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Not all is grave for a sexton

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Chad Daybell wrote a book about strange and funny stories about being a sexton at the Springville Cemetery.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SPRINGVILLE — Working as a cemetery sexton is not a dead-end job even though, technically speaking, every workday is a graveyard shift.

Chad Daybell said working among the headstones in Springville has left him with many memorable moments — from both the living and the dead.

"It's a physically demanding job," Daybell said. Duties include digging graves and keeping things tidy. While being a gravedigger isn't typically high on the list of glamorous professions, Daybell noted that one 4-year-old visitor once referred to him as "the sexy one."

The word sexton, or sacristan, is an Old English word for one who maintains church property, including graveyards.

In a place where death is a dominating subject, a sexton can still learn a lot about life, he said.

"Taking care of the graves is rewarding, as well as helping widows and grieving family members deal with the trauma," Daybell said. It is not uncommon for family members to look to the sexton as someone with whom they can talk about their feelings, he added.

"Sad times are always when you have to bury babies. That's always a poignant moment," Daybell said, leaning on a shovel amid the headstones in the Springville Cemetery where he worked until last year when he quit to write a book about his experiences.

Although "gravedigger" might raise eyebrows on a résumé, Daybell said he has come away with some fantastic stories.

"I couldn't really exaggerate or fabricate any of these stories, they're just too bizarre."

During his first week as a gravedigger, soon after a family buried a woman, they realized the woman was still wearing her wedding ring.

The young gravedigger, a newly returned LDS missionary at the time, found himself digging up the body.

"The mortician had to get down there, open the casket and pull the ring off her finger. That shook me up and gave me nightmares for a couple of weeks," he said.

Not all requests left him dealing with nightmares, but some definitely fell into the "head scratching" category. He tells of one man who wanted to set up a Christmas tree, complete with lights, on one grave.

"He wanted me to run an extension cord about 100 yards across the cemetery. He really got upset when I didn't agree to do that," he said.

Dealing with sometimes screaming, emotional people comes with the territory, Daybell said, but there times out in the cemetery that one gets an eerie sense that he's dealing with the dearly departed.

Pointing to a cluster of juniper bushes, he says, "I always get a creepy feeling right in the middle of those. I don't know what happened there and I don't know why; chills just go up your spine, like you're being watched."

Daybell said one of the most unsettling events occurred as he dug a fresh grave next to a plot notorious for being haunted.

"As I hit the vault of the haunted grave, I just felt a real jolt go through me like electricity and I felt a presence there," he said. "I just took off running and I didn't even look back, but I could feel 'it' on my tail. I ran all the way to my office in record time."

Daybell said he later returned to the site but took four crew members with him to keep him company.

Daybell said his prior experience as a copy editor for a daily newspaper prompted him to record his tales of the bizarre and unexplained for a book — "One Foot in the Grave" — describing the life of a gravedigger.

Halloween is a spooky time for most, and it can be downright scary for cemetery workers, Daybell said.

He said he was always on edge that night and would drive through the cemetery just to make sure everything was all right. He told of times finding kids playing full-fledged games of football and baseball in the middle of the cemetery. But, he said, nothing tops the time a rock band showed up for a funeral.

"I mainly wrote the book to let people know what really happens in a cemetery. It's not necessarily gory," he said, pausing before adding, "although there have been a few instances."

Daybell said he hopes to focus his career in the writing business but admits he still finds cemeteries a "fertile ground" for ideas.

Daybell said he hadn't given much thought to leaving the job until he turned 30 and realized that "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a cemetery," noting dryly that he fully expects to be back someday — on the other end of the shovel.

E-MAIL: gfattah@desnews.com