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Death, Be Not Proud ...

But don't tell that to the groundskeepers at Elmwood.



I don't mean to be indelicate, and I certainly don't mean to scare you. Okay, it's Halloween, and perhaps I do mean to scare you. But facts, grim or not, must be faced: Someday, you will be as dead as a spade, as cold as a fish stick lost in some remote corner of the Frigidaire. You will lie numb as rubber in your satin-lined box, rouged up like a D.C. floozy on election night, a wad of cotton rudely stuffed into -- and excuse me for saying this -- the "body cavity." Worse than that, you'll be forgotten. After all you've said, done, wanted, imagined, lost, and longed for -- forgotten. The common will be erased entirely, the important reduced to trivial facts begrudgingly learned by sleepy students and promptly misremembered.

Knowing all that, it's comforting (if only coldly so) to know that when your bones have crumbled, there will be at least one person who cares about you. Someone who will pluck the weeds from your grave and protect your monument from disrespectful vandals, nature foremost among them. Meet the cemetery super: He's part mechanic, part real estate agent, part gardener, part park ranger, and part historian, and he's here to make sure you look your very best for eternity. You might just want to thank him in advance.

"I used to just think of it as cutting the grass," says retired Elmwood Cemetery superintendent James Earl "Sonny" Hanback, who after 50 years of service still puts in a few days a week at the historic 150-year-old cemetery. "It hit me one day how much this really means to people," he adds, explaining that a beautiful cemetery can be a tremendous comfort to families who have lost loved ones. "And it's also something that would have meant a lot to ..." No need to finish. I'm sure you know whom he means.

Sonny left his academic career behind at 15, when he started cutting grass at Elmwood. "I never liked school very much," he says. Life among the tombs, though, was appealing enough, and while he allows that "you'll never get rich doing this," tending to Elmwood's 80 acres has paid the bills for half a century. There was even a time when he and his family lived on the grounds in the caretaker's house. "I guess maybe I didn't get some dates [because of my job]," Sonny jokes. "The girls would say, 'Where do you work?' I'd tell them, and then they'd say, 'Oh, no. No way, unh-unh.'"

This minor caveat didn't intimidate Sonny a bit. In 1985, he invited his son-in-law, Todd Fox, then happily employed as an apartment manager, to become his protégé at the cemetery. Todd bit, and 17 years later, he and Sonny now discuss the possibility of someday passing the baton to one of Todd's sons. What began as a deterrent to romance has grown into something of a family tradition. "When he first asked me to come on, I thought he was kidding," Todd admits. "I said to myself, A cemetery? I don't know. But I was always willing to try anything once to see how it works. I look at it like I was taking care of a park, but I keep it in the back of my head that people's loved ones are interred here. But I don't think of it as a place for the dead so much as a place for the living. It's a comfortable place, and we like to keep it that way. People don't really come here to grieve; they come here to visit. Enjoy the park, spend time with their memories."

Though they may get a little break during the hottest part of a dry summer, keeping the grounds is an ongoing struggle. It takes three self-propelled mowers and three standard mowers a week to make the rounds. Three men with weed-trimmers make their rounds in two weeks. By then, it's time to start over again. Sinking graves have to be filled in, and broken monuments have to be repaired. And there are always surprises that have to be dealt with: "There was one woman," says Todd, "and her husband died. Her son was just a toddler at the time, and she said, 'I wish it wasn't such a sad occasion for him.' 'Well,' I said, 'We could hang a swing in this tree,' and she said, 'Could you?' Next thing I knew, I was at the hardware store getting the things to hang a swing before the funeral the next day. Well, that tree eventually died and we had to take the tree down, but we got the stuff to make a frame, and we hung the swing back on it."

Over the years, Elmwood's two superintendents have come to know many of the cemetery's more frequent visitors. Todd calls them the "regulars," and he names off half a dozen or so. Sonny remembers a woman who would visit several times a day. She would park her car, disappear for a few minutes, then leave again. Curiosity got the better of him, so he followed her one day and discovered that she would walk past her mother's grave, offer a little wave, then go on about her business. "It's a part of these people's lives," Todd says, "and a part of their family history. They love to see the park looking nice."

Of course, it's not just the living the superintendents get to know. Sonny has a fascination with the nearly mythological "Boss" Crump, whose towering monument is one of the first things any visitor to the cemetery sees. Todd has found himself drawn to the grave of an outlaw: "I'm a fan of the Old West," he says, "and they say Kit Dalton rode with Frank and Jesse James. At one time, they offered $50,000 [for him], dead or alive, but he was pardoned, became active in the church, and died of old age."

Both men admit to having a favorite part of the cemetery, and both have at one time or another been drawn to striking monuments, but as Todd points out, nobody, no matter what their station in life, is shown favoritism here. "We keep the cemetery up," he says. "There's no status here. Everybody gets special treatment."

There are 20,000 available lots at Elmwood, but plans are in place to ensure that the gates don't close after the last grave has been dug. "Thirty-five percent of your land sales goes into perpetual care," Todd explains. "We get endowment funds, trust funds, and contributions. Someday, there will be enough interest alone to run the cemetery."

So, as autumn falls upon us and we begin our ritual contemplation of mortality, here's a little food for thought: If your cemetery super is half as conscientious as either Sonny or Todd, you may rest assured that on that fateful day when your mortal coil is shuffled off, you may rest assured.

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