Caretaker of the cemetery

Cemetery caretaker — officially, the oddest job I’ve ever held.

One of my tasks for the rest of this year is to pay a lot more attention to my career. There are a lot of steps involved — looking where I am, deciding where I want to go, assembling resources to get there — but a major step is always to do a have/need analysis. What do I have with which to work, and what do I need to get where I want to go? And a large part of the ‘have’ equation involves the skills developed over time.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I sat down and listed every job I’ve ever had, and what I learned to do while on those jobs. I went all the way back to my days as a six-year-old recess monitor, through my high school and college days as a waitress and catering cook, and into my ‘adult’ work life, where I started as a journalist.

In my current incarnation, I’m in-house chief counsel for a corporation. In my journey through corporate land, I’ve held some intellectually interesting positions — regulatory and compliance officer, tax manager, audit specialist, human resources director. I’m experienced in a variety of legal areas like regulatory, tax, contract and intellectual property. And litigation, of course — if you’re a lawyer you can’t escape litigation in one form or another. I am still responsible for some of these areas as counsel at our company.

But on my list two labels stood out — building services manager and cemetery caretaker.

I was part of a new management team at a previous company, and as the last to join the team, I was designated building services manager. How hard could that be, I naively thought? Hard — but also educational. You see, our building started life as a tiny shed at a manufacturing site decades before, and each succeeding decade had seen at least one addition to that shed. When I arrived, the building was a three-story tall, rectangular hodge-podge warren of oddly-shaped offices and tiny spare rooms. And the ‘services’ — the plumbing, heating, air conditioning, wiring and security system — were all at least two decades old.

In the first six months, I dealt with a mid-level wing with freezing cold air conditioning, a bathroom that periodically either flooded or lacked water, and a security system that had decided to drive me crazy with false alarms. I dug in and compiled a list of reputable (and cost-efficient) plumbers, HVAC repairers and electricians. But I also decided that, if I was going to do that job, I should learn how the systems worked. At least that way, I could be certain I wasn’t being overcharged for unneeded repairs.

By the time I left that company, I could rewire the tempermental security panel, fix leaks, kick-start (sometimes literally) stubborn AC units. I also knew enough about plumbing to devoutly hope I never had to face a ruptured septic system again.

But that was not the oddest job I’ve held. That honor goes to the position I took between college graduation and the start of my paralegal studies.

Cemetery caretaker.

You see, after I graduated from college, I looked over the offers to work at various newspapers and discovered — I didn’t really want to be a journalist. Probably would have been better to learn that earlier, but at least I’d honed my writing and research skills. I talked over my options with family, friends, counselors and strangers in the supermarket, and finally decided to become a paralegal as a test step before law school. After all, I explained to my parents, if I became a paralegal and found I hated the law, then I wouldn’t have wasted money on a law degree. I’d have only spent a tiny fraction of money on a four-month paralegal course.

There was only one problem — the course wouldn’t start for another seven months. I’d need a job, and at that point, there was an economic downturn in progress, and the jobs available were being snatched up by people who’d lost employment in the factories.

Our church came to my aid. The pastor needed another person to work as a cemetery caretaker.

Well. That was a rather — unusual — job offer. I can still recall the first question out of my mouth. “I won’t have to dig up any graves, right?” Right. Since I didn’t have a license to operate a backhoe, that wasn’t going to be a problem. No, they needed me to do the mundane things. Rake leaves and grass cuttings. Water the flowers. Clean up headstones. And so, doubtfully, I agreed.

It was a wonderful job. Yes, the work could be hard — raking anything on a cemetery that measures a city-block long and wide is tiring and timeconsuming. The grass was cut every week, and I’d spend an entire day just gathering up the cuttings and trimming around each and every headstone. The leaves fell regardless of season, and I learned to dread heavy rainstorms, which would mean I’d be raking wet, extra heavy piles of leaves.

We won’t even discuss the birds. Just be assured they seemed to hate clean headstones and did their best to ensure they never were clean.

But it was also fascinating work. The entire history of my town was in that cemetery, back to its founding in the 1860’s. By reading the stones, and comparing names and dates and places, I could track workplace disasters in the mines, and periodic uprisings against the mine owners. Entire sections of the cemetery were devouted to victims of a long-forgotten cholera epidemic and the blissfully-ignored Spanish flu. There were people who’d been born in dozens of foreign countries and traveled here in search of a better life, and people who’d been born and spent their entire lives in this one small town.

There was the uncle I never knew I had — my father’s twin, who died as a toddler.

I took a number of skills from that job — perseverance, a skill at raking large areas — and a finely-honed ability to put together two or more seemingly-unrelated facts and come up with a story.

A skill I will be putting to use in this upcoming year. Putting together seemingly-unrelated abilities that I possess, and seeing where they can take me in my career. I discovered, as part of this enormous list of jobs and skills, that I have a lot of interesting skills and talents to offer to others.

Final note: this was supposed to be posted yesterday, but for reasons unknown, my internet connection went haywire. I could see the net. I just couldn’t upload to the net. Working fine now, though. I may need to dig back to those building services skills and beat up on the wiring again.


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