Carefully, the two men measured out a rectangle on the grass — 8 feet long, 3 feet, 9 inches across — and marked it off with orange spray paint.
Then they stood to the side solemnly and watched as Fernando Rivera plunged the teeth of the backhoe into the ground, still hard with winter, and began digging the grave for Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy.
Rivera has been digging graves for 40 years at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, and he has dug too many to remember. But he remembers every one in this field. This field, he said, is different.
He gestured with his hand toward a spot a few yards away, where a flat headstone marks the last time he dug in the Fireman’s Lot. It holds Warren J. Payne, one of two firefighters who died in a blaze at a West Roxbury restaurant seven years ago.
In the brotherhood of Boston firefighters, the Fireman’s Lot is hallowed ground. It is a place no one wants to end up in, in a profession that commands respect because they might. Since 1858, the small stretch of grass on a gentle hill has served as the final resting place for 15 Boston firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice, who died in the line of duty. On Thursday, Kennedy, one of two men killed in a horrific blaze in the Back Bay last week, will become number 16.
Hector Ortiz, the interment foreman at the cemetery, watched as Rivera’s backhoe continued its work. The job of a gravedigger is a somber task, Ortiz said, one that he and his crew take very seriously. They owe each person a respectful burial, he said, a proper grave.
But there are times, he acknowledged, when they cannot deny that it is different: A child. A baby. A firefighter.
So when word came last week that the worst had happened, that they would again need to dig in the Fireman’s Lot, Ortiz and another worker went to the small grassy field, climbed the monument at its center, and draped its four sides in purple-and-black bunting, the bunting of mourning. Passing cars beeped their horns.
They placed two American flags in the ground at its granite base, and would have cleaned the statue at its top, the 9-foot bronze firefighter staring pensively off into the distance. But Ortiz said there was no need. The statue is nearly 100 years old, but it still looks brand new. That’s because firefighters arrive regularly to wax and polish it.
Purchased in 1857 by the Charitable Association of the Boston Fire Department at a cost of $3,400, the 249 gravesites at Fireman’s Lot were initially set aside for indigent firefighters, an attempt to keep them out of a pauper’s grave. But over time, the lot morphed into what it is today, a spot reserved for those who gave up all.
It is a modest burial ground; flat head stones only, so that from the distance, the gentle hill looks like a field of inviting grass.
In 1909, the 26-foot-tall memorial was added. At its dedication, a poem was read: “All honor unto gallantry / in reverence we pay / that others might have days to be / these gave their lives away / now glory shall enshrine each name / and times their deeds defy / since humble men who sought no fame / have taught us how to die.”
Not every firefighter who dies in the line of duty is interred in the Fireman’s Lot. Because the plots are limited to fallen firefighters, some choose to be buried elsewhere with family. Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr., who also died in the Back Bay blaze, was buried Wednesday in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Watertown alongside his father, a former Watertown firefighter.
“They gave it their all,” Ortiz said of the two fallen firefighters as the backhoe continued along its somber task. “They ran into a burning building to save lives, to protect us, and they didn’t come out. They gave their lives for others. To die in the line of duty, it’s a —” He stopped and searched for the word.
“It’s a big thing,” said Rob Piantedosi said, finishing the sentence. Piantedosi is a relatively new employee at Forest Hills. Last year, while working at Puritan Lawn Memorial cemetery in Peabody, he helped dig the grave for Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who was allegedly killed by the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombings.
As the backhoe tore heaping shovelsful from the earth, the workers followed its movements with their own shovels, manicured the edges, smoothed the dirt, served as Rivera’s eyes so that he did not damage the vault holding the coffin of the firefighter buried just next to Kennedy’s grave.
Typically, it takes them less than 30 minutes to dig a grave. On this day, an hour passed, and they were still at it.
When it was finally finished, when the corners were as square as they could get them, the men moved slowly, in no rush to leave.
Carlos Pizzaro lowered a ladder into the hole and climbed down into the darkness. There he used a rake to smooth the dirt, back and forth, back and forth, trying to get it flat, neat, clean, perfect. No one would ever see it — by the time the procession arrives carrying Kennedy’s body, the opening will be covered by a vault — but it still mattered to Pizzaro.
Because this, he said, is different.
Pizzaro is 23, grew up in Puerto Rico, and does not want to dig graves forever. No, he has been working on his English, studying hard, hoping to fulfill a dream that began when he was a small boy and his father gave him a special gift: a toy firetruck.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name of Luis Hernandez in a photo caption.