Graves are a fine and private place for caretaker couple

November 11, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

Some couples dry off with his-and-hers bath towels monogrammed in Gothic script. Other husband-and-wife teams cruise town in identical luxury cars, and many work side-by-side in businesses from law offices to pizza joints.

But out on a stretch of O'Donnell Street in East Baltimore, where Highlandtown slopes down from its hill toward Dundalk, there lives perhaps the only couple in America to preside over his-and-hers graveyards.

Bill Berkey, 66, takes care of the Jewish cemetery, Oheb Shalom, on the north side of the 6100 block of O'Donnell Street. Margaret Berkey, 68, is caretaker for the First German United Evangelical Church cemetery on the south side of the block.

The Berkeys eat meals together and trade chit-chat and cemetery chores during the day. When bedtime comes, they retire to homes adjoining their respective graveyards.

It's a marital arrangement, said Mrs. Berkey, that works just fine.

"I go over there every morning at 5 o'clock to open the gates and wash and iron and make coffee and feed the birds and feed the squirrels," shesays. "And he comes over here for supper and then we say good night and he walks back across the street."

In between the domestic routine comes the life work of Margaret Berkey, the daughter of a graveyard caretaker, born in a room above the stone arch of the cemetery's gateway; a woman who celebrated her wedding reception on the rolling lawn of the graveyard and reared a son there who grew up to be a mortician; a woman whose tombstone is already chiseled with her name and standing amid the rows of granite and marble markers.

Listen to Mrs. Berkey describe her job: "People don't realize what we go through. The undertaker orders the burial and he tells you the lot number, but you have to look it up in the book, look for the lot and where it's located. Then you call the man that digs it, then the vault man puts in the vault and the boards and the lowering device, then you put in the fake grass and set up the chairs, then you have to take the flowers out of the flower wagon and put it on the dirt pile and make it look real pretty.

"You have to make sure the coffin goes up to the head of the grave, get the death permit and the check and be sure so much goes to the church.

"After everything is over, you take the chairs off, fold up the fake grass, take the lowering device off and take the flowers off the dirt pile and put them where they won't be in the digger's way. The funeral director stays to make sure the vault lid is put on right and then the dirt digger can do his work -- I get a boy to come and cover it up for $25 -- but you have to wait for the family to leave before you can do any of that. I'm telling you, there's a lot to do at a funeral that people don't realize."

In between funerals, the caretakers sod new graves, cut grass non-stop in the summer, shovel snow in the winter, trim bushes, rake leaves, direct people to the graves of friends and relatives, and think up new ways to quell vandalism.

"It's just a lot of work," said Mr. Berkey, who in March will celebrate his 30th year with Oheb Shalom, where he is revered as a caretaker of uncommon concern for detail. "In the summer all you do is cut grass, and you never know how busy you're going to be. You can go two months without a funeral and then

you get three and four in a week."

Mrs. Berkey remembers growing up in the graveyard after the end of World War I, before the O'Donnell Heights housing projects were built. On farmland adjoining the old church cemetery were blueberries to be picked, she recalls.

"There used to be a bell in the arch, but one of the church men took it years ago," she said. "There wasn't any bathroom in the house back then, and no heat. My mother cooked on a big black wood-and-coal stove and she used to heat bricks in the oven to keep our feet warm at night."

Her father, an Eastern Shore native named Cyrus Stewart, started out as a gravedigger at the 7-acre cemetery, one of many along the eastern end of O'Donnell Street. He served as caretaker from 1918 until his death in 1971. Along the way, many relatives found their final place of rest on the other side of the black stone arch.

"There's my brother over there, and my cousin there, and my sister's little baby over there," says Mrs. Berkey, who became caretaker when her father died. "My cousin's little baby is there and my grandfather is over there, he's buried between his two wives. And I'm going to get buried here," she says with pride. "Here's my stone."

There are some perks to taking care of a graveyard. In addition to the free room and board, good deals pop up, like the discount Mrs. Berkey and her husband got on their headstone because a mistake prompted the original family to reject it.

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