“You can consider it a religious job, a spiritual job.”
By Jacob Mathias
The spring thaw and upcoming holidays are making for a busy season for one of Stevens Point’s lesser- known but very necessary cemetery sexton.
John Okonek has been cemetery sexton for the Stevens Point Area Catholic Cemetery Association for the past 16 years, taking the job after a career with Marathon County government.
A cemetery sexton looks after the cemetery- formerly known as a gravedigger- and while grave digging is still a responsibility, Okonek considers his responsibilities as much more.
“I consider a cemetery as being a place of reflection, a place people come to grieve. They’ve lost somebody,” said Okonek. “I’m able to help people at that time to go through the grieving process and provide a safe and comforting place for their loved one to come and reflect. You can consider it a religious job, a spiritual job.”
He also has a background in landscaping though he said the job is more than cutting grass.
“You’re dealing with people grieving so you’re dealing with people putting decorations out and people thinking things are stolen or not maintained well enough to their standards,” he said.
Gravesite maintenance upswings in the spring as the new sites thaw and the freshly fille d graves begin to sink.
“When snow melts you have avoid…people come out (to the gravesites) and find it disrespectful the grave isn’t fixed up,” he said. “We usually tell the families we try to get it done by Memorial Day and which we always will.”
The cemetery association is conducting their spring cemetery cleanup on April 20. Twice a year, the association goes through the cemeteries and removes garbage, plastic flowers and other debris.
“Our cemetery association started in 1972. Up to that point every parish in town took care of their own cemetery,” said Okonek. “Up to that point every parish did their own paperwork, their own stuff. It was kind of a logistics nightmare. The priests had enough on their plate without worrying about where to bury, who’s going to cut the grass…at that time the bishop said ‘Why don’t you start an association?’”
Okonek said the cemetery association is always planning for the future.
“We are planning for the future, thinking of where we can buy land,” he said. “What is the future of a cemetery? A cemetery cannot be just plowed under… (There are) burial caskets, vaults. They’re going to be in the ground forever. This ground will be sacred ground. How do you get rid of a cement box after hundreds of years?”
“There’s laws that say you have to provide money for perpetual care to take care of cemeteries forever,” he said.
A statewide surge of cremations has changed the way the sexton performs their job. A columbarium, an above ground structure for the internment of cremated remains was built 3 years ago at the Guardian Angel Cemetery in Stevens Point.
“Wisconsin is quite high on cremation. We’re probably in the top 5,” he said. “Stevens Point, I’m at probably 23 to 25 percent of my burials are cremation.”
Burial preferences are dependent on many factors including cost, faith and family wishes Okonek said, adding funeral pre-planning is the best idea.
If we don’t have even the simplest clue on whether they wanted to be cremated or a traditional burial, you’re dealing with that for a long time after they’re gone,” he said.
Okonek said that the Catholic Church typically offers education on burial options during All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
The cemetery association currently oversees the Guardian Angel, St. Joseph’s, St. Stephen’s, St. Bronislava and Guardian Angel Cemeteries.
More information on local cemeteries can be found at www.stevenspointcatholiccemetery.com