Essential Workers: Gravediggers say job affected by coronavirus


Memorial Gardens employees Gilberto E. Franco, far, and Bruce Porter fill in a grave March 7 at Memorial Gardens in Mount Pleasant, MI.

Gilberto E. Franco, an employee of Memorial Gardens, massaged dirt from his calloused hands. 

His face grew grim as an instrumental of Amazing Grace was heard from across the gravel road separating him from a group of amassing mourners. He looked to the ground and readjusted his sweat-stained Cabela’s hat.

Across the road, masked family and friends stood swaying to the faint music. They were grouped into different clusters, which stood about six feet apart. 

“This is the hardest part,” Franco said under his breath. “I started this job one year after my dad died, and it still gets to me sometimes.”

Two hours earlier, Franco, his coworker Bruce Porter and Joe Wheeler, a vaulter from Fenton, were preparing a grave for the deceased.

Before long, the three men watched as the family said their goodbyes. Then, each took part in lowering the body of an 86-year-old woman into the grave they had prepared.

Porter said it was the first burial at Memorial Gardens in two weeks. 

Because of coronavirus concerns, dressing the gravesite with carpet and curtains was discouraged. Wheeler said he usually puts up a tent around the burial site for the family but could not because of standing room restrictions. 

On March 24, an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer went into effect, shutting down businesses not deemed essential or "critical infrastructure."

"Businesses and operations that do work that sustains or protects life can continue to perform that work in person," Whitmer said. "But in doing that critical work, they must take aggressive steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible."

The executive order from the governor laid off Franco and Porter from doing anything but preparing graves. Wheeler, whose job is creating and delivering vaults for burials, said his job has not been affected by the order.

Porter said the majority of Franco and Porter’s tasks are things other than preparing graves for burials. Franco admitted that is hard to even pinpoint a title for himself and Porter.

“The terms ‘gravedigger’ and ‘undertaker’ are too menacing and don’t really encompass everything we do for Memorial Gardens,” Franco said, sharing a laugh with Wheeler. “There’s really no titles for this line of work.”

Porter said the men are also responsible for mowing the grass twice a week, beautifying gravesites and pulling plot markers in the spring. Other jobs, like installing name plaques, require two people, which goes against Gov. Whitmer’s order.

Porter said when things go back to normal, he does not look forward to playing catch up. He added that he misses his job, and Franco agreed.

“Believe it or not, this job is rewarding,” Franco said. “I am able to take care of the memories of people’s family, and for those that no longer have family around, it’s my duty to be there to look after them too.”