By Andrea Brown
For 46 years he has led a double life. One above ground, the other six feet under.
What’s up with that?
Cliff Edwards is a gravedigger.
He has GRAVDGR on the license plate of his Chevy pickup.
“A lot of people think it says ‘Grave danger,’” he said.
Edwards, 65, is the sexton at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery & Columbarium.
He didn’t want to put SEXTON on his license plate.
As the only year-round employee, he does sales, burial arrangements and grounds maintenance.
“The whole ball of wax,” he said. “In the summer, I get a kid to mow.”
The city-owned cemetery is classified as a park. “Technically I am an employee of the Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services Department,” he said.
He wears jeans, sweatshirt and a Huskies cap to work. With a gray bushy beard and sunglasses, he’s easy to spot and hard to keep up with.
His office is in the back of the white building on the grounds that looks like a caretaker’s house. The front section has tools and equipment. He doesn’t live there. At night, he goes home to his wife.
Edwards began his burial career in 1973 at Longview Memorial Park and then spent 10 years at Seattle’s Evergreen Washelli cemetery. He answered a newspaper ad in 1990 for the Edmonds post and he might be there until, well, someone puts him six feet under.
“One thing about being a gravedigger, it’s not like working for Boeing,” he said. “Until someone finds a way to keep people alive forever, gravediggers always got a job. This is guaranteed work. That’s why I don’t work for Boeing.”
Edwards has a deadpan sense of humor. Ask him how many are buried at the six-acre park, he says, “All of them.”
He takes his work seriously.
“It is a trying time with the families. I’ll take as long as they want,” Edwards said.
Then he jokes: “I’m paid by the hour.”
These are sacred grounds for loved ones.
“Cemeteries are for the living, not for the dead,” he said. Pause. “I am assuming they are the ones who come back.”
It is important to him to keep the place looking nice.
“People need a place to remember,” he said. “It’s a place of history.”
The cemetery was founded in 1891 on four acres provided by an early settler, then sold into private ownership in the early 1900s. In 1982, the land was deeded to the city.
A Memorial Day ceremony has flags and crosses for the hundreds of veterans. The annual “Walk back in time” tour tells about the pioneers and a number of former Edmonds mayors buried there.
Will Mayor Dave Earling be joining them someday?
“Are you trying to rush things? I still have until the end of December,” Earling said, speaking of his term in office not on Earth.
As for the other: “My wife and I have not made a decision on that.”
Earling said the cemetery is a key part of the history of Edmonds.
“We’ve been very careful to preserve the cemetery,” Earling said. “It was in a state of disrepair for a period of time. Since the cemetery has been refurbished, Cliff has been involved in one way or another. He is very particular about maintaining the cemetery and it is reflected well with his work.”
The city has grown up around the cemetery at 820 15th St. SW. It is bordered by homes, a busy street and a strip plaza with a QFC store. A fountain bubbles in the columbarium plaza, which has 680 niches.
The flat grassy park has mature trees and chirping birds. The road winding through is a popular pedestrian path for seniors and moms with strollers.
It’s a place of beauty and of sadness.
“The hardest ones are little kids,” Edwards said. “The older folks, 80s and 90s, they’ve lived a good long life, they are going to pass away.”
Edwards’ advice: Do advance planning.
And, no, he doesn’t work on commission.
“Wander around and see what’s available out there,” he said. “Preparation is the greatest thing to do, more for your survivors than yourself.”
Choose your final resting place and epitaph.
It saves chaos and confusion during periods of intense grief when a loved one passes.
It also saves money, and that means more for those you leave behind, so they can remember you even more fondly.
Prices keep going up. “Graves were $375 when I started,” Edwards said.
Most 4-by-8-foot plots are now $2,000.
That’s just for the real estate.
“The opening and closing is $1,000, and a (concrete) liner adds $774,” he said.
Opening and closing?
“It’s the digging and filling,” Edwards said. “I have to explain that all the time.”
The cemetery does two or three casket burials a month, fewer than when he started.
“Eighty percent now is cremation,” Edwards said.
He plans to be in that group, but with an underground presence.
Many headstones are small engraved reminders with names, date of birth and passing, with maybe an angel or dove or praying hands.
Some have photos and catchy sayings. On one shared maker, the bedtime ritual between husband and wife continues after death: “Goodnight Darling, I love you!” “I love you too!”
A favorite of Edwards is the man who “cashed in his chips.” It’s shaped like a license plate that says, “I’d rather be at Lake Tahoe.”
There’s no Rucker Tomb pyramid rising 35-feet above ground, as in Everett’s large Evergreen Cemetery. Edwards said it would be up to the cemetery board to approve something like that, and so far nobody has asked. The City Council appoints the board.
He has a plot picked out for him and his wife, Denise, who have a blended of family with five boys. Each had two boys before marrying and then one of their own making.
Edwards chose his space after he started working here. “It’s underneath the willow tree by the office,” he said.
“When I was a kid we used to play in the willows by the swamp. Big giant willow trees. We’d grab an armload and swing out across the swamp.”
What will his marker say?
“I haven’t given it any thought,” he said. “I don’t want to rush the process.”