By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
STEVENSVILLE — Kevin Gebhard really digs his job.
Through the last 37 years, he’s become well accustomed to the Lincoln Charter Township Cemetery and Hickory Bluff Cemetery – which are a combined 25 acres – as the township’s cemetarian.
His responsibilities as public works director stretch beyond maintaining the two cemeteries, but the headstones keep him busy year round.
At 21 years old, Gebhard found himself between jobs when he was roped into digging his first grave.
“I was walking down St. Joe Avenue when a guy I knew from school, who was out working in the cemetery, called me over and asked ‘you wanna help me dig a grave?’” Gebhard recalled.
Work at both cemeteries can be cyclical, but Gebhard said he gets a lot of help during the summer when it comes to mowing and pulling weeds.
“By the time you’re done weeding the last row at one cemetery, it’s time to start to doing that at the other one because everything’s grown back by then,” he said with a laugh. “This is done all by hand since you can’t get around some of the headstones with a mower.”
In his early years, Gebhard said the township had a sexton whose only job was to dig graves. Going back three decades, the township only had two mowers and no maintenance building.
When it comes to digging graves, Gebhard guesses they average about 50 a year. At this rate over the course of his time with the township, Gebhard has dug nearly 2,000 graves.
But Gebhard said the township can go as long as two weeks without breaking ground before there’s a string of funerals that seem to come all at once.
Each grave is 3.5 feet wide and about 56 inches deep. The depth is equivalent to shoulder length for most people standing up.
“Digging someone’s grave six feet deep is a myth,” Gebhard said.
With one foot in
About five years ago, the township added granite columbarium units to its cemeteries at Gebhard’s request. A columbarium is a structure – either indoors or outside – that has niches for funeral urns to be stored.
They’ve grown in popularity since the township installed its first one, and Gebhard can see why.
“They pay for themselves. They are a good investment and it saves space in the cemetery,” he said. “Everybody is going that way. You get so many preferences out there when it comes to death. Some people do not want to go in the ground.”
In addition to the columbarium, Gebhard installed a “scatter garden” at Hickory Bluff Cemetery. The garden is an area for mourners to throw their loved one’s ashes into nature. Nearby the scatter garden is a wall with engraved names of those whose ashes have been spread in the native scenery.
For funeral proceedings, Gebhard said they usually stay back from the crowd. Watching people stand still in silence, saying goodbye to family and friends tends to be a difficult thing to watch.
Afterward, Gebhard and his crew breaks everything down and covers the casket.
Although some funeral homes prefer to handle some of these tasks.
“There are times when people like to stick around and watch the top go on,” Gebhard said. “Some like to throw a shovel-full of dirt (over the casket). Then they leave and we pull our cribbing boards out and fill it with dirt.”
Winter times can be tough because the ground is still frozen. However, Lincoln Township buries all year long.
Using a steel blade on an edger, crew members peel back the tough top layer of sod before digging farther down. Gebhard said he remembers how they used to dig graves by hand when he started – especially in the older part of the township’s first cemetery where it was hard to maneuver a tractor.
“I just like it when everything is green and growing well and there are no complaints,” he said. “Making everybody happy is hard to do, but it’s what drives you. I take a lot of pride in that.”
The hardest part of the job is digging graves meant for children.
“We’ve buried too many kids out here,” Gebhard said Wednesday while on site at Hickory Bluff. “It’s hard to see so many of your friends out here, too.”
On watch for thievery
Not everything that comes with Gebhard’s job is morbid.
One of the funnier memories he has at the cemetery came during the first year on the job. One day while walking through an old section of the cemetery, he fell through a grave.
“It was an old sectional vault and I went through the casket and was standing on the bottom (of the grave),” Gebhard said, shaking his head. “I was pretty new back then. My eyes were real big while I climbed out of there.”
Another memorable moment was when Gebhard was working at Hickory Bluff a few years back. There were several reports of stolen items from graves at various cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.
“I was down there working and I see this van coming around. A lady jumps out and grabs something really quick,” Gebhard said. “She went around the corner and did the same thing. This happened a few more times, so I went to the truck.”
Gebhard grabbed his radio from inside the maintenance truck and reached out to police.
By that point, she was gone and heading down Glenlord Road. Police cars went chasing after her but lost the van. About two minutes later, Gebhard’s old supervisor called him because he had been listening to all the commotion over the radio.
He radioed Gebhard and asked him to describe the van for him. As it turned out, the van was in front him on M-139.
“The cops followed her to her house,” Gebhard said. “Her whole yard was nothing but stolen cast-iron pots, flowers, decorations – the whole nine yards. That was fun prosecuting her.”
Ten years after the incident, Gebhard thought he saw the same thing happen when another woman got out of her vehicle and began grabbing a few shepherd hooks near graves that are used to support flowers.
Doing his due diligence, Gebhard called the police. The hooks turned out to belong to her family.
“I felt so low, but it looked exactly like the first time,” Gebhard said. “She was upset and we straightened it out. That was terrible. I learned a lesson there.”
A final headstone
Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter met Gebhard when she became clerk 16 years ago.
Oddly enough, Loar-Porter said her husband’s family has known Gebhard since they were kids where the two would go camping together. Born in Dowagiac, Gebhard’s family moved to the Stevensville area when he was in kindergarten.
“I think it’s amazing that he started here by mowing lawns and has worked his way up to where he is now,” Loar-Porter said. “We get lots of compliments from residents about him.”
He’s a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Cemeteries and has been on its Board of Directors from time to time.
In 2015, he was named Cemetarian of the Year. The award is based on a person’s longevity in the field as well as their dedication to the craft.
Loar-Porter said other cemeteries in the state nominated him for his knowledge of the profession.
“Whenever they called him with questions about something, he would always know the answer,” Loar-Porter said. “He helps us with a lot of history. People who go to our cemeteries on a regular basis to check on their families know him by his first name.”
There’s a lot of love and history that comes with cemeteries, Loar-Porter said. And she believes Gebhard is the reason the township has some of the best cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.
“When Kevin decides to leave I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “I’ve told him not to even think about it. He’s a big asset to the township.”
As for when he eventually kicks the bucket, Gebhard already knows what he wants on his headstone.
“Mine will read, ‘I told you I was sick,’” he said without pausing. “I thought my wife would get a kick out of that.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2017)