Paul Gonzalez has a special kind of landscaping job. He can talk about irrigation tricks. Or the challenges of seeding and coaxing Bermuda grass to grow in triple-digit heat. But if a visitor comes near him at Paradise Memorial Park in Scottsdale, he'll pack up and move discreetly out of earshot.
"We'll need to give them this area," he whispers, "out of respect."
Respect is a must when you're landscaping for the dead.
This weekend, tens of thousands of Americans will retire to their local cemeteries to remember loved ones. The tranquility they'll feel there often comes courtesy of crews they rarely notice or meet.
"When I first started this job, I had no idea what the sensitivity level was," Rick Fifield recalls. Eleven years ago, Fifield left a landscaping job for Mesa City Cemetery, where he's now operations coordinator. "In some ways, it's pretty much the same as landscaping. You're watering, working with the grass. The only thing different is digging the hole."
But aboveground, Fifield says, special skills come into play: "You're providing a service for people who are grieving. You want them to feel good about coming here. It's not anything you go to school for."
Cemetery fieldwork requires heavy equipment and a light touch. In Scottsdale, Gonzalez's eight-person crew must tend existing graves around a heavy schedule of new ones.
"You have to work around the (memorial) services - and they sometimes have four or five services a day," he says. "You don't want a backhoe digging while a service is going on. You're quiet. You give them time. When they continue on, you take care of it."
It also means working with a variety of grave site adornments. "You'd be surprised what people come up with," Fifield says. "Most people purchase a (grave) marker with the vase in it for flowers. But some put in ironwork, or fencing. About six or seven years ago, we started seeing solar path lights. Some people even put artificial turf on a grave. It looks good, but it's harder to maintain." Fifield and Gonzalez both agree there are very few "don'ts" when it comes to maintaining a loved one's grave.
"You have to know fresh flowers will only last about 10 days in this heat," Gonzalez says. "You don't want to go too high, like over 3 feet, on flowers or balloons or decorations. But that's up to the individual."
"There's no protocol," Fifield agrees. "Around Memorial Day, we're pretty lenient. Volunteers put out the flags, we just let people decorate and we clean up afterwards." He does advise plastic over glass containers for flowers outside of the vase. "And sometimes people decorate graves with valuables. You don't want to leave anything out that couldn't be lost or stolen. We can't do anything to prevent that, sad to say."
As Memorial Day rolls into summer and fall, both men will continue working with their grounds and those who hold them sacred.
"We have friends who come out to visit the graves and we get to know them very well," Fifield says. "Sometimes we'll sit and talk with them, or let them vent or cry. Sometimes they just want to be heard." He sees it as part of the service. "We do as much as we can to make 'em feel good about the place."