October 27, 2021

Cemeteries care for living and dead

Ghosts come a knockin'

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Jeff Briggs talks Friday about a ghost story at Cortland Rural Cemetery, where he works as supervisor.

The ghost likes to knock on the doors. He opens them, too, Jeff Briggs says.

It’s a spirit of a little boy at Cortland Rural Cemetery, playing pranks. He likes to pull on curtains and pick on cats.

Just a ghost story that Briggs, the cemetery’s caretaker, likes to regale visitors with on a blustery Halloween eve? Perhaps. But the cottage is in the cemetery, so maybe …

“If the refrigerator (in the cellar) stops vibrating and people hear three knocks, they will run out of there,” Briggs said. He needs heavy boxes to keep doors closed.

Not every cemetery caretaker has a ghost story to tell. But they get a front-row seat to watch the superstitious. And they have the responsibility for making sure the final resting places of thousands of souls — ghost or not — are well-kept, tidy and respectful of their residents.

Briggs, the caretaker of Cortland Rural Cemetery for four years, organizes the grounds crew, supervises burials, does the accounting, attends cemetery board meetings and, perhaps most important to him, takes care of the families who must leave someone in his care.

“I like the fact I help people in tough times,” Briggs said.

Milton Parker does it because it’s a family thing. He lives four doors down from the Marathon Cemetery and followed other relatives on the cemetery board. He’s been president since 2000.

He doesn’t see ghosts. But he does see superstitious people. When people drive into Marathon Cemetery from either the Galatia Street or Albro Road entrances, they make a point of driving out the other side instead of the way they came in.

Superstitions keep people away from working the job, too, he added. “Other people won’t work it because it deals with death.”

Superstition, however, has no place with other caretakers. Will White started caring for McGraw Rural Cemetery because he worked for the village of McGraw when his predecessor retired; he was next in line. Stevan Alberts simply saw a help-wanted sign at St. Mary’s eight years ago and has been caring for its cemetery on West Road in Cortland ever since.

Vandalism happens from time to time, but isn’t a huge concern, the caretakers say. The most recent case Briggs can recall was 20 years ago. People respect the area — and cemetery desecration is a felony.

Someone once broke into a Marathon cemetery woodshed, Parker added, but he worries more about vehicles in the winter than vandals.

“If a four-wheel drive car drives through 12 inches of snow, they don’t know where the road is,” Parker said.

More than 50 cemeteries dot Cortland County — more than 140, according to another unverified source. Some are virtually forgotten, tiny family plots from families that have long since died or moved on. Others, like one in Cuyler Hill State Forest in the town of Taylor, are meticulously cared for by volunteers.

They watch over the graves they dug last month as much as those dug a century and a half ago. It’s a transition, as it were, between the few brief moments of life and the eternity that follows — with very practical concerns.

“It’s a thankless job, but someone needs to do it,” Parker said. “After I’m dead and gone, I hope someone works it.”

And, just sometimes, there’s a good ghost story. It’s enough to make a history buff like Briggs believe in life after death:

“It gives me faith that there’s more to come,” Briggs said.