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A gravedigger’s to-do list: ‘Burial. Burial. Burial.’

A longtime cemetery worker is beloved — and never busier

Bobby Burke (right) has been a gravedigger for the city of Boston for 32 years. He inspected a newly-dug grave at the Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.
Bobby Burke (right) has been a gravedigger for the city of Boston for 32 years. He inspected a newly-dug grave at the Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

He’s dug the grave, a rectangular hole in damp ground, taking care to make sure its edges are sharp and true. Surgically precise. A final token of everlasting respect.

Carved gravel, 6 feet deep, has been carted away out of sight as Bobby Burke does what he’s been doing all of his adult life.

He’s burying people again. And again. And again.

In the middle of this coronavirus pandemic, he’s being pressed into extra duty like never before.

Suddenly, he’s an unofficial pallbearer, helping carry a white casket to its grave under a dank and leaden springtime sky at Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.

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Bobby Burke (center) helped carry a casket for a graveside service with funeral directors from the Riley Antoine Funeral Home.
Bobby Burke (center) helped carry a casket for a graveside service with funeral directors from the Riley Antoine Funeral Home.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Darkly dressed relatives and friends of the deceased stand back at a modest — and careful — distance.

“The last two weeks, I literally couldn’t even give people five minutes of my time,’’ he told me the other day as we sat — tightly masked — in the front seat of his Ford F-450 dump truck after his latest interment. “A couple of nights, I was here until 7. I’d say, ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye.’ Crazy.’’

Crazy. That’s one word for it. There are others: Danger. Duty. Dedication.

“When I first started out, I wouldn’t tell anybody I worked in a cemetery,’’ Burke said. “Everybody thinks it’s creepy or something.

“I see a casket and I know someone’s loved one is in there. I treat it like it’s gold until it’s in the ground. I do my job. I treat everybody with respect. I treat them like they’re my own family.’’

Bobby Burke is 54 years old now. He’s been cutting grass, digging graves, and directing funeral processions all of his adult life.

He’s good at what he does and, if you ask those who have supervised his work, or worked alongside him for years, what comes into focus is not the image of a gravedigger. Instead, think perfectionist.

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He raises the American flag outside his office in the morning and lowers it at dusk. He’s tending tulips. He’s supervising work crews.

And he’s burying people.

He’s burying people like never before.

Last April, Burke said he and his co-workers buried 28 people in Fairview Cemetery. By late last month, that number was 45.

Bobby Burke walked through Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.
Bobby Burke walked through Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“We’ve noticed the volume and I’ve noticed it on the face of our men and women,’’ said Tom Sullivan, the city’s director of cemeteries. “I’ve seen the wear and tear. We’re bending over backward to make sure that if someone needs a day off, we give them that.’’

Burke hasn’t needed it. At least not yet.

“He never stops,’’ said Deanine Bell, who has worked for the city for 21 years and handles the payroll and finances at Fairview Cemetery. “He’s the bomb. He always goes above and beyond. Behind that rocky exterior is compassion.''

To take a tour of the old cemetery with the man who has made it his life’s work is to get a crash history course about this undulant patch of Boston’s history.

“There’s Mr. Menino over there,’’ he said, pointing to a flag-festooned, handsome rectangular tombstone for the city’s longest-serving mayor, who Burke helped lay to rest in 2014.

“You get the best view in town on a clear night,’’ he said, gazing skyward. “You can see the planes heading for Logan. It’s the most beautiful place.

“You know how people think the cemetery guys are creepy? You know that stigma? ‘They must love death.’ No. We don’t love death. But you have to wear a lot of hats in this job. You have to be sympathetic.’’

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He’s worked where he grew up — not far from the housing project where he was raised in a working-class neighborhood, the middle child of hard-working parents. He still lives with them in Brockton, now just a 20-minute commute away.

He graduated from high school in 1984 and imagined his life unspooling as a city firefighter or policeman. But first, there was a summer job that would change his life: He was cutting cemetery grass in Boston.

“Within a year, the guy said, ‘Do you want to stay?’ And I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ And I stayed. I got my backhoe license.’’

And then one year became two, then five. And as of last month, 32.

He thought he had seen it all.

There’s the nearby wildlife: hawks, turtles, geese, swans. There are regular visitors, family who faithfully pay their respects at loved ones’ graves.

“I’ve had people crying in my arms, saying, ‘I can’t believe you did that. That was so nice.’ That’s not why I do what I do,’’ he told me. “I’m good at what I do. So that’s why I do it. It’s very rewarding.’’

And, now, he’s doing it like never before in the face of this terrifying pandemic that has changed the rhythms of our world.

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“In the end, my job is to bury people,’’ he told me as we headed toward the cemetery’s gates. “So why sit here and dwell on it. We try to do the best we can for the family.

“I love it. I’m here every day. I haven’t taken a sick day in 28 years. I’m a fool. I’m a working fool. But like I say: It’s outside work. Look at that view. It’s great.''

As the latest funeral moves off, somber-faced mourners piling into the black cars that make up a small procession, Bobby Burke offers his elbow to the funeral director.

The two men — colleagues, friends — exchange what’s become the COVID-19 handshake.

Their elbows touch gently and just for a moment. And then the black funeral limousine drives off and Bobby Burke climbs behind the wheel of his dusty dump truck.

The day is young, but — already — there’s another hearse waiting at the gates of Fairview Cemetery.

And, once again, Bobby Burke waves to its driver and then gives a silent, unmistakable signal.

Follow me to the grave, it says.

Bobby Burke knows where his own final resting place is.

His mother bought a four-grave plot in Blue Hill Cemetery from a door-to-door salesman in 1972.

That, he hopes, lies in his very distant future.

For now, he’s focused on his job.

“We probably should be cutting grass in the next week or two,’’ he said. “We can take care of that. But we continue with just burial, burial, burial, burial, burial, burial, burial.

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“They’re canceling everything else. Are they going to cancel Memorial Day?’’

He’s pretty sure he already knows the answer to that.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.