'Working' Then And Now: A Gravedigger's Unexpected Joys Homer Martinez, a gravedigger and caretaker, tells author Studs Terkel about the unexpected joys of his job at Shalom Memorial Cemetery in Illinois.
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'Working' Then And Now: A Gravedigger's Unexpected Joys

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'Working' Then And Now: A Gravedigger's Unexpected Joys

'Working' Then And Now: A Gravedigger's Unexpected Joys

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, sure it's the weekend, but we're at work, so maybe that's why we want to talk some about work. It can be boring or exhilarating, frustrating or fulfilling. Journalist Studs Terkel found all of that when he went around the country interviewing people about their jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: How do you feel about your work?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Your arms get tired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: What do you do? Tell me something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I started working when I was probably 12 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: Now describe it step by step...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

TERKEL: ...As though you were telling a little child what it is.

MARTIN: The interviews were for the best-seller called appropriately "Working." All week on NPR programs, we've been hearing recorded audio tape of these interviews, many of them for the first time. Radio Diaries along with Project& listen through old reels to produce the series called Working Then And Now.

Studs Terkel wrote about how the joy and satisfaction of work can be found in surprising places. Here is his interview with a caretaker at Shalom Memorial Park, a cemetery outside of Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: How long you been a gravedigger?

HOMER MARTINEZ: About eight years. So I started here about 1959.

TERKEL: A gravedigger is someone who has a shovel and digs out dirt and helps lift the coffin and put it in the grave and covers it with dirt. How do you feel about your work?

MARTINEZ: I never had a dream to have this kind of job. But I believe it is important because not anybody can be a gravedigger. I mean, you can be a sewer-digger - you can dig sewers. But sewers - you just can dig a hole any way they come. You know, you can throw dirt in, and you just can make a mess of it. But when you dig a grave, these graves have to be neat and clean. All you see is a square hole, and they're perfect.

TERKEL: Well, it's also the fact that a human body, a human being.

MARTINEZ: Yes - is going into this grave there.

TERKEL: This is a question. You're in the middle of a great deal of grief. Does that affect you in any way?

MARTINEZ: Well, a funeral is one of the natural things in the world. I mean, it's like any other thing that happen, and you just have to...

TERKEL: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: ...Just take it. I mean, you just have to take it. But believe me, sometimes it's really sad some of these funerals. I never go to a funeral without sunglasses because your eyes is the first thing that show when you have a big emotion at a funeral. And I always use black glasses.

TERKEL: When you are called a gravedigger yourself, how do you - do people look at you a certain way - I mean, when you're off work, you're somewhere else at a social gathering?

MARTINEZ: Well, I usually tell them that I'm a caretaker. That is usually the way they know me - take care of this place.

TERKEL: Anything else you feel like saying about your work, your feeling about your job?

MARTINEZ: Well, I enjoy it very much, especially in summer. This is one of the nicest jobs in summer.

TERKEL: It is?

MARTINEZ: Yes because we have over 100 acres of grass to be cut in here. When those lawnmowers go through, there smell nothing but fresh-cut grass, and it's just fantastic - the aroma that grass when it's cut.

TERKEL: You live on the grounds?

MARTINEZ: Yes. I've been living on the grounds for almost 12 years. They offer me the house, and I stay here. And I've been staying and staying and there I am.

TERKEL: You live on the grounds with your family?

MARTINEZ: Yes.

TERKEL: Last extra question, Mr. Martinez, would you like to do this work for the rest of your life?

MARTINEZ: That's a very good question. I don't really know myself. I mean, I guess I'm just going to have to stay here until I die. I'm not going to be too bad for me because I've been living 12 years already in the cemetery, so if I die I'm still going to be living in the cemetery.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTINEZ: So that's going to be all right with me.

MARTIN: That was Homer Martinez interviewed by Studs Terkel about his job at Shalom Memorial Park Cemetery in Arlington Heights, Ill. Martinez retired in the 1980s and moved away from the cemetery grounds. In Terkel's book, Martinez appears under the pseudonym Elmer Ruiz. Our series Working Then And Now comes to us from the Radio Diaries podcast. Thanks to Jane Saks of Project&. And coming tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday Terkel's interview with a private investigator.

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