Lessons From A Grave Digger


With Halloween being nearby and all the “fake headstones” popping up on people’s front lawns, I got to thinking about my first real job as a grave digger.

I learned some very important lessons that have stuck with me. There’s a lot here so be patient please.  I think they’re lessons helpful for all of us.   

Sometimes in a training session you get caught in an “Icebreaker Exercise” and are asked to share “Your first real job”.  When I was 16 and 17 years old, from the beginning of May till that September’s Labor Day, I worked at the town’s cemetery.  

When I mention it I get questions like “What was that like?”  (It was the most beautiful work place ever) “Did you really dig graves?” (No, I didn’t actually dig the graves (the backhoe did) but I did jump in, fill them and then tamp the dirt down by hand)),  or “Did you see anything bad? (Well let’s just say that after the family leaves, the “lowering” part doesn’t always go so smoothly)”.  I then quip something like “I learned a lot”. 

And I did.  And as I look back, the lessons are deep and very valuable to me.  These lessons deserve a renewed attention.  

I met a great friend in Brian  who at the end of the second summer, went on to travel the world playing horns for the musical “Showboat” on a Cruise ship.   From him I learned that if you have a dream, you have to take some risks.  This kid auditioned and got rejected way more than he was selected.  I want to work a little harder and take some risks as this year is almost over and not sure that I’ve stretched far enough.

I met a fellow worker named Jack whose dream it was that it would rain really hard so he could sit in the garage and do nothing, absolutely nothing.  He was the most miserable man I’ve ever met.  He hated his job, his life and everyone around him.  I hated him right back.  From him I learned what you become when you hate what you do and feel like a victim.  I want to remember that more when I think I’m having a tough day because unlike Jack, I refuse to be a miserable waste of space.

I met Bill, my first real boss I guess,  and I learned from him that a boss’s job is not to help you out or to “own” the business ( or the cemetery),  but rather to tell you what to do, go back the private office and have a drink.   I’m thankful my second real boss (at a department store one year later) Mr. Newman, untaught me that lesson right quick.   I want to remember more that the word “support” ought to be in my and every leader’s title literally and figuratively.

I met Mr. Sony Walkman (yes it was a cassette player walkman in those days) and learned early that listening to music all the time while working was a waste of precious time.   I put my first cassette tape in of somebody saying something smart instead of singing way back then while mowing grass in “A” block.   I want to spend more time “listening” to smart people and starting tonight will listen to that stuff while on the treadmill instead of Led Zeppelin.

I met Mr. Job Satisfaction.  This one is a tough one.   It’s a lesson harder for me to apply as often now as it was then.  There was a great feeling then of a job well done when you finished your day and saw that grass you mowed was now perfect and those headstones were neatly trimmed.  It was an awesome feeling.    In what I do today (and for some of you too); those immediate results and rush of knowing you did your job well or helped someone isn’t always as easy to see.    I bet a lot of folks on my staff struggle sometimes here too, so I want to work harder at finding and articulating the results of the work we do.

Lastly, the greatest lesson I learned stemmed from having the privilege to meet police officers, soldiers, nurses, leaders, business owners, mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers; heroes all.   Some had been at the cemetery for years and some came to stay for good those two summers I worked there.  I knew even then as a “know it all” teenager that I owed them good work, my attention and for the veterans, a crisp clean flag on Memorial Day.  The deepest lesson didn’t sink in until having watched nearly every day while on my lunch break sitting at the edge of the trees, a typically older person drive up with flowers, water and garden tools.  He or she would spend the next two hours standing or sitting, talking aloud and landscaping the grave site of what had to heartbreakingly be a husband, a wife or on occasion, a child.         

I learned then that those were the people I was working for.   Those were the people my work helped and made a real difference to.   You can whine about co workers, job conditions, bosses, your walkman, job satisfaction or anything else you want but if your job is to help someone else, that’s pretty much the most important part of what you do.    Those visitors every day showed me that, and for the rest of those summers, I worked for them. 

Those customers or employees you help everyday.  Those are the people I suspect you and I really work for.  Those are the people you and I help. 

I want to work a little harder remembering that and that’ll be good; it’s probably the best grave digger lesson of all.  

Till next time,

Grow The Business.



One thought on “Lessons From A Grave Digger

  1. Great story. I also have learned a lot from visiting my city’s cemetary. It has taught me to live life to the fullest and to appreciate every breath, every friend, every sunset. I don’t find anything creepy about cemetaries. In fact, it is the best place to unwind and let go of unwanted stress. Cemetaries remind you that your journey has an end and that our time on earth is incredibly small. Walking on a cemetary lawn is very peaceful and the folks below don’t talk about you after you leave. In short, don’t take yourself so seriously! In one hundred years no one will give a damn about your trophys or doctoral degree. The best way to leave your print on the eternal landscape of time is to help someone along the way. Help a lady cross the street. Help an old man mow his lawn. Help a little one with his or her homework. Shake a person’s hand and thank them for all that they do. In the end, that’s all that matters. Nothing else.

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