Cemetery Technician

Imagine having one foot in the grave for 38 years? Well Ken Thomas has been digging graves in Wellington since he was 16, and almost four decades on still thinks it’s the perfect job.

Ken Thomas Cemetery Technician
Cemetery Technician Ken Thomas

Formerly known as a grave digger, Ken’s official title is now Senior Cemetery Technician at Makara Cemetery, a job title that changed about 10 years ago to encompass all aspects of the job – which is a lot more than just digging graves.

As well as the obvious, they also attend funerals and make sure everything goes smoothly, fill the grave at the end of the funeral, seed the grass, and make sure everything’s tidy and well maintained throughout the cemetery.

Although qualifications aren’t necessary, there are a few important life skills to have if you’re interested in the job, according to Ken.

“You need to be pretty fit, be able to operate all sorts of machinery, enjoy the outdoors whatever the weather, but most importantly, respect the dead and the people they’ve left behind.”

Apart from the title, the job hasn’t really changed over the years, except that health and safety is now a major feature, plus a few other things that Ken has noticed.

“I was taught to measure the grave with my boots, shovels, and spades (a spade was single depth, shovel double depth, and boots worked out the 7-foot length), and now they use tape measures. But with so many coffins now varying in size you have to be precise as you don’t want the coffin to get stuck.

“We also do more disinterment of bodies than we used to, as people move more these days and want their departed loved ones to still be near them.” 

Ken says he’s not scared about working with the dead, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

“My job is nice and peaceful – people come out here from the city and their offices and say I’m so lucky to be here, especially in the summer. I also get to work with and meet lots of interesting people, so I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

In all his years working at cemeteries he hasn’t seen or heard anything out of the ordinary except something odd happened recently.

“We had a woman who was burying a member of her family, and made several comments about a bumble bee that always appeared when she visited graves of her relatives there – and sure enough, as she started singing at that funeral, a bee flew down and rested on her song sheet. We all thought that was pretty amazing,” admits Ken.

Wellington City Council operates two cemeteries, one at Karori and one at Makara. Karori was first established in 1891 as Bolton Street Cemetery had reached capacity, but by the 1950s Karori was getting close to full too, so Makara was opened in 1965, and Ken has worked at them both.

“My first job out of school was as a car mechanic, then one night my dad joked about me applying for a job at the cemetery, next thing I phoned them up and got it, and so I started working at Karori Cemetery when I was 16.”

Obviously there are seasonal variations: “When we have a cold snap in winter we know that things are unfortunately going to get busy soon. Other than that, we’re always on the go keeping the cemetery tidy, throwing away old flowers – except the ones on the headstones – and making sure the grounds are in good condition.”

Makara Cemetery, which is currently a third full, also offers natural funerals, and has a new burial ground, Ngā Iwi o Te Motu Urupā, which is available for Māori and their whanau. Meanwhile, Karori Cemetery has plots available in an ash memorial garden or in existing pre-purchased family plots.