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The Last Man to Ever Let You Down

Meet Bob Wells, a graveyard caretaker with a philosophy. And a MySpace page.

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The view from the second floor of the yellow brick house at the corner of Clark and Irving Park extends east and south across 14 and a half bucolic acres. The lot is filled with elms, cottonwoods, mulberries, flowering cherries, trees of heaven, and ranks of stone obelisks, like some miniature Egypt among the foliage. It's a backyard that's also a graveyard. Thirteen cemeteries in Chicago have caretaker's residences on their grounds, but this 2,000-square-foot brick Victorian at Wunder's Cemetery is perhaps the most conspicuous, sitting on prime real estate at a major intersection walking distance from Wrigley Field. Three bedrooms, two baths, hardwood floors, natural light--and the caretakers have always gotten it all rent free.

Established in 1859, Wunder's is one of the oldest cemeteries still operating in Chicago. It's about the same age as Graceland, its larger, more famous neighbor to the north, and the cluster of small Jewish cemeteries that lie directly to the south. It's owned by First Saint Paul's, the oldest Lutheran church in the city, and named for a former pastor. Roughly 15,000 people have been buried at Wunder's, most between 1860 and 1960. The earliest recorded birth date for a person interred there is 1787.

Many of the early tombstones and monuments at Wunder's--at all old Chicago graveyards, for that matter--were made of Lake Michigan sand and poor-grade concrete, a mixture that hasn't stood the test of time. They look like they're melting, and weather long ago erased the names. From time to time these aged monuments will topple and their stones will be removed to a pile at the rear of the cemetery, behind the garage. It's possible (though less and less likely as generations pass) that the descendants of the people commemorated by these monuments might be interested in paying for a replacement, but most of them can't be reached to ask: Valerie Stodden, a First Saint Paul's parishioner who has a part-time job running the cemetery's office, estimates that Wunder's has fallen out of touch with more than two-thirds of the descendants of its dead.

Wandering the grounds, it's clear that most of the people buried here have been entirely forgotten, their lives wiped from memory as though they'd never existed. It's enough to make you realize that barring some act (or accident) of historical import, there will come a time when no one on earth remembers you either. Stories about my own family come to a complete stop a generation before my great-grandparents. What happens when there's no one left to remember those who have come and gone? Let the dead bury their dead, as the scripture says, and the only people left to venerate the long departed are the likes of Bob Wells, the current caretaker and head grave digger at Wunder's Cemetery.

Wells has been at his job only two and a half years. His predecessor, a man named Mark Nyhart, tended to Wunder's for nearly two decades, achieving a kind of local fame in his time. Six-three and built like a tight end, he often wore a duster and a high Stetson. Sometimes when kids would sneak over the fence late at night to drink beer on the cemetery grounds, Nyhart would burst upon them in a grim reaper costume--black robe, black hood, skull mask--and send them shrieking into the night. He moonlighted as a bouncer at a bar on Southport and Irving Park called Joy-Blue and was a regular at neighborhood taverns. Some people called him the Mayor of Wrigleyville but most knew him simply as Digger. His business cards were printed, vertically, with black-and-white silhouettes of a cross and a grave and a leafless tree, like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration. In Gothic script, they read: Digger

The last man to ever let you down.

One day this past spring I paid a visit to Wunder's to see if Nyhart was still around, but instead found Bob Wells crossing the distance between the garage and the house. Wells, like Nyhart, is a tall, burly man. He has a wide, big-featured face, with a thick yellow mustache and matching bushes for brows. He moves and talks as slowly as a southerner and his hands are thick like a contractor's. Maybe because I'd taken him by surprise, he seemed a little taciturn. When I asked him what had happened to Nyhart, he just loomed for a second, his expression blank.

"He died."

Some three years ago, Nyhart suffered a heart attack as he sat watching television in the living room of the yellow brick house. He'd just finished mowing the grounds. He was 43 years old--the same age Wells was when he took over the job.

Nyhart came from a family of cemetery men. His father, Lee Nyhart, was the longtime superintendent of Cedar Park Cemetery in Calumet Park. Family road trips often included unscheduled stops at graveyards he spotted along the side of the road. After Lee retired, he became a consultant, advising the boards of cemeteries around the city, including Wunder's. His daughter, Tina, married Gary Neubieser, now the manager of Concordia, the Lutheran cemetery in Forest Park where Digger was eventually let down, right next to his mother.

