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Memorializing the dead

A cemetery sexton and funeral home director share how traditional services and burials can help bring closure after death

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Nick Duvall, the cemetery sexton for the city of Washington, keeps the cemetery grouds, sells plots and digs graves.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Nick Duvall, the cemetery sexton for the city of Washington, keeps the cemetery grouds, sells plots and digs graves.
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Nick Duvall, the cemetery sexton for the City of Washington, gets a front-row seat to the grieving process with every burial he assists.

“It’s different for everyone,” he said.

As the sexton, Duvall not only maintains the cemetery grounds, but also digs the graves and fills any additional duties a family may ask of him, including serving as a pallbearer.

Like others who work in the business of death, Duvall sees all iterations of what the end brings — tears, drama, disputed funeral arrangements. But if he has any one piece of advice, it’s to plan ahead. The cemetery sexton said there is a marketed difference in selling plots to those choosing for themselves and those chosen by bereaved family members.

“People who plan ahead of time, they’re deciding for themselves, somebody isn’t deciding for them so they might come out and look at three or four different areas. It might take them six months, they might decide that day. Some people have to think about it. It’s more leisurely, laid back. They’re not planning a funeral three days from now so they’re not pressured to make a decision right away,” Duvall said.

For those planning ahead, the process of buying a plot isn’t usually a somber process.

“They’re pretty accepting. They’re planning ahead so their family members don’t have to worry about it,” he said.

While Duvall is only 41 years old, he and his wife already have their plots chosen.

“Maybe it’s just because I work out here,” he said.

In contrast, family members who are tasked with choosing plots are often “really emotional” and may end up making decisions they regret later on, Duvall added. Currently, it’s about a fifty-fifty split between those who plan ahead and plots bought after a death, he said.

There are many things a person may take into consideration when choosing their final resting place. Duvall said his first question is usually whether family members are buried in the cemetery. There is also a Catholic-specific section of the cemetery. From there, it’s a matter of what’s available and location.

In the eight years that he’s worked at the city’s cemeteries, Duvall has noticed a couple trends. He explained the number of cremations have gone up significantly as burials have gone down in popularity.

“20 years ago, we averaged over 100 burials a year out here. Our last 5-year average is about 82, But our cremation rate has gone from 10% to 45%. A lot of that is finances because cremation is considerably cheaper, about half,” he said.

From Duvall’s perspective, burying the dead and erecting a tombstone is about remembrance.

“It gives people a place to visit. A physical location they can go to remember their loved ones who have passed. There’s a place to take flowers to, there’s a place to remember them at,” he added.

Like Duvall, Mark Kimzey, funeral director for Kimzey Funeral Home, said preplanning and making wishes known ahead of time can have benefits, including financial ones. The funeral director said most people tend to pay for their funeral right before entering a nursing home, which tends to be a costly endeavor and may eat up assets quickly. State assistance for health care with Title 19 can only be claimed when a person’s income is below 133% of the federal poverty level. However, because a funeral fund is not considered an asset, many care facilities will suggest a person pay for their funeral ahead of time while they still have the ability to do so.

When Kimzey helps a person or a family arrange a funeral, he usually begins with biographical information.

“It’s so fascinating to me how people end up where they are,” he said. Kimzey also takes care of casket purchases and embalming the body. Often, if a person or family chooses to have a visitation or wake, it is held at his funeral home in Mt. Pleasant.

The funeral director also explained holding a funeral and visitation can be an important part of understanding the finality of death. Holding a service can help bring closure for people.

“Part of the dying process is we have to admit that death has occurred. When we don’t have a funeral, we tend to say, ‘Well, death didn’t occur, did it?’ When we have the funeral, we admit that death has occurred,” he said.

But like Duvall, Kimzey has noticed a shift in how people choose to mourn. The funeral home director said he noticed fewer people are choosing to have a funeral service.

“I hear people say, ‘Well, funerals bother me, I don’t want a visitation.’ To me that’s kind of a disservice,” he said, “I call it my one-and-done principle. If you hold a visitation, you don’t have people constantly coming up to you at Hy-Vee saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ You don’t have to relive it again and again. You get it all out of the way.”

Kimzey said the shift away from funerals seems to be in a general attitude society has now taken on about death. There is less of a “reverence” toward death and it is no longer held in “high honor and esteem.”

“What bothers me about it is that there’s no longer a place to go back and memorialize, to honor and revere. Because having that opportunity to go back and pay respects is important. There’s a need for that for all of us,” Kimzey said.