Minn. family digs grave of dad who was gravedigger

11:49 AM, Jul 15, 2011   |    comments
Photo from St. Cloud Times / sctimes.com
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RICHMOND, Minn. -- On Wednesday afternoon at Sts. Peter and Paul cemetery in Richmond, Harold Hemmesch's family gathered to dig his grave.

It wasn't the first time Hemmesch's children dug into the ground of the cemetery. Their father had been a gravedigger for 50 years, and they had all grown up helping him dig graves.

Hemmesch died July 10 at St. Cloud Hospital of natural causes. He was 85.

The family knew that James, Hemmesch's youngest son, would be digging their father's grave, because he has taken over Hemmesch's grave-digging jobs. As the siblings talked about it, many realized they wanted to help.

"I wouldn't want my brothers doing this by themselves," said Linda Schmitz, one of Hemmesch's daughters.

When her father dug his own father's grave, they were there to help, Schmitz said, and she thinks it's great that the siblings came together again for their father's grave.

Not all of Hemmesch's 12 living children came. Some weren't able to handle it, and that's OK, said another daughter, Janet Keller.

Among those who did help, there were some solemn faces, but also laughter and reminiscing.

Keller laughed as she remembered a time when she and some of her siblings were supposed to go to the dentist. It turned out the dentist had died, and they dug his grave that day instead.

Gravedigging was an important part of Hemmesch's life.

He was a farmer, so it was a side job for him, said Joni Hemmesch, his daughter-in-law. But he was very dedicated to the job and caring for the cemetery. He planted flowers -- "always red and white geraniums," Keller said.

Hemmesch also poured all the rows of concrete in the cemetery, James Hemmesch said.

He would clean the cemetery, and the children would all help pick up litter. Janet said the siblings still go out and clean the grounds.

Harold Hemmesch dug graves year-round. In the winter he used a defroster to thaw the ground, but it allowed him to dig only a few inches at a time.

He also dug many graves at night.

Jerome, Hemmesch's oldest son, remembers a night when he thought he saw a ghost. He was 13 years old and out digging a grave with his father on a winter night. The wind chill must have been 20 below zero, he said.

Jerome was holding a flashlight for his dad. He looked up and thought he saw someone walking in the graveyard.

"It was enough to give me the willies," Jerome said.

He asked his father if he had seen anyone, but his dad told him to look where they were digging and hold the flashlight.

Eventually, Hemmesch did see the woman that Jerome was talking about, and they decided to go looking for her. They drove around, but couldn't find her. Finally, they saw a police car pulled over. Jerome said his father pulled up behind the car and asked the officer about the woman they had seen.

They found out that the woman walked in the cemetery every night to visit the grave site of her recently deceased husband.

Hemmesch was very respectful of the cemetery. While they were digging graves, he told his children not to touch the headstones, Keller said.

In addition to caring for the cemetery, Hemmesch cared for people in general.

"He'd do just about anything for anyone," James Hemmesch said.

Their father was well-known in Richmond, said George, Hemmesch's son. He helped people with building and field work, and was involved in many community organizations. He ushered in church and helped start the Knights of Columbus (hash)8303 in Richmond.

"He helped a lot of people," George Hemmesch said.

The Hemmeschs usually don't move dirt from the grave site before burial, but they are moving it for their father to make space for the large number of people expected.

Also unlike most cases, the top layer of sod was saved to be put back after the burial.

"We're doing that for dad," George Hemmesch said.

Digging their father's grave is the children's last way of showing their appreciation, he said.

After using shovels to remove the top layer, James dug the grave using their father's old backhoe.

When the hole was dug, they put a shovel in to make sure it was 8 feet deep, "just like Dad did," Keller said.

The siblings said their father would be proud that they helped dig his grave.

"I know he'll be proud of it because the cemetery was everything to him," Keller said.

The Hemmesches finished up at his father's grave and chatted for a few minutes, until James and his brother decided to get back to work.

They had another grave to dig.


(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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