Caring for our cemeteries: Cherished landmarks require frequent upkeep

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2003

Perhaps in the dead of night when nobody’s looking, the residents of Elmwood Cemetery rise up to greet the beauty that surrounds them.

Perhaps they gleefully frolic and twirl about, walk hand-in-hand down tree-lined paths and skip and jump about like children &045;&045; all the while the scents of a ripening springtime filling their nostrils.

The image &045;&045; ghostlike as it may be &045;&045; would probably make Willie Peeples smile, though he’s seen enough joyous live people at the cemetery to know the above scenario might not be so far-fetched.

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Peeples, 45, superintendent of the city of Selma Cemetery Department, makes sure the grounds of the city’s five cemeteries are as ship shape as they can be.

And though the sites are repositories for human remains, many of the cemetery department’s workers see their surroundings as park-like and tranquil &045;&045; not melancholy or depressing.

The city’s cemeteries &045;&045; Old Live Oak, Live Oak, New Live Oak, Elmwood and Lincoln &045;&045; are maintained by Peeples’ crew of 22 full- time employees. With an annual budget of around $475,000, the department is in a good position to keep the acres and acres of grounds groomed and graceful. With the right equipment, Peeples says, maintenance is a smooth proposition.

In fact, it’s almost elegant &045;&045; a lawnmower ballet of sorts. Working in unison, a crew of 10 or so will push or ride their lawnmowers about the grounds in precise patterns, sometimes veering close to each other, other times steering well clear. Somehow, though, when the dust clears, the cemetery grounds are immaculate and the mowing men alive and well &045;&045; with limbs intact.

Camaraderie is the name of the game out here in the dead zone. Crew members must work together to complete the massive projects. For some, at least, that’s the best part of the job.

His buddy, 31-year-old Reginald Johnson, has similar thoughts.

That is, until crew members prepare for funerals.

Up to six people are generally needed for each funeral. According to Peeples, the crew will open &045;&045; meaning dig &045;&045; and close the graves, set up the outdoor carpet and tents and place flowers on the graves.

Upon receiving word of an upcoming burial service &045;&045; usually one or two days prior &045;&045; Peeples makes sure the correct cemetery division, plot and space within the plot is chosen.

So far &045;&045; at least in his 10 months on the job &045;&045; he’s chosen correctly every time. The challenge can be in the numbers, though. The crew oversees up to 10 funerals a week at times, and has had seven in one day. The funerals heat up, Peeples says, as the temperatures cool in the winter. There’s no telling exactly why. Peeples just stays ready, regardless of the time of year.

The funerals, themselves, though, sometimes take their toll on department employees.

Says Turberville: Funerals really get to you. I have nightmares about it when the people are kids. It gets personal.&uot;

But for those people already in the ground, Turberville has nothing but warm-and-fuzzy feelings.