Digging square holes: Cliff Edwards, stalwart sexton at Edmonds Cemetery

By Brian Soergel | Jul 13, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Cliff Edwards has been sexton at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery and Columbarium since 1990.

Cliff Edwards is everything I expect in a cemetery sexton.

A trim, white ZZ Top-like beard falls a few inches down his chin. Up above, there’s welcoming eyes. His hands reflect more than 40 years of digging ditches. Taken together, his features mark the benevolent disposition of a man whose life work is helping the living say goodbye to the dead.

Edwards is an Edmonds original.

“You go to a cemetery conference, and you won’t see anyone who looks like me,” he said last week. His shovel dug into the ground under the Somers family marker, where Walter H., age 83, has resided since 2014. Edwards was preparing a spot for Violet M., Walter’s wife, who died March 31 at 90. “Together forever,” the tombstone read, and it is now so.

Edwards will be on site next Thursday, July 20, when cemetery board members lead the public on the 27th annual Walk Back in Time tour, this year spotlighting veterans of the Spanish-American War.

It’ll certainly be interesting, but a walk back in time with Edwards is similarly compelling.

A start in Longview

Edwards is 63 and a Washington native. He graduated from Kelso High School in the southwestern portion of the state, just across the border from Oregon.

He didn’t plan to make digging graves his life’s work, of course. He simply took a job with the city of Longview after deciding his construction job wasn’t cutting it. “They weren’t great about giving you paychecks,” he said.

“I thought I was going to work for the parks service down around a lake in Memorial Park, where there’s swings and slides for the kids. So I thought, great, I’m going to work down at the lake. There’ll be girls throwing Frisbees around in the summertime – great job.”

But as he followed the address given, he realized it led to the town cemetery.

“They said that all I’d be doing was mowing grass and pulling weeds – they had a digging and filling crew. After one week, the guy on the backhoe put in his resignation. They put me on the backhoe, and I’ve been digging square holes ever since. Don’t ask me to dig a round hole – I’d probably mess it up.”

Edwards worked at the cemetery for more than seven years. Then the mountain blew up.

The red zone

There’s a fair share of outdoor types at the woodsy confluence of the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers. The hunting is spectacular at nearby Mount St. Helens, where Edwards and a few friends raced along a logging road and slipped into the so-called red zone on Saturday, May 17, 1980.

Two months earlier, small earthquakes shook the mountain, stirring up magma, releasing steam and building pressure in a mountain that had slept peacefully for 123 years.

Gov. Dixy Lee Ray had created the red zone around Mount St. Helens; those inside could be fined and jailed, although escaping authorities was no problem for Edwards and friends. It was their stomping grounds.

“We horsed around for the day,” Edwards recalled. “The next day, Sunday, the plan was to go up to Silver Lake, the lake down from the mountain and Spirit Lake, and do some waterskiing.”

Edwards was off to a slow start on May 18, however, after an evening of partying. He woke up to a ringing phone. “My next-door neighbor told me to look out the window.”

Because Mount St. Helens’ erupted laterally on its northern flank, many west of the volcano – including Edwards – couldn’t hear the initial blast at 8:32 a.m. and did not choke on falling ash, which the wind blew to the east.

The volcano’s blast, in addition to killing 57 people, disrupted the lives of many in Longview and Kelso. In Longview, Edwards said the town was kind of dying out, so he made the jump to Puget Sound, taking a job at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery, where he stayed for 10 years.

A home in Edmonds

Eighty-nine years after the founding of the Edmonds Cemetery in 1891, Cliff Edwards became its sexton on Oct. 8, 1980. A sexton, an old-timey and fancy word, basically means Edwards is in charge of it all at the cemetery.

He handles sales, public services, burial arrangements and grounds maintenance. He mows the lawn constantly and, of course, dig graves by hand and with a backhoe.

“If I stay another three years, I will have 30 years in,” Edwards said. “But If I stay for six more years, then I will have been digging graves for 50 years. That’s another number I’m looking at. I’d like to have that in my repertoire.”

At the beginning, way before Edwards started, the cemetery began on 4 acres of land donated to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge No. 96 by Thomas White, an early settler now at peace in the cemetery. It was sold to a succession of private investors in 1946, and the years that followed saw it fall into disrepair.

That began to change in 1982 when Edmonds resident Larry Hubbard bought the cemetery and willed it to the city of Edmonds. It’s now overseen by a board of directors appointed by the city (longtime member Dale Hoggins recently retired as a member).

This year, as part of the city’s Sustainable Cities Partnership with Western Washington University and the Association of Washington Cities, a digital map of the cemetery was produced that shows markings, rows and aisles, identifies all occupants and links to digital photos of headstones.

The geographic information system (GIS) map is expected to be posted on the city’s website in the near future.

Edwards was a major link in the project. He knows where the bodies are buried, and keeps charts detailing available plots and slots in the columbarium, constructed in 2006.