Wells, by contrast, had absolutely no previous experience with graveyard management. He'd spent his career in wholesale seafood, most recently as a bookkeeper for Slade Gorton & Company. After being laid off in the spring of 2005, he took a tip from a friend who worked at First Saint Paul's and applied for the Wunder's vacancy. Grave digging wasn't a profession Wells ever expected to pursue, but he has taken to it. He's an atavist. At those rare times that Wunder's actually has a burial--on average, it puts two bodies per month into the ground these days--he prefers to dig his graves by hand.

It's 8:30 in the morning on a chilly, overcast Tuesday in June. A light intermittent rain is falling. Wells is down inside a grave; only his head and shoulders are visible above the surface. Five shovels of assorted types, like a golfer's wedges, are arrayed around the hole: a square-bladed garden edger, two traditional construction spades, and two coal shovels of different lengths. There's a pair of pruning shears to cut through tree roots. The cemetery owns a backhoe, an ancient Arps, but the last time Wells tried to use it it nearly decapitated him. Anyway, it's currently on life support in a repair shop. So he digs. The ground here, so close to the lake, is sandy. A bus can pass and, before he knows it, Wells is scooping out the grave all over again.

A vessel the size of a refrigerator box rests beside a conical mound of orange brown earth next to the grave. Called a vault, it's made of concrete and weighs 1,800 pounds. Soon it will go in the hole, hoisted by a homemade aluminum contraption with block and tackle dangling from a central point, the whole thing on four wheels like a garment rack. No one knows who built this machine, but it predates Digger. After the funeral party arrives, the coffin will be lowered into the vault, like a set of Chinese boxes.

Wells has been working on this grave since Friday afternoon, when he marked out its dimensions, three feet by eight feet, with four stakes connected by string. The birds were singing in the trees as he dug, another reason Wells prefers the shovel to the backhoe. "It's more peaceful," he says. "And if you do it by hand, you can bring out the music." His radio is tuned, as always, to 99.5 FM, a country channel. "I've tried other stuff: smooth jazz, rock 'n' roll," he explains. "But country and western fits best--the feel of it, the heart of the music. Johnny Cash seems to make sense when you're in a graveyard." He keeps a CD of Cash's American V: A Hundred Highways in the garage, and his favorite song is "Like the 309," the last song Cash ever wrote.

Everybody take a look

See I'm doing fine

Then load my box on the 309.

On the 309, on the 309

Put me in my box on the 309.

Whenever he's got a burial to deal with, Wells has the help of a 19-year-old neighborhood kid, Dave Bavone, who also does odd jobs for a cemetery in Lincolnwood. If there's such a thing as a grave-digging apprentice, Bavone is it. Wells refers to him as his "associate," though Bavone doesn't expect he'll work in cemeteries much longer. He's looking to get into construction.

For now, Bavone's main concern is the procedure for today's burial. "Bob, are these Muslims or Catholics or Jewish people or what? Because everyone does it different."

"Don't know," Wells says. But he recalls the previous summer, when the cemetery handled a Muslim burial best described as participatory. "All the guys grabbed a shovel and started filling in the dirt. We liked that. Made our job a lot easier."

Wells also has assistance from Bill Law, Valerie Stodden's cousin. Law is in his late 40s, with a healthy paunch and wire-rimmed glasses. He's been on disability for the last six years or so, ever since he injured his back making deliveries for a furniture company. "I'm a full-time volunteer," he says. Adept with machinery, Law also tinkers in the garage with whatever equipment Wunder's can afford to maintain. The 45-year-old International Harvester tractor, for instance. Or the Deines Marty-J commercial lawn mower, designed specifically for maneuvering in tight spaces. The backhoe, however, is over his head.

At the moment Law is standing next to the grave while Wells digs, sharing advice and opinions that mostly go unheeded. He's only been at Wunder's for a couple years, but he'll pontificate as though he's been there all his life. "Garden State," he says. "That really ruined it for us." He's talking about the 2004 Zach Braff movie in which two supporting characters are grave diggers who rob graves. "If I ever caught a grave digger doing that, he'd be in the grave. That movie was so tacky it was unbelievable. After it came out, people started hanging around after the burials to make sure we didn't do anything. There's no truth anymore in movies. It infects people's minds."

The plot is at the far northeastern corner of the cemetery, right up against the chain-link fence that separates Wunder's from the sidewalk on Irving Park. Twenty paces south is the garage, and on the other side of that lies a half-acre section known as Babyland. The tombstones there are all flat, marking the graves of a thousand small children, many of whom died during the cholera epidemics of the late 19th century. The Red Line is just to the east; trains rumble by at ten-minute intervals. The traffic on Irving Park is a near-constant hum. When the Cubs are at home on a burial day, eulogies are sometimes drowned out by the fans.

