t know.”
On a tour of the grounds, Barnes confesses he’d never open a grave at night – again, precautions.
“One of the first things I did when I started digging the graves here, was I walked around to make sure I didn’t see my name on any stones. I saw, there’s a few in here with the last name Barnes and there’s only one that I saw with the first name that goes along with it and then I was looking to see that there wasn’t an “L” for the middle initial and then I was ok.”
Barnes has also exhumed bodies, but says he’s never been tempted to look inside.
“In the back of your mind you know that that was put there so now all of the sudden you’re digging it out you know… I really don’t wanna know what’s in there,” he said. “I know basically what was in it before and then whatever comes out of it later I really don’t wanna know, because see, I have to sleep at night.”
Barnes says he’s never in a rush to get started in the morning. And who can blame him? After all not many people are in a hurry to get in the cemetery.