In broad strokes, the role of a sexton is to take charge of, care for, and supervise the cemetery, under the direction of the Cemetery Board or other governing party. What does that really mean?
Opening and Closing Graves
One of the main functions of a sexton is to open and close graves for interments. In order to do that, the sexton must know where the plots are physically located in the cemetery, the dimensions of the plots, and which graves are filled, and it is the sexton’s responsibility not to disturb prior interments when opening graves. It would not be a good thing for the backhoe to hit another casket. In some cases this means that the sexton must use a Sexton’s Key to probe the ground and make certain the neighboring graves will not be disturbed.
Another major function of a cemetery sexton is to be able to show prospective buyers available lots. That means that the sexton must not only keep up with what plots are filled, but also what lots are sold. The sale of a cemetery plot is pretty much like the sale of any real estate.
Similarly, once a headstone is shipped to the cemetery, it is the sexton’s responsibility to know where the monument is to be installed and direct the installation. In many cemeteries, it is also the sexton’s responsibility to notify the installers when the stone arrives.
The cemetery sexton is also responsible for the grounds, turf, and landscaping maintenance. This not only includes mowing, but also the upkeep of trees and plantings, the cemetery fence (if there is one), signage, and any memorial areas in the cemetery.
Rules and Regs
One of the least favorite jobs of a sexton is enforcing the cemetery rules and regulations. This includes when people can visit, conduct in the cemetery, and litter. Similarly most modern cemeteries have rules about what can be installed at a grave, and what can be placed at a grave. Some cemeteries do not allow planting at graves, holiday decorations, lighting, or other memorabilia, while other will allow some or all of these things. Many cemeteries have rules about live and even artificial flowers and post signage stating flowers will be removed on a certain date. This helps to keep the cemetery clean and fresh of pots of death flowers throughout the harsh winter.
It’s all about the Map
Modern cemeteries are typically platted out and every square inch is accounted for. The cemetery may be comprised of different lot layouts in different sections of the cemetery. There may be differing sizes of graves and usually some smaller crematory plots. A map is created and each grave is identified by some naming or numbering scheme, usually identifying sections, blocks, lots, and plots, and it is the job of the sexton to maintain this map. This map is essential in the ability to do their job.
Not a Mason
It may seem that the sexton has an obligation with regard to the maintenance of markers and monuments; however this is not the case. The monuments are owned by the purchaser and installed on private property (the purchased lot) and it is really the responsibility of the family to perform any cleaning or repair. However, some cemeteries do step up and try to repair and curate old broken stones which have long been forgotten. This is purely a voluntary action on their part, and if they do it, it’s because they love their cemetery.
Not a Genealogist
While many people contact cemetery sextons to find out genealogical information on past interments, answering these types of questions, and doing genealogy is NOT their responsibility, and if they choose to provide this information, it is purely of their own free will.
Your Faithful Caretaker
Always remember – it is not the job of a sexton to know what is inscribed on the stone, or the relationship of any individual to any other individual, or to fix a broken stone – but rather it is their job to keep up the cemetery and to know who is buried where, what lots are sold, and what lots are available. They have to deal with the finality of death, eternal resting places of loved ones of the living, and be sensitive to the emotional state of the public, sometimes during their time of great loss.
It’s not just a job.