Dave Goetzinger looks down and frowns.
In front of him, within some 40 acres of emerald green ocean, lies a patch of dead grass at the foot of a gravestone. Goetzinger doesn't like the look of the faded yellow grass, a casualty of last year's dry summer. He doesn't like what the family who draws meaning from this gravestone might think.
Because if you come to this hallowed ground but once a year, you might equate such a patch with inattention. You might assume this grass died for lack of caring.
But Goetzinger wants you to know: He is here, and he cares.
It is a quiet morning at the Calvary Cemetery, a gorgeous day of blue skies and pillow clouds, and Goetzinger moves from headstone to headstone dragging a trash bin.
In this newer cemetery, most of the markers are in-ground, laid out in rows within sections identified by stone monuments sprinkled across the sprawling lawn that stretches from Bergan Mercy Medical Center on the north to Center Street on the south. About 20 yards from where Goetzinger stands, fresh flowers and a mound of dirt mark a recent burial. In the days ahead he'll pack the earth down to make it more presentable.
Aside from a few visitors scattered about the grounds, cars parked along the edge of the narrow roadway that curves through the cemetery, the only activity is the work of the grounds crew. At the moment, they gather decorations left over from Mother's Day, clearing the ground for the busiest weekend of the year.
“There won't be a place to park out here on the road on Memorial Day,” Goetzinger says.
Over the weekend, thousands of people will come to Calvary and the adjacent Resurrection Cemetery near 78th Street and West Center Road, and many thousands more will visit dozens of other cemeteries spread across the metropolitan area. It is a time to commemorate the men and women who died in service to the country, and for many, to visit and decorate the graves of family and friends.
For Goetzinger, one of the two longest-serving employees of the five Catholic cemeteries in town, the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend are full of the usual tasks, but with increased urgency and heightened attention: mowing, weeding, edging, trimming trees, digging graves for new funerals, laying monuments once those funerals have ended, and always looking out for visitors who aren't sure where they're going.
Goetzinger, 60, isn't accustomed to talking about his job. Mostly he keeps to himself. A cemetery man for 37 years, he shows up on time, accepts his assignments and goes about his work. He enjoys working outside, even if the weather is uncooperative. He likes that each day is a little different, that he's not behind a desk.
Goetzinger came to this job through his dad, a longtime superintendent for the local Catholic cemeteries. When the time came, he dug his father's grave at Calvary, and his mother's too. Pushed to pick a favorite part of the cemetery, he points, naturally, to the hill where they're buried, but he prefers not to view the grounds this way. Every single plot is important. He operates on the principle of empathy his dad taught him.
“You bury someone like you're burying one of your own, you'll be all right,” he says.
He's a man of few words, but those words have meaning. He thinks of his work as a group effort, anyway.
“Everyone out here has pride,” he says.
Six miles southeast, at St. Mary Cemetery near 33rd and Q Streets, Jim Siedlik shares a similar sensibility, a quiet obligation to honor the people below ground and serve those who walk upon it. Like Goetzinger, he feels fortunate to work outdoors. And he too has family in the business: a brother in Seattle who will be retiring from a Catholic cemetery later this year.
Siedlik's responsibilities carry him back and forth between St. Mary and the nearby St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery — old cemeteries spread across hilly acres dotted with monuments of all shapes and sizes. There are elevated gravestones and flat gravestones, classic and gothic, gravestones recently placed and some so old they've settled with the earth and now tilt this way and that.
The older cemeteries might bring fewer funerals than those to the west, but the time fills in other ways. Once Memorial Day passes, for instance, Siedlik will work to straighten some of the more slanted monuments, and he'll continue to train a recent hire to the grounds crew.
“To me, it's kind of peaceful and quiet,” Siedlik says, looking around the cemetery. “It may not sound right for some people, but for me it is.”
Siedlik, 66, has been with the cemeteries for 42 years. He knows these grounds as well as anyone. When he looks out across the lawn, he sees what casual visitors do not: water lines running below ground, trees that are natural coordinates for which row is which, the graves with grass worn not from drought but from the foot traffic of a devoted visitor.
“There's a gentleman whose wife is buried over there, and he comes every day,” he says.
Ask Siedlik to describe the challenges of his job and, like Goetzinger, he defaults to understatement.
“Basically trying to find where you're going,” he says. “And doing a good job so it looks nice for the family when they come up.”
Deacon Bill Hill, director of the Catholic Cemeteries, says that simple statement is true to what Siedlik and Goetzinger bring to work every day. You might not notice them standing at the periphery of a burial service or cleaning the grounds. You might take their work for granted, but for them it's more than a job.
“Particularly when the services involves a child,” Hill says. “Even after all these years, you're going to see a tear in their eyes.”
Rose Crowley sees the dedication. Each week, Crowley, 82, visits Calvary, praying over the graves of her husband, son and daughter. She says she's never been shy about pointing out something that needs attention, and she sees results shortly thereafter. As she does each year, she plans to attend the cemetery's Memorial Day Mass on Monday.
“They always wave, they're always nice,” she says of the grounds crew. “I betcha one of them has been there forever.”
Though they work in different cemeteries, Siedlik and Goetzinger have become good friends.
“Nice guy,” Siedlik says. “Quiet. Probably like me; I'm a pretty boring person.”
Goetzinger says the same of himself. Quiet. Not very interesting. He isn't so much reluctant to talk about his work as he is befuddled that someone might find him interesting.
He feels this way even though he knows he possesses a remarkable story.
It was his first year on the job, and an infamous day for Omaha: May 6, 1975. Early in the day, Goetzinger had dug a few graves near the southwest corner of Calvary. Later that afternoon, he stood with his father and a couple other workers looking south at the tornado ripping across the distant skyline and moving east before turning violently to the north.
Headed straight for them.
“Two of us jumped in one grave,” Goetzinger says. “The other two jumped in the other. It went right over us.”
In some ways, much has changed in the four decades since Goetzinger started. The equipment is better, for one. He no longer has to jackhammer through frozen ground to dig a grave in winter; now he can heat the ground overnight and use a backhoe the next morning.
He sees cultural changes, too. It used to be that whole families came out to the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend. Showed up in the morning with lawn chairs and lunch and stayed beside a grave all day. Now that's getting lost, he says. Fewer people, especially younger ones, visit the graves.
That doesn't change the way he approaches his job. The responsibilities are the same. You help people, he says.
Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes people are angry in their grief and that anger comes out at the first stranger they see, and that's OK. Occasionally a request for maintenance will come strongly worded.
“Sometimes you just have to listen to them,” Goetzinger says. “I've been around long enough that it doesn't bother me. They're just getting rid of what's inside.”
He is here, and he cares. It's why the dead grass bothers him. He and his coworkers have worked hard to bring the lawn back, putting down thousands of pounds of grass seed last fall and earlier this spring, but he's concerned someone might visit over the Memorial Day weekend and think no one noticed.
Goetzinger looks down at this particular patch, a few feet of yellowed grass, and resolves to make it better.
“It'll come back,” he says.
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