How Edmonton's cemetery workers help the living mourn the dead

Most people associate cemeteries with sadness and grief.

In fact, Teena Changarathil’s responsibility as supervisor for Edmonton’s municipal cemeteries is to make everyone’s visit as least painful as she can.

“We bury the dead, but it’s really not the dead we’re taking care of — it’s the people that are living and knowing that their family is taken care of,” Changarathil told CBC’s Radio Active.

CBC Edmonton’s Tanara McLean talks to the City of Edmonton’s supervisor for municipal cemeteries Teena Changarathil about how they make cemeteries as serene as they can. 4:11

“One of the things we really strive very hard for our cemetery parklands is to make it more of a tranquil, peaceful place for people to visit.”

Changarathil said at a time when people are in distress, a serene atmosphere can help people grieve.

But some cemeteries, such as Beechmount Cemetery, a historical property owned by the city, are also considered public parks.

“We actually have people come here that don’t have family members or loved ones buried,” Changarathil said. “They will walk around on the paths or do their morning exercises here.”

‘Peace and comfort’

Dave Snook is what you would colloquially call a gravedigger, though technically his title is equipment operator.

He digs graves using a backhoe — although in tight spaces, he sometimes has to grab the shovel.

“Just getting into areas is our biggest challenge,” Snook told CBC’s Radio Active.

It wasn’t a career goal of Snook’s to work in a cemetery, but he loves his work now. He said he understands why some people might be wary of cemeteries, but working in them has shown him a different perspective.

“I know people who kind of avoid cemeteries just because of the aspect of it,” he said. “But once you get here, it’s just completely different.”

Snook and Changarathil hope their work helps people who spend time at the cemetery find solace or even pleasure.

“What we’re doing is really beyond just the immediate — it’s actually to give peace and comfort to people,” Changarathil said.

“That’s the expectation our customers have. We take care of our space in perpetuity.”

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