Life among the dead

Kevin Scheele is matter-of-fact about the business of living and dying; after all he worked and lived amid the quarter-of-a-million dead people interred at the Melbourne General Cemetery (MGC) for thirty-three years.

And there’s nothing like spending your days surrounded by 109 sprawling acres of graves to encourage you to grasp life with both hands.

When Scheele began work as a gravedigger at the cemetery in 1976 he quickly realised he could be crippled by the grief he witnessed daily, or instead focus on helping people at an intense and painful time.

In his first year he assisted at 7000 funerals. “You see a lot of pain, and of course you feel some of that too,” he says, “but you have to harden yourself to it or you can’t survive in the job.”

Pragmatism has been the backbone of a career that saw him rise to the level of manager of the Melbourne General St Kilda Cemeteries – a job he retired from last year – but he also has a strong compassionate streak. He says no-one could do the job without empathy and a true desire to help people.

It’s “burying the bubs,” seeing the devastating effect of a child’s death on its parents that most affected him over the years, but talking with his wife, Christina, helped him manage those emotions– well, that and maybe the odd whiskey, he jokes.

He was initially reluctant to meet at the cemetery for this interview. He’d rather close the chapter on that part of his life and get on with jobs such as clearing out his shed. But he relents and provides an insider’s tour; arriving in work boots, t shirt and shorts – the picture of a man relieved of duty, happy to go back to being just an everyday bloke.

And considering that he and his family also lived at the MGC’s imposing Gothic-style bluestone gatehouse for 22 years, you can understand his desire for a break. And while most people end their lives within its grounds, Scheele’s daughter Kate was born from their cemetery home and grew up playing in its grounds.

In 2006 Kate chose the cemetery as the site for her wedding. Sure some people thought that was a bit weird Scheele shrugs, but he reckons it makes sense; after all, the cemetery was her childhood backyard.

In the early days Scheele and his wife would stroll around the tombstones at night, looking for possums and owls. Later it got a bit scary – no, not the dead folk, the living ones were the ones you had to be wary of, he laughs.

He’s ready for the next question – it’s the one he has been asked most over the years – so for the record, no, he doesn’t hold much with ghost stories and has never seen any evidence of spooky activity.

So is there life after death? He doesn’t know – no-one’s come back yet to offer him the inside drum on such esoteric concerns, so for now he’ll reserve his opinion.

The cemetery attracts lots of visitors; from historians and tourists to the families who are here today, washing down marble graves with buckets of soapy water, kneeling on them to clean the headstones and replacing gaudy plastic flowers.

“That lady comes every day,” Scheele says quietly, nodding in the direction of an older woman tending to an impressive black marble headstone. Others sit quietly with their buried relatives, speaking softly into the empty air. Would this be his way of dealing with a death in the family?

“No, that’s not my thing,” he says, “I’d carry them in here,” he touches his heart, “but people manage grief in different ways.

Scheele has seen some grand internments in his time; former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies among them, and he can point out the paupers’ graves where the city’s less-fortunate were buried en masse in the late 1800s, not long after the cemetery opened.

He’s proud of the job he’s done here, reckons it’s an important one and believes he has achieved his initial aim of making the cemetery a centerpiece at the heart of the city.

“I’d encourage anyone to go into this industry, it’s extremely rewarding,” he says, “and besides,” he adds with a wink, “it’s certainly a guaranteed long-term industry.”

Our tour ends beside a newly dug grave. There’s a pile of dirt piled beside the headstone; someone had reserved their space beside a loved one and now the time has come to take it up.

That pile of dirt is arresting, a cold jolt of reality that could induce moroseness or infuse you with the joy of living. It’s easy to see the choice that Scheele made decades ago.

There are few empty plots at the MGC now; with just 40 spots left it’s pretty much reservations only. But the Scheeles won’t be among those with their names etched in marble in this endless field of tombstones.

“I’d rather be scattered to the winds,” Scheele says, and you get the feeling he’s already spent enough time in this place.

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