Paul Harris had a shovel in his hand as he stood six feet deep in the earth, working to square off the edges of the grave he and other City of Boston workers were digging at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan on Saturday.
“I have the important job of taking care of people’s loved ones," said Harris, a 15-year veteran of the city Cemetery Department as they prepared a grave site in the veterans section of Mount Hope.
Harris and his colleagues have been working essentially nonstop for about two months as the coronavirus pandemic claims victims by the dozens — and relatives and friends turn to the city’s three active cemeteries as final resting places for their loved ones.
Last year, the city provided burial services for an average of 35 funerals a month, according to Ryan Woods‚ the city parks commissioner who oversees the Cemetery Department. Last week alone, there were 21 burials.
"We are doing almost triple the amount of burials,'’ said Woods.
And while some other city agencies have seen their work schedules reduced to alternating weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Cemetery Department is one of the few departments where all hands are on a pre-pandemic schedule of five days on — and sometimes a sixth.
Woods said the cemetery initially had decreased working hours, too. Then the coronavirus deaths began to mount: “We’ve had to call everyone back."
The experience in Boston has not been universal, according to Angela Snell, president of the Massachusetts Cemetery Association, a trade association.
"Some of our members are experiencing increased number of burials and some of us, like my cemetery, [are] probably having the same amount of burials we usually do,'' said Snell, who oversees the town of Shrewsbury’s Mountain View Cemetery.
However, Snell noted that due to the ban on public gatherings — and especially the limit of 10 people at a graveside — more and more people are choosing to wait for those restrictions to end before interring cremated remains, she said.
And when those restrictions on the number of people who can grieve are gone, interments of cremated remains will spike upward, probably sometime this summer. "We believe a lot of people are waiting for a late date to have the service at the cemetery,'' she said.
At the 275-acre Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, the number of burials and committal services has doubled. George H. Milley III, president of the cemetery, said the the cemetery and its staff are capable of handling the increase.
But what Forest Hills wasn’t able to handle was the huge surge in members of the public who turned the narrow roads marbled through the cemetery into a recreational area as they sought places to walk, teach children how to ride their bikes, jog, and bicycle. The cemetery’s entryway was transformed to an overcrowded parking lot, Milley said.
“We saw an incredible uptick in recreational activity in the cemetery that was unsafe. We have traffic in our cemetery and had we little children on bikes in the middle of the street, dog walkers, joggers … No one was social distancing,’’ he said. “With the huge uptick in funeral services, to have that recreational activity at the same time was not providing for a dignified committal service.”
Last Wednesday, Forest Hills closed its gates except for funerals and a daily two hour window for visitors to graves.
“We hung in there as long as we could. But we finally had to shut down,’’ said Milley.
Woods, of the city’s parks department, said no such recreational surge has so far taken place in the active cemeteries — Mount Hope, Evergreen in Brighton and Fairview in Hyde Park.
Currently, the majority of burials are taking place in the Fairview cemetery, where 1,400 gravesites are available. Veterans sections in Mount Hope are in use for veterans; if someone owns a plot in any of the three cemeteries, the city will open a burial site, he said.
He said staff are enforcing the 10-person limit for graveside services, but are doing so in a compassionate manner.
“We really don’t want to interfere with the grieving family,’’ he said.
John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.