It’s not Edwards’ fault the 7-acre cemetery wasn’t mapped accurately from the beginning. “Records weren’t kept so well before the city took it over,” he said. “Most of the information we have is from newspaper articles and people telling us of family members buried there.”

Family members tended to plots. But many didn’t bother. Weeds took over. Vandals toppled headstones. Motorcycle riders practiced wheelies, kicking up dirt and disturbing the overgrown, but peaceful, surroundings.

And, according to Edwards, the late Roy Baker – who owned the cemetery from 1967 to 1980 – had a beef with the city of Edmonds and refused to part with records he’d kept. “A lot of times when I dig, I find someone who is not in our records,” Edwards said.

The sexton enjoys his job, which makes keeping it all in order easier.

“I mean, everyone’s going to pass away, and that’s one of the reasons I’m in this work. It’s guaranteed work. It’s not like Boeing – they stop making airplanes, you’re out of a job. Until they find a way to keep people alive forever, a gravedigger’s always got a job. And the nice thing is, the city doesn’t bug me.

"The mayor, the parks director, those guys. None of them know how to run a cemetery, so they leave me alone. As long as it looks good and runs good, I don’t get visits from the head honchos at all.”

Years of experience have helped Edwards in a crucial part of his job – working with those making arrangements for loved ones.

“Some families you can tell; they don’t want to be here,” he said. “So it’s just get them in here, get the information, and get them back out the door. Others, like this family I’m doing on Saturday, the person died three months ago (the late Mrs. Somers), so they’ve pretty much gotten used to the fact.

"Families of those in their 90s or older often aren’t as emotional sometimes, because they know their loved ones lived a long life and maybe had been ill for some time.”

More than 7,000 people are buried at the cemetery, including former mayors – as well as city founder George Brackett – and many war veterans. Despite that, Edwards said he estimates he still has a quarter to a third of gravesites left to sell.

The columbarium holds 680 niches. Almost 300 are sold, Edwards said, to those already in place or those who have reserved a spot (that includes former Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson).

Disturbing the peace

A cemetery is quiet. A lovely place. But superstition and Hollywood helped shape the cemetery’s perception as a fearsome place. Generations of Edmonds kids have held their collective breaths as their parents’ cars cruised by 100th Avenue West on the way to QFC.

Edwards said he and his friends would cross the street when passing a cemetery as kids. “We were afraid someone was going to reach out from the graveyard and grab us. Now here I am, working at a cemetery.”

There are the occasional pranksters, which Edwards understands.

“We don’t have a problem with vandalism. We get kids who just come in and sit down. If they don’t cause trouble, I couldn’t care less. Kids in this area don’t have woods to play in. Then they graduate from high school, or get a car, and I don’t see them anymore.”

Halloween is a different story. Edwards left work on Halloween at his regular time his first year, and the next morning arrived to see 22 upright tombstones belly up. Ever since, he arrives at 7 p.m. after the trick-or-treating downtown ends. He lives by Edmonds-Woodway High School, so it’s an easy drive.

“That’s when the little urchins decide to start roaming,” he said. “Let’s go to the cemetery and get scared.”

Edwards, the kind of guy who keeps a coffin from 1892 in his house, obliges.

He watches from his car, under the office canopy, ready with his super-duper shiny flashlight from Home Depot. The cemetery gates are closed, but fencing doesn’t completely seal the site. Spotting activity, Edwards will shine his flashlight at the interlopers, careful not to play the light onto streets, where it could blind drivers.

He has a 100 percent scatter rate.

But it’s not just kids who stumble through on Oct. 31. “Some guy came in a few years ago and said he’s been coming in for eight years; he had family buried here,” Edwards said.

“I told him he must be at the wrong cemetery, because I’ve been here 25 years. He said he buried his dad at midnight. He was with some girl. I don’t think it was his wife, the way they were hanging on each other, and they smelled of alcohol.”

Yes, people have had sex in the Edmonds cemetery. We’ll leave it at that.

@Plotting the end@

Maybe due to his longevity around the dead, Edwards seems to have an easy familiarity with life’s natural conclusion, the end awaiting us all.

He long ago purchased two 8-foot casket grave plots just outside the cemetery office, in the shade of a weeping willow, for him and wife Denise, who is still alive and thriving. Each grave has room for one casket and eight urns to hold cremated remains.

“So I have room for 16 urns,” Edwards said. “So that covers all my family, five boys and their five spouses. More than likely, though, they will not be buried there. We have family plots down in Longview where the parents are, but I ain’t going down there to be buried because three of my kids live up here. So I’d be buried closer to where they’re at.”

Edwards acknowledges what’s to come, but still has plenty to do and accomplish.

“When God says your number’s up, your number’s up. There’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t take chances. I don’t jump out of perfectly good airplanes, and I don’t hang glide. I try to keep my feet on the ground.”

 

 

 

 

 

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