Jim Billow needed something to keep him active after retiring from Caterpillar in York 15 years ago. He found that at the Mechanicsburg Cemetery. Jim and his brother are the cemetery’s groundskeepers. They clean the tombstones, mow the grass and bury the dead. CHRISTINE BAKER/ The Patriot-News
PUBLISHED IN THE PATRIOT-NEWS
There’s a phone call from the boss: a problem at the mausoleum.
Jim and Gene Billow, keepers of the Mechanicsburg Cemetery, make their way to the building full of vaults for the dead, each marked with a name and date on a marble face plate.
“There’s some kind of smell coming out of there,” Jim says.
Walking up the mausoleum steps, they unlock the door and open it. A stench floats out of the darkness and hits you in the nose.
The Billow brothers, both in their 70s, are used to it.
“This is no smell,” Gene says, limping through the mausoleum.
Jim nods. “You’ll know when you smell a body,” he says. “It stays with you.”
It isn’t long before the Billow brothers find the source: A vault that had been sealed in 1976 broke open.
Now the brothers know they have to fix it, and the argument begins.
“Caulk it,” Gene says, pointing to the cracks along the edges of the vault.
“Nah,” Jim says. He drags out the vowel. The brothers have seen just about all there is to see at a cemetery: the vandalism, the animals, the sunken graves and stenches.
It’s nothing, Gene says. Nothing too exciting.
After the funeral
The brothers wait for the funeral to end.
Standing in the garage next to a dump truck filled with a drenched mound of red dirt, the brothers sip coffee and try to stay dry, not saying much.
For the Billow brothers, this is how it goes: They wait, sometimes in the rain or heat or snow, until it’s time to do a job that starts and ends with dirt.
There’s not much to talk about.
“Weather’s not too good to be throwing dirt,” says Gene, leaning on the truck.
The brothers fill graves with the same dirt pulled from the ground the day before. With a backhoe, it takes 15 minutes to dig a hole 6 feet deep. It’s a hole big enough to bury a coffin 7 feet long and 4 feet wide. They do it about 35 times a year, adding to the more than 4,000 graves logged at the cemetery.
“They look to be almost done up there,” Jim says, looking to the funeral procession in the distance, the black umbrellas and hats, the suits and dresses.
“We’ll be dumping mud,” Gene says and sips the coffee.
With black hair speckled with grains of gray, Gene has bad legs and a bad back. Because of multiple leg, back and neck surgeries, he has trouble walking. At 76, he’s a year and 15 days younger than Jim, who has stark white hair and doesn’t have much trouble getting around.
You wouldn’t know they’re brothers by looking at them. But you’d know it if you’ve seen them argue. It’s usually a fight about the smarter way to do something, not the faster way.
The brothers are in no hurry.
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