Duluth gravedigger honors tradition

Instead of flowers, rocks are traditionally placed on gravestones. Photo Credit: Emma Fromberg The hole becomes larger and larger as the gravedigger continues shoveling pile after pile of fresh earth. On one edge of the hole another casket barely peeks out, forgotten under ground, and there are most likely others nearby. The sun starts to sink behind the large maple trees in the cemetery, and a chilly breeze creeps up the neck of the diligent gravedigger.

She isn’t scared, though. She’s used to being alone in this cemetery. She tucks in her blue over-sized shirt and pulls a blond strand of hair behind her ear, hopping into her truck to head home after another backbreaking day of work. The grave behind her lies empty, waiting for the body that will fill it tomorrow.

Lisa Husko has been digging graves at the Temple Emanuel Cemetery in Duluth, Minn. for seven years now. But does she call herself a gravedigger?

“That’s what H&R Block asks me all the time,” she said, and laughed. “I’d say maintenance worker, though.”

She took the job in place of her ex-husband, who used to hold the position. She doesn’t seem to mind it, but joked, “I’ll never be out of work.”

Along with digging the holes and filing them back up after caskets have been placed inside, she has to mow the lawn and keep up the grounds at the cemetery.

Even though she spends a lot of time at the cemetery, planning the grave sites isn’t the easiest job. She doesn’t have a map of where everyone has been buried in the cemetery, which dates back to as late as 1870 according to Muriel Abram, a longtime member of the Jewish community in Duluth.

“I’ve mapped out a lot of it,” Husko said, but added that she still occasionally will find an unmarked casket underground as she’s digging.

“And then you just have to go around it.”

Typically, Jewish cemeteries are arranged chronologically, but in Temple Emanuel, they bury the dead in family plots.

Temple Emanuel is a reform Jewish cemetery, according to UMD Professor John Hamlin, who teaches a class called Sociology of Graveyards and has extensive knowledge about the graveyards around Duluth. A reform cemetery, as opposed to orthodox, practices more casual rituals and has “a little more diversity” according to Hamlin.

In the traditional Jewish ceremonies that they perform at Temple Emanuel, no machinery is used. Husko explained how they carry in the bodies on planks and manually lower them into the ground using car straps.

“And sometimes you get this 90-year-old man who insists on carrying this casket, and you just pray that the casket doesn’t fall as they’re lowering it,” she said. “It’s stressful.”

She is at each funeral helping with the process, and said there are about 15 funerals a year at Temple Emanuel.

At home, Husko has two daughters, a seventh grader and a junior in high school.

“They won’t tell their friends what I do,” she said. “They might think I’m creepy.”

Husko said she used to get “creeped out” being at the cemetery alone.

“One time, I left a rake leaning against a grave behind me. I must have stepped on it, because it tapped me on the shoulder. I thought someone was tapping me on the shoulder! Ah!” she said, laughing.

But now Husko doesn’t mind being in the cemetery. Her only visitors are the occasional deer or rabbit, and she seems to enjoy the fall days she spends alone, digging graves.

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