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Between the sacred and the mundane

The grounds crew at Mountain View Cemetery learn not to worry about the dead. It's the living that give them most pause.

June 20, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

The first step when digging a grave at Mountain View Cemetery is to measure the plot and calculate the spacing. Scraping an adjacent casket or a vault is bad form; rupturing a sprinkler line is even worse.

The second step is to cut and remove the sod. Then it's time to start up the backhoe.

Sammy Treto keys the ignition, makes the sign of the cross — as he usually does — and wheels the lumbering machine out of the utility yard. It's just after 6:30 in the morning. A rooster calls in the distance.

On days when there are burials, Treto likes to start early. He doesn't want to draw attention to the process, the slow carving of this shadowy hole, and when the family shows up, he wants the grave to be draped with Astroturf, the vault prepared, the chairs neatly arranged in the shade of a tree.

Treto, 54, is one of eight men responsible for the care of the cemetery's grounds. Others mow lawns, sweep buildings and clean fountains; he handles the disposition of the dead and arranges the seasonal color, pansies and snapdragons in the winter, marigolds and zinnias in the summer.

As soon as he finishes with the grave, he will return to work on a new garden he's planting at an outdoor mausoleum across the street. He's bought the camellias, roses and lavender, and he's rototilled the soil. He's proud of his landscaping and knows that visitors appreciate it as well.

Photos: Cemetery grounds keepers

When families first arrive at the cemetery in the foothills of Altadena, they are often numb, and as Treto and the grounds crew watch them from afar, they hope that the beauty of these grounds will ease the sorrow.

Treto positions the backhoe over a narrow strip of grass between a sidewalk and a parking lot. The sun clears the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains to the east. Its light rakes across the lawns, turning their muted color brilliant green. Long shadows fall from the monuments and trees. Birds are loud, almost cacophonous.

He extends the backhoe's bucket and takes the first cut out of the dirt.

When he began at Mountain View 25 years ago, he was apprehensive about working in a cemetery, but he soon learned he needn't worry about the dead. It was the living who affected him the most.

They'd approach when they needed directions. They'd ask for help in placing flowers. They'd complain when something wasn't right, and they'd tell him their stories, leaving him to imagine how fast his life could change. At night when he got home, he'd hold onto his children until they'd squirm away.

"When I started working here, I was really emotional," he says. "But you learn how to survive these emotions."

Radiant meadow

Spring and summer are busy times of the year at Mountain View, and the grounds crew has fanned out through a section called Radiant Meadow.

Two weeks have passed since they last mowed here. String trimmers whip at the kikuyu grass that grows across grave markers. Dandelions and dirt fly up from the bases of monuments.

Brian Roberts, 40, props his Weed Eater against a headstone and wipes the sweat from his brow. He started at the cemetery when he was a teenager. His father, who also works here, encouraged him to apply, and nearly 25 year later, Roberts has worked his way up to foreman.

He stoops to flag one marker that's settled at a sharp angle. He will come back in the afternoon to level it.

His day often begins with a tour of the 60 acres to see if anything is amiss: a fallen tree limb, a broken sprinkler, evidence of after-hour reveries or something darker. Dead chickens and cow tongues have been found.

He knows the dimensions of a grave — 8 feet by 38 inches by 7½ feet deep — and he can fire up the furnace in the crematory, and when talking about working in the company of the bereaved, he is more pragmatic than philosophical.

"You tell yourself that this is part of life, and someone has to do this work," he says. "That's what me and my dad have been doing for all these years."

Photos: Cemetery grounds keepers

There was a time when cemeteries didn't have grounds crews, when graveyards, lying crowded and cluttered near the center of cities, were mere depositories for the dead. The emergence of "garden cemeteries" in the 19th century changed that, just at the time Mountain View opened.

The year was 1882, and the residents of Pasadena decided that burials on private property, which had been the custom, might not be appropriate for a city hoping to attract new residents. A landowner in Altadena offered some acreage. Soon obelisks, statues and private mausoleums arose beneath a broad canopy of trees.

Since high school, Roberts has stopped among these monuments, calculated ages and read the remembrances. Comparisons are inevitable. It's what everyone does, only Roberts does it more often and sometimes from the seat of a lawnmower.

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