Despite the stigma associated with those who bury the dead for a living, it did not stop the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Rod Stewart, Tom Petty and Joe Strummer of The Clash who for parts of their lives worked as gravediggers.
The gravediggers at Catholic Cemeteries + Crematoria have seen many sad and beautiful things during their time digging graves at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney’s west. They have witnessed significant cultural shifts and watched waves of migrants, bringing with them their own burial practices.
Mark Mills, the Cemetery Services Supervisor has spent 16 years in the industry and is humble about the work he provides for the community. He believes working in this industry has brought him a deeper appreciation of different cultures and faiths. He has learnt that everyone is different and while you can have a laugh with some, others are much more serious.
Over the years Mills and his fellow gravediggers have observed the rituals of thousands of Anglo-Saxons, Italians, Croatians, Maronites, Chinese, Vietnamese, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos at Rookwood Cemetery.
In all kinds of weather, Mills stands beside many graves, while more than 2000 grieving families each year say goodbye to loved ones. The job is not easy, they often have to fight Mother Nature along the way and navigate difficult terrain with rocks, heat or rain. The team are experts in machine operation skills and the art of making a gravesite presentable.
It is a job that requires both technical skills and emotional sensitivity. As Mills explains “Some people think that we don’t have feelings, but we do. You have to carry out the practical and look after the family and their loved one. It is hard when bad weather and physics sometimes work against you. It’s a juggle between the physical sides of the job with the more emotional.”
One of the highlights of his career is helping the public, so much so that Mills and his team go out of their way to support people in their time of need. Mark believes being compassionate is important. “We try to be invisible whilst the service is taking place, but are there if the family needs us.”
When most of the mourners have left the gravediggers stay to lower the casket and refill the grave. Mills explains that at this moment of back-filling a person’s grave “I get a feeling like we’re pulling the blanket up on the person for the last time.”
There are difficult days, like when there is a service held for a young child. He is aware how heart-breaking it is for the family, especially when the coffin comes out and was moved when a priest recently thanked him for his dedication. Mills said “This job is a calling and someone is giving me the strength to fulfill it.”
Mills is an advocate for finding better ways to do something through working closely with his team. He often asks them for their ideas, as they are the ones in the field and have a better understanding of what can be accomplished.
He believes the result is “Staff will have more satisfaction at work and better service for the families.” By allowing the team to speak up and implement innovative ideas Catholic Cemeteries can meet customer expectations and find the best way to honour their family member. An example of this was providing stands for better funeral presentation.
On occasion, Mark receives a hug from an appreciative family member or friend as a way to say thank you when words fail them. Mark understands how important it is to take care of everyone who comes to Catholic Cemeteries for their final farewell.
He quietly explains “Whether a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a partner or friend, they were someone special to someone.”