When you are a groundskeeper at a cemetery, you tend to think of Memorial Day in a different way than most.
“It’s the Super Bowl of our job,” said Steve Pratt, 52, groundskeeper at Pines Cemetery in Spokane Valley. “If things aren’t perfect, it bothers me.”
Pratt has been a groundskeeper with the Fairmount Memorial Association since 2000, when a work-release job brought him to the cemetery. He had been in and out of trouble and prison for 25 years when at the age of 40 he had decided he was tired of that life. He liked working outdoors and keeping busy.
“I’m trying to give back to the community for what I call ‘my wrong-doings,’ ” he said.
Through the years, he’s worked at Greenwood and Fairmount cemeteries and moved to Pines Cemetery after Fairmount acquired it in June.
He took a two-year break from the cemeteries and started his own landscaping business, which he still owns, but needed the security of a full-time job.
At Pines, Pratt and groundskeeper Jean Germeaux, 37, spend their days maintaining the grounds and buildings. When headstones and markers begin to sink into the ground, they raise them. They also dig graves and prepare the grounds for services.
Pratt said he’s an early riser. He wakes up at 4 a.m., works out, chats with his wife before heading out to Pines to start his day.
“I never feel like I can get here early enough,” he said. “I get excited to come to work every day.”
He opens up the shop at 7 a.m. and plans the day. The Pines grounds crew also maintains South Pines Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery, a small neighborhood cemetery on Eighth Avenue in Spokane Valley.
On this day Pratt and Germeaux spend an hour digging a 5-by-12-foot grave. First, they place a wooden board on the ground and use spades to outline the area. They move the board away and pull the sod away in chunks and place them aside for later.
One of them operates a back hoe to scoop out dirt and rocks. The other hauls truckloads of dirt away from the gravesite. They said there are about two truckloads of dirt for every grave.
Things are different in winter.
“It’s got to get really cold multiple days in a row,” for the ground to freeze, Pratt said. When that happens, they have to use jackhammers to loosen the soil.
When the hole has been dug, they insert a large steel bottomless box called a tin into the hole to keep the sides from collapsing. The tin is removed just before they fill the hole after the service.
Pratt and Germeaux also prepare the earth for cremation urns and ready the area for a service. In a half-hour, the two have the hole dug and a tent erected. They lay artificial turf on the ground before they place plush-covered folding chairs under the tent as well as a table.
Groundskeepers also help visitors to the cemetery.
“There’s a lot of emotions and feelings you’ve got to deal with out here,” Pratt said. He often helps families look for a grave and tries to help them feel more comfortable. Before a service, they must know the needs and the expectations of the family.
“He’s just a hard-working guy,” said Denny York, president and CEO of Fairmount Memorial Association. “We’ve got a bunch of them.”
York said they have 15 full-time, year-round employees. During the summer months, they often hire 18 temporary groundskeepers.
Pratt said he loves doing what he does.
“Who doesn’t like to come to work to drive tractors,” he said.