Grave digger reveals toughest part of burying people

You can't be afraid of ghosts to be a grave digger.

Sheree Stout isn't afraid of them although she does believe in them. Anything else - God, heaven, hell - she's not sure about, but is open-minded.

"In this job you can't be too opinionated."

She's not afraid of angry ghosts in the cemetery.

"It's my job to make sure everyone is at rest here," she says, "and they are at rest. If they weren't, then I wouldn't be very good at my job."

This is lucky because she lives onsite. As long as she's good at her job, there's less risk of vengeful spirits hanging around her living room.

Sheree has been head sexton at Waikumete Cemetery for two years, after starting out as a gardener. It's not a job you need qualifications for, as most of the training is on the job.

She's responsible for everything from organising burial services with families, to digging graves and operating the crematorium oven.

The cemetery is enormous, sprawling 108 hectares and housing some of the oldest graves in the country.

How is a grave dug?

To start, it's not six feet deep. "It's five feet, six inches," says Sheree (1.68m). The depth is chosen because it allows a double burial. One member of the family goes in first and another can be added at a later date.

They're not all the same width either.

"A lot of people think we just dig the same-sized hole each time."

This doesn't happen. There needs to be a certain amount of earth either side of the coffin, so the coffin size varies the size of the hole.

Some are still hand-dug in the case of a child or not being able to access it with a digger. And the depth is measured with a tape measure to ensure the correct depth. 

"Measuring, measuring, measuring!" says Sheree.

She has little patience for people who suggest multi-stacking of graves to get around over capacity problems. 

"Stacking graves… it isn't viable," she says. 

The deeper the dig, the more unstable the earth becomes and collapses in on itself. Anything other than double-stacking or the occasional triple just doesn't work. 

"We've been burying people for a long time now," she says, "and double-depth is the best and safest arrangement." 

They do offer shallow graves of three feet (91cm) in their natural burial section, however regulations state that there must be at least 800mm of soil on top of the coffin. 

Are Kiwis getting more open about death?

As part of Kiwis getting more open about funerals, cemeteries are increasingly opening themselves up to the public. Sheree was part of the recent Waikumete open day, which saw more than 3,000 people attend the cemetery. 

The chapel, crematorium, and crematorium oven were all opened with the aim of "demystifying the process".

One of the biggest misconceptions around cremation is that the coffin moves through the door in the chapel directly into the flames. 

"This is a myth" says Sheree, opening the door to show a long corridor. 

The body is taken down the corridor, which is a public viewing area, placed into a section behind glass screens, and then placed into the oven (first making sure there are no pacemakers in the body. They have a nasty habit of exploding).

The cremation process takes roughly 1.5 hours, after which the bones are removed. This is another myth: many people believe the body is reduced to ash in the fire. In fact, it is still in bone form, and is then transferred to a machine to be crushed into ashes. The process is necessary to handle metal parts such as hip replacements. 

"These days people have more metal in them than bone," says Sheree. 

She and the other staff rarely have to see the body itself - although occasionally families will ask for rings to be returned and they'll have to open the coffin.

What's the best and worst part of the job? 

Gravedigging has its highlights, like any job, she says. 

"It is a job with more highlights than lows, even though we are in the death business."

When an individual comes in who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness they can feel disempowered over their life. Being able to guide them through their choices for the funeral and to be part of that process is something that's very special to Sheree. 

One of the hardest parts is dealing with the death of a staff member. This is perhaps more common that you'd think, as when sextons arrive in a cemetery they tend to stay for life. 

"We recently just lost a very close member of our team who'd been working with us for over 20 years," says Sheree. 

They were involved in the process of burying him, which did make the job hard. 

"Not that we disassociate ourselves from the job normally, but you have to have that little bit that you keep to yourself… and that's hard when it's someone you know." 

Has it changed the way she looks at death?

Since taking this job, Sheree has become more conscious especially of situations like driving. 

"We had this person come in, he'd been hit pulling out of a give way sign," says Sheree. 

It's occasions like that which make her think more about being more careful in real life. After all, when you're in the industry of death, it becomes very clear that it comes to us all at some point.