Wells stands inside the rectangular cavity, nearly finished now, shaving the earthen walls with his edger. On the other side of the fence, a young woman in office clothes saunters past, sees the fresh grave, sees Bob Wells with his holey T-shirt and dirt-smeared limbs. She puts her head down and quickens her pace until she's practically jogging. Other people stop and stare in silence as the diggers make room for a corpse.

An elderly couple strolls by. They nod solemnly at Wells, as if he were a priest.

"It's been dead," Valerie Stodden says, immediately regretting the unintended pun. Today's burial is the first Wunder's has had in many weeks. Either people aren't dying or they're not being buried at Wunder's.

Plots at Wunder's are relatively cheap, $600 at the low end and as much as $1,200 the closer you get to Clark. At Graceland they run $2,600 to $4,000, and just up the road at Rosehill they can cost as much as $7,500. "We don't compete with Graceland," Stoddard says. "If someone can't afford a grave there, Graceland will say, 'Well, you know, there's a well-kept cemetery across the street.'"

Compared to Graceland, Wunder's is a poor cemetery. Its trust fund is small and its cash flow, with only 24 or 25 burials a year, is a trickle. After almost a century and a half, nearly all 14 acres of land have been filled up. And as with all mainline Protestant denominations, First Saint Paul's congregation--the intended eventual population of Wunder's--isn't as big as it was 100 years ago. But the people who run the cemetery have learned to survive by thrift. "There was a national convention in Las Vegas," Stodden says, "so I asked the Wunder's board if I could go. They said, 'Are you kidding?' I was teasing them, of course. We wouldn't have the money for something like that. We are very careful with how we spend here. I'm more careful of how we spend the cemetery's dollar than I am my own family's."

The cemetery relies heavily on volunteers. There's Bill Law, of course, but also Delayne Pauling, pastor emeritus of First Saint Paul's and president of the Wunder's board, who tends to a series of intricate gardens around the cemetery's entrance. Four First Saint Paul's parishioners take turns assisting Stodden at the office each day. When big jobs arise, the church community comes out in force. Ten trees fell in the cemetery during last week's storms. There was no money to hire a company to clear the debris, so ten church members did it in four hours.

There are times, though, when Stodden and the board of trustees have been forced to think entrepreneurially. They've considered using the cemetery's winding avenue as a parking lot for Wrigley-goers, projecting earnings of at least $1,000 per game, but abandoned the idea for fear that it might jeopardize the cemetery's tax-exempt status. An alternative revenue source has been charging genealogists to search the cemetery's old ledgers and film production crews to shoot on location. In January and again in July, a crew arrived to film a pilot for Court TV called Grave Justice. "The way I understand it, they go to the cemetery to find the grave of someone who died in an unsolved murder," Stodden says. "Then the person rises out of the grave to tell the details of his murder, and then the police solve it."

Stodden, a stout woman in her early 60s, has served on the board for 12 years now. She stepped in as superintendent in January 2004, after her predecessor retired. Others might consider it a macabre assignment, but Stodden thought of it as something of a calling. "I felt that I had the type of personality to help people get through their sad times," she says. She works from nine till noon Monday through Friday, longer when there's a burial. Like Wells, she's a newbie to cemetery management. A former second-grade schoolteacher, she has also been an editor at McGraw-Hill and a private bridge instructor. She holds the rank of Life Master--the black belt of competitive bridge--and used to charge $60 an hour for lessons. She once played Omar Sharif in a tournament in New York City, splitting the match. "I've been mentioned in the New York Times bridge column--which is to me like the thrill of my life--twice!" she says.

At Wunder's, she does her best to satisfy final requests. "We've had quite a few people ask for Section 12 because they want to be as close to Wrigley Field as possible. Someone else wanted Section 7, close to the el, because the person rode the Red Line their whole life and wanted to hear it after they died. One guy wanted to be near the garage. I think when we were showing him around, he saw Bob and Billy working there, repairing machinery. His said his father would be with the men in the garage, giving them advice. And then we had a person who wanted his father buried near the Irving Park fence. The son took Irving Park to work, and he wanted to wave to his father twice everyday, once in the morning and once coming back at night."

Wells waits out the drizzle in the garage. Everything is in place. Three folding chairs are set up for the immediate family. Green outdoor carpet covers the mound of dirt beside the grave. Overhanging branches from an enormous tree have been limbed. The inside of the vault has been swept to alabaster.

Wells takes off his soiled T-shirt and tucks a khaki short-sleeved button-down into his black work pants. His unruly hair is combed with a side part and he's holding a pair of white cotton gloves, the kind a butler might use to examine the dusting of a maid. He'll wear them when he's handling the coffin.

"I have a MySpace page," he tells me.

"You have a MySpace page?"

"Yeah, you should go check it out. It's got all my odd theological ramblings on it. It's called God Loves Abijah."

"God loves . . . "

"Abijah. From the Old Testament. Not many people know about him. A lot of times in the Old Testament, God is blessing the memory, or treating a person with honor, if that person gets a decent burial. But if a person doesn't get a decent burial, it's considered a curse. So God was upset with Abijah's father. He was King of Israel, Jeroboam, and he was a bad man, and God decided to wipe out the entire family. The deal was there would be a war in Israel. The entire family would be slaughtered, and there would be no people left to give anyone in the family a proper burial, and there'd be a curse. But God saw something good in Abijah. It's not recorded what it was. And so God decided Abijah would get sick and die first, before anyone else, in order that he'd get a decent burial. God loves Abijah. It's one of those paradoxes in the Bible. God loves you so much that He kills you first."

When I look up from my notebook, there's a grin on his face.

He goes on. "What happens to a person after we die? You talk to different religious people and you get different answers. I don't hold on to any strong opinion one way or the other. We can't really know what happens. King Solomon wrote in his book Ecclesiastes that he wasn't sure--do we go up, or do we go down, or what? King Solomon, he wasn't sure, and if he wasn't sure, how can I say what happens to people after they die? The purpose of burying people is to lay their bodies down and lay them to rest--just lay them to rest. Otherwise, the whole cemetery business would be kind of silly, wouldn't it? What would be the point?

"Ultimately, it's a way to honor people. You do a good grave. You do a good burial, a good funeral, and you're giving that person honor--that they're worth something, that their lives were worth something--even the ones who are forgotten. There's a degree of honor there in taking care of the cemetery."

His words suggest the tradition of the fossores, grave diggers of the early Christian period. They excavated the galleries in the catacombs of Rome and were considered among the minor clergy. Wells is a religious man, but he isn't Lutheran. "I guess you'd call it charismatic," he says of his church, the nondenominational House of Prayer on Elston and Addison. It was belief, as much as anything, that brought him to Wunder's. "I was looking for a quiet job, something that would allow me to develop my spiritual side while at work." Under "occupation" on his MySpace page, he's entered "Doorkeeper to another place."

When Wells dies, he wants to be cremated.

At 11 AM, some 30 mourners exit their cars and silently form a semicircle around the grave. Some are crying. In the coffin is the body of a woman named Amy Friend, described in her death notice as the "loving companion of Edward Byrnes for 28 years, dear mother of Jason Byrnes." The rain has turned to mist. An occasional gust shakes drops from the trees.

The minister is dressed in an orange shirt and orange necktie. He begins the service as Red Line trains thunder over the tracks in opposite directions. Wells is off to one side, his hands clasped in front of him, his head bowed. Bill Law and Dave Bavone are over by the garage, out of earshot of the funeral party, talking about the Cubs. Someone releases a dove and it flaps immediately into the branches of the tree near the grave, where it's concealed totally by leaves. People squint trying to find it. When they can't, they give up and look away.

Once, last year, a person was buried at Wunder's in a coffin made of cardboard. Its handles were rope. Amy Friend's coffin is white with silver hardware. Like the vault, it has its own lowering device, an ingeniously simple machine of four rods forming a frame in the shape of a rectangle. At each corner is a small globe with gears inside. Vinyl straps are stretched taut across it, holding the coffin above the grave. As Wells turns the crank in his white gloves, two long parallel rods spin in place and the straps wind out. The coffin descends at a noble pace into the ground. When it reaches bottom, the straps are shimmied out from under the casket.

The mourners hug and wipe their eyes with Kleenex. Everyone slowly heads back to the cars. Some glance back at the tree where the dove was last spotted. When the last mourner has driven away, Wells and Bavone remove the lowering device from the grave and bring back the hoist to put the lid on the vault. They pull the outdoor carpet off the pile of earth and grab their shovels. Wells starts first, using his heel to push the spade into the mound. Bavone leans on his shovel for a moment and shakes his head.

"You make the hole," he says, "and then you fill it back in."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Paul L. Merideth.